Pope Francis photographed from rear

As part of his ‘Africa Tour’ Pope Francis was joined by Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Iain Greenshields, the leader of the Church of Scotland, in a “pilgrimage of peace” to South Sudan. The joint visit of three powerful Christian leaders, coming together to condemn ethnic violence is the first of its kind and sends a strong message about Christianity’s moral opposition to hatred. The visit has also thrown the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the region into the spotlight.

Prior to, and since the visit, both Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis have voiced their opposition to the local laws criminalizing homosexuality. Pope Francis said laws that criminalize LGBTQ+ people are “unjust” and that “being homosexual is not a crime.” Political leaders in South Sudan were aware that the government’s mistreatment of members of the LGBTQ+ community might be on the agenda for the visit. Michael Makuei Lueth, the information minister for South Sudan said, “If [Pope Francis] is coming here and tells us that marriage of the same sex, homosexuality, is legal, we will say no.”

Pope Francis has faced rebels in the ranks on his ‘progressive’ views too. Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah was critical of Francis’s language of 'welcoming' gay Christians back into the fold. Sarah described the push to recognize homosexual unions as “part of a new ideology of evil.”

Candida Moss - Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology, University of Birmingham

The opposition to this ecumenical message of tolerance and acceptance does not only come from secular South Sudanese authorities. While Welby is the ceremonial leader of the Anglican communion, the 42 provinces that make up the communion have not reached a consensus on either marriage equality or the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy. The Church of England recently announced that it would authorize blessings for same-sex couples, but other constituents in the Anglican communion strongly reject even this compromised position. Bishop Williams Aladekugbe of Nigeria’s Ibadan North Anglican Diocese, for example, called same-sex unions “ungodly and devilish.”

Pope Francis has faced rebels in the ranks on his ‘progressive’ views too. Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah was critical of Francis’s language of “welcoming” gay Christians back into the fold. Sarah described the push to recognize homosexual unions as “part of a new ideology of evil.” Part of Sarah’s criticism was that the Synod convened by Francis was dominated by a “Western” ideological agenda. Just beneath the surface of his comments is a long and bloody history of colonial pressure. It is a history to which European and North American Christians would do well to attend even as they take steps to advocate for social justice. At stake though, is the flourishing and safety of queer Christians. The language of evil has violent consequences for LGBTQ+ people.

LGBTQ+ Catholics and Anglicans have criticized Welby and Francis for hedging their bets. Welby has said that he is “extremely joyful” that Church of England clergy will be blessing the unions of same sex couples but has indicated he would not personally offer these blessings for the sake of the “unity” of the global Anglican communion. Francis claimed that fifty countries criminalize LGBTQ+ people “in one way or another” and about ten others have laws including the death penalty. (The source of the statistic is unclear: According to Human Rights Watch, 67 countries have national laws criminalizing same-sex relations and an additional nine criminalize certain forms of gender expression).

Though both leaders have been, somewhat allusive, it is clear to observers that they have their eye on regulations enforced on the African Continent and tacitly supported by Christian religious leaders there. Given that these are life and death issues for LGBT+ people, it is worth asking, why do powerful religious leaders tread lightly on this question?

Though the answers differ for each leader, they find themselves in similarly unstable positions. The Episcopal Communion and the Roman Catholic Churches are both Global Churches but for most of their histories they have been governed from Europe. For the past half century, however, it has been clear that the power center of Christianity was moving south. It is in the Global South, and particularly in Africa twenty-first century Christianity flourishes, and where it’s future lies.

However, African bishops and cardinals tend to be more conservative on social issues. With Christianity on the decline in “Western” countries and with clear divisions emerging in both denominations, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope find themselves in a delicate situation. Welby admitted in his statement that he wants to keep the Anglican community unified.

Ecumenical allegiances are not entirely novel. Previously when divisions have emerged within denominations in relationship to a broader perceived threat, Roman Catholics and Protestants have presented a united front. Conservative Catholics, Protestants and Jews in the United States have become politically united in opposing liberal social reforms on hot button issues. The problem with this cross-denominational and interreligious allegiance is that it only heightens pre-existing divisions within those denominations. Roman Catholics, for example, were divided after the reforms of Vatican II. These divisions have only calcified in the decades that followed.

Welby and Francis find themselves pulled in two directions: they want both to keep their fractious Churches united in a new era in which their authority power is slipping, and they want to speak out against unjust regulations that threaten the lives of LGBTQ+ Christians. Well-hedged muted statements on this question come at a cost for LGBTQ+ people, who feel that their leaders could do more to affirm and protect them. Certainly, neither Welby nor Francis have been entirely successful in placating conservatives. In trying to please all parties they may have angered all of them and Welby’s appeals for unity do not seem to be working. Banding together in an unprecedented move does gain attention, but does it win them support? They may have a well-intentioned desire to hold the middle ground but is anyone else there with them. It may be that they are stranded in an ideological Mediterranean.