There are two categories of saint in the Christian Church. There are Saints, like Mary and Francis, and there are saints, who fill the pews. We are used, in the church, to people who are pretty holy, who are dedicated, focused and turned towards God, and we take it as a given that we will often encounter others, on the pews and in the leadership, who are like that. They are holy men and women, saints.
Then one runs quite suddenly into extraordinary holiness, and knows why the church has called some people Holy, or in the Latin, Sanctus, Sancta, Saint, in an unqualified way. People who have human flaws, but in whom the qualities of God shine like a beacon. And I sat, yesterday, and listened to one. He is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. He is the one bishop of the Ugandan church who has stood steadfastly against the demonisation of gay people. He was careful to tell us he was only an assistant Bishop in the Anglican church (although either one is consecrated as a Bishop or one is not, it is not in fact possible to be a bit a bishop any more than it is to be a bit pregnant) and he came retirement age, retired, but went on working as a counsellor. Then some troubled young LGBT people were brought to him, who were having trouble accepting their sexuality, and having trouble finding a place in a deeply homophobic society.
It seemed natural to Bishop Christopher to start trying to change things, for the individuals and for his society. A blog does not allow one to write of everything he said, but I will pick out a few of the things which most impressed me.
At no point would Bishop Christopher get drawn into the blame-game. He did not blame his church or his society. He blamed ignorance of human sexuality. If there was more education, then people would understand. In the past there had been a superstition against women eating chicken, and with education now people understood that chicken was a good food for both sexes. It would be the same for gay people’s relationships.
He wanted to see a fuller and more authoritative role in his society for women, but he did not blame Islam for the patriarchal nature of his society – it was a cultural thing, he said, ages old, and needing changed. Nor did he blame Islam for attitudes to gay people. It was just ignorance, superstition. It was also down to an unhelpful way of understanding how to read the Bible – but he did not blame American Evangelical missionaries for that, either. Once again, the answer was more education, and more love. Love was a theme he came back to again and again, and I was reminded of stories that St John the Evangelist used to be carried in to his congregations as a very old man and would simply say ‘Only love one another.’
He spoke all the time very calmly, with no agitation, with no fear, with a deep deep kindness. He spoke of six months he has spent in America. His wife had asked him not to return to Uganda, because she was so afraid for his life, so many death threats had been made against him. However, in the end he had gone home. There was no anger in his voice. He blamed nobody.
What would the introduction of the notorious Ugandan bill with its draconian penalties for gay people mean? ‘It would be a disaster, a disaster’ not just for gay people, but because Africa should be tackling problems of disease, and lack of education, real problems and not illusory ones.
It what seems to us in the West like a terrible and sad situation, ever deteriorating, did not cow Bishop Christopher any more then death threats. ‘I am an optimist,’ he said, ‘things can change.’
Let me sum up. A man of retirement age tackled the Ugandan establishment head on over an issue which does not in any way personally involve him, accepting it brought a very real threat to his life, a threat of being beaten to death in very nasty ways, and also accepted the odium heaped on him in his society, and he did this because he felt called to love everybody. He refuses to blame those attacking him in any way.
He asked for our prayers. He asked for our support, that we keep lobbying, because he thinks it helps. I left knowing I had listened to one of the saints. No, to one of the Saints.