This week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) or PCU approved changes which allow its churches to perform same-sex marriages effective June 21, 2015. The move was approved by the majority of the church’s members which consists of more than 4,000 ministers and 1.8 million members.
The change was largely greeted with praise and celebration in the USA albeit some criticism. However, it is likely to cause more criticism then praise from in Malawi whose Christian population is largely Presbyterian. This gives rise to the question of whether or not Presbyterian churches in countries such as Malawi will soon follow suit.
The Church of Central African Presbyterians (CCAP) is one the largest and most influential organizations in Malawi. Christians make up number 82% of the population and 60 % of them are protestant. The CCAP is the largest protestant group. The church has been at the forefront of activism, political thought and transition over the past few years.
When it comes to issues centering on homosexuality though, the church remains fairly conservative and non-liberatory. However, will the bold move by the PCU have an influence over the behavior and attitudes towards homosexuality in the Presbyterian churches in Malawi?
Human Rights and Homosexuality in Malawi
When gay couple Tionge Chimbalanga (“Aunt Tio”) and Steven Monjeza were arrested in 2009 after performing a traditional marriage ceremony it sent shock waves through the conservative country. Malawi’s laws prohibit homosexuality and being gay remains a punishable offense.
They were subsequently sentenced to 14 years in jail. The arrests of the first two Malawians to be openly gay drew condemnation from human rights groups both within Malawi and the USA.
Chimbalanga and Monjeza’s freedom was eventually secured by means of presidential pardon from then President Bingu wa Mutharika following a visit from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. During this whole ordeal, the church remained largely silent with regards to the rights of the gay couple in spite of the church’s previous record of advocating for human rights for the oppressed.
In the past, the CCAP has embodied the sentiments of Black liberation theology wherein the church has served the population with a liberatory agenda. The CCAP church in the past has been a powerful voice against one-party rule and the Dictatorship of Kamuzu Banda. In the democratic political era, it has also served as a powerful voice in opposition to the Bingu wa Mutharika in the latter part of his administration where he became increasingly oppressive.
In essence, the church has opposed unjust social and political structures based on biblical teachings for suppressed groups. However, when it comes to issues of homosexuality, the church has largely not been invested in the rights of this minority group.
Gay members of the CCAP church such as “Fortune Banduka”, have reported being harassed by members of the church who found out that he was gay. He consequently switched churches but did not tell his new church that he was gay. In fact, when President Joyce Banda tried to decriminalize the law, some sectors of the church continued to oppose it.
The Nkhoma Synod of the Lilongwe CCAP, wrote a pastoral letter stating that the Bible condemns homosexuality in opposition to allowing homosexuality and gay marriage. In the letter, they stated that, “It is biblically and culturally an evil that dehumanizes people and provokes God’s wrath”
They further advised there members to, “refrain from such a practice and advocate its termination from our society”. Lastly, the letter noted that the church stands “in solidarity with the majority of Malawians who equally condemn the practice of homosexuality.” Simply stated, the ideology of the CCAP reflects the ideology of the country as a whole which is not ready to accept homosexuality.
Diverging Presbyterian Ideologies
Although they are still a marginalized group, there have been gains for LGBT rights community over the past few years. Malawians are also now more sensitized to LGBT issues then they were the past. The conversation about homosexuality is in the public space and no longer a topic confined to private spaces. Malawians though are not ready to repel the law against homosexuality.
Last year, a Malawi high court began hearing a petition by human rights group seeking an overturn of laws that criminalize homosexuality for three sentenced men with the backing of the Malawi Law society which comprises 300 of the country’s lawyers. However, no decisions have been made on these cases or on repelling the law against homosexuality.
Even if they manage to make legislative gains for the LGBT community, the LGBT community would most likely remain a marginalized population due to the continued social stigma against homosexuality. Legislative changes decriminalizing homosexuality, would not guarantee acceptance of gay marriage within the church who make up their doctrines independent of national laws. The CCAP constitution is also independent from that of other Presbyterian groups in the USA and on the continent.
The Presbyterian churches have a General Assembly where the international mission partners meet and agree on some of the central dogmas of the church. However, unlike in the Catholic Church, there is no overarching central command that can force any church to change. The Presbyterians in the USA and Africa operate independently from one another when it comes to national church constitutions. They also follow independent ideologies based on their local sentiments and culture.
In fact, Presbyterians in Africa have made several public statements highlighting fundamental differences between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and their global partners governing in Africa. Largely, these center on basic issues of the Christian life such as dress codes, and their position on political issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
The CCAP’s Approval of Gay Marriage.
In a statement, issued in the USA by the Covenant Network of Presbyterian, the church holds that
“The change aligns the church’s constitution with a reality that has long been true: Both same-gender and opposite-gender couples have been living in relationships that demonstrate covenant faithfulness, shared discipleship, and mutual love.”
This is a statement, we are unlikely to see reflected in the attitudes of the members of their Malawi counterparts in the near future. Homosexuality is still not sanctioned in the church and remains illegal in the country. Any change would have to involve transformations within in the legal framework of the country as well as the religious attitudes of the church members.
Given the autonomy of the national governing bodies, an amendment like we witnessed in the Presbyterian Church USA’s Book of Order which now defines marriage as being between two people, is unlikely to be amended in the constitution of Presbyterian churches in Malawi. The CCAP members in Malawi would have to be receptive to the idea themselves. They would also have to redefine the way in which they view homosexuality as a church.