2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of consensual same-gender intimacy in England and Wales, and the Church of England played a significant role in that historic achievement.
Maurice Tomlinson writes:
It was a 1955 Church committee report that proposed ending criminal sanctions for same-sex conduct, and this contributed to the government-appointed Wolfenden Committee (largely comprised of Anglicans) recommending decriminalization in 1959.
However, anti-gay laws still exist across the Commonwealth, and 38 of 53 countries maintain these archaic relics of British colonization. Church teaching inspired these dreadful statutes, but our beloved Church also called for their repeal, acting according to guiding tenets of Scripture. Consensus on decriminalization has proven difficult amongst independent Provinces because some senior clerics have argued that anti-sodomy laws are critical bulwarks against marriage-equality.
Yet a significant breakthrough occurred last year when the Primates met at Lambeth. The 38 Province heads agreed to the following statement against criminalization:
The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.
The Global Anglican Communion opposes criminal sanctions against LGBTI people. 
Archbishop Justin Welby stressed that the unanimous view of the Primates is that ‘the criminalization of LGBTIQ people is entirely wrong’ when he confronted President Mugabe of Zimbabwe of on this very issue.
Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, The Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, says that for African Anglicans decriminalization is ‘the single most pressing issue around human sexuality’ and went on to say that:
The struggle for the legal, social, spiritual and physical safety of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is our issue in Nigeria and other places in Africa. The prophetic task for African Anglicans is to denounce violence and civil disabilities that are supported by members of our own communities and leadership.
He rightly says that African Anglicans must take a lead in this urgent task.
I am a Jamaican and as a Caribbean national challenging the anti-sodomy laws in the Caribbean, the only remaining such statutes in the Western hemisphere, I was overjoyed! These laws enshrine punishment ranging from ten years imprisonment in Jamaica to life imprisonment and hard labour in Barbados. Belize and Trinidad and Tobago also ban the entry of LGBT people.
Although largely unenforced in the Caribbean, anti-sodomy laws provide cover for homophobic abuses by state and non-state actors. For example, police often refuse to investigate anti-gay attacks because homosexuals are “unapprehended criminals.” I have also attended police stations to assist gays who were found in intimate positions and blackmailed by police officers. Home invasions and forceful evictions of gays are also common. Most worrying is the fact that the anti-sodomy laws directly contribute to a public health crisis, driving men who have sex with men (MSM) underground and away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support interventions. As a result, Jamaica has the highest HIV prevalence rate amongst MSM in the western hemisphere (33%). Many of these men also have relationships with women to “mask” or “cure” their homosexuality, thus multiplying psychological and physical harms.
The resilience of these laws is due to religious influence. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, pastors defended the laws as proof of God’s punishment against gays and deemed them necessary to prevent the spread of HIV. This was erroneous and deadly, as the laws actually prevented life-saving HIV interventions from reaching MSM. This misguided “gays=AIDS” rhetoric has been replaced by fear mongering about the threat of marriage-equality despite the fact that marriage is not a major preoccupation in most Caribbean societies (e.g., ~85% of Jamaican children are born out of wedlock), and certainly Caribbean LGBT people have not been campaigning for marriage.
The Diocese of Belize had initially joined as an interested party to oppose a constitutional challenge to that country’s anti-sodomy law, but when the Chief Justice of Belize rightly struck down the statue last year the diocese did not join in an appeal. Sadly, the appeal was mounted by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters who astonishingly argued that the law was necessary because, inter alia, they deem Belize to be a theocracy. In 2017, their position is incomprehensible.
Thankfully, the Archbishop of the West Indies and Anglican Bishop of Barbados subsequently issued a statement condemning faiths that demean LGBT people, and reaffirmed that the Anglican Church supports all children of God, regardless of sexual orientation.
Archbishop John Holder is not alone. Courageous Anglicans such as Fr Sean Major-Campbell in Jamaica, who washed the feet of lesbians on World Human Rights Day 2014 and Alice Mogwe, who has defended the rights of LGBT people in Botswana, have taken up the cause. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, says that he would rather go to hell than serve a homophobic God.
Responding to misinformation about decriminalization and the Primates’ statement, Anglicans for Decriminalization was formed in late 2016 to spread the good news about the Primates’ call for decriminalization across our 85 million+ Communion. We are also encouraging signatures for a petition supporting decriminalization, which will be presented to all governments where anti-gay laws exist and the Anglican Church has a witness. We have had encouraging notes from across the Communion, including from the Bishops of the Upper Shire in Malawi, Accra in Ghana, Guyana, and Kingston, Jamaica. This year I will be meeting with The secretary General of the Anglican Communion to identify ways that we can collaborate on decriminalization work.
Fifty years is a long time to wait for the end of an unjust law, especially one that destroys lives.
We pray that, in 2017, the Anglican Church globally will finish the work started by the Church of England so long ago.
It is time for justice, and for all Anglicans to support decriminalization.
To learn more about Anglicans for Decriminalization, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maurice Tomlinson is a Jamaican lawyer, law lecturer and HIV and LGBTI activist. He fled to Canada after receiving death threats for his work and is now a senior policy analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. At the Legal Network Maurice continues his collaboration with Caribbean groups to challenge anti-gay laws and attitudes across the region. Maurice was the inaugural winner if the David Kato Vision and Voice Award which honours the slain Ugandan LGBTI activist. Maurice is an parishoner at St. Jude’s Anglican, Oakville in the diocese of Niagara and his partner, the Captain the Rev. Tom Decker, is a Anglican chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces.
The Primates of the Anglican Communion have consistently condemned ‘the victimisation and diminishment’ of any person due to their sexuality and in 2007 they supported the Don’t Throw Stones Statement. This was endorsed by the ACC in Jamaica in 2009 and confirmed by the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion later that year. The time has come to put these fine words into action. The Primates’ Meeting in Dublin in 2011 condemned the homophobic murder of David Kato in Uganda.
The Primate of Wales was unable to attend and the Primate of Uganda had left before the communiqué was issued.