The relationship between the LGBTQI+ community and the church has always been strained, save for the few religious organisations that have, of late, openly advocated for sexual minorities and welcomed them into their congregations without favour or condemnation.

Earlier this year, this issue was the focus of a three-day convening at the Diakonia Centre in Durban, organised by The Other Foundation.

As a part of the theme “Breaking Through the Backlash: Transformative encounters between LGBTI people and the churches of Africa”, renowned theologian, anti-apartheid leader and author, Prof Allan Boesak, presented the keynote address at the Dennis Hurley Hall on 24 June, with a moving talk titled, “Taking a Stand: A call to action by the church against prejudice towards LGBTI people”.

Reflecting on the 2008 General Synod of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, during which a report on the church’s stand on the question of sexual orientation and nonconformity – which Boesak presented as convenor of the task team that compiled it – was being taken under consideration, the cleric lamented the “hostile, and theologically disturbingly crude, debate” that led up to the report, “its contents, its conclusions and its recommendations calling for justice for LGBTQI persons” being referred for reconsideration.

Recalling the open hostility and homophobia expressed by the speakers at the Synod, Boesak relayed his disappointment that the URCSA (an organisation which was a champion of human rights in the years leading up to the country’s democracy) would reject one of the fundamental principles in the report: that the church should stand where God stands, with “the wronged, the poor, the destitute, and powerless against the powerful; and against any form of injustice and oppression”.

In his address, Boesak called this experience “one of the most devastating experiences of my life”. Remembering how the public was outraged by then-president Jacob Zuma’s appointment of the homophobic journalist Jon Qwelane as South Africa’s ambassador to Uganda – a country with the unenviable title of the African continent’s most openly anti-LGBTQI country – Boesak called to mind his sadness that the URCSA could not join the rest of the country in condemning this appointment, as it had shown itself “just as rabidly homophobic” a mere year before.

Indeed, the church should, said Boesak, “remember that ‘we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another since we share the one faith…’ We are not offered this as an option we might or might not take. We are not forced, cajoled or tricked into this: we are, as followers of Jesus, obligated.”

Boesak cites the URCSA’s adoption of the Belhar Confession in 1986 as a new standard of faith for the church, drawing parallels between this guiding principle’s approach to racial relations, and the way in which it is applicable to the church’s treatment of LGBTQI people, people with mental and physical challenges and women.

To listen to Prof Boesak’s complete talk, which provides valuable insight into how church leaders are actively pursuing acceptance both from the pulpit and within the confines of churches all over Africa, have a look at the video below.