8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on Holy Ground
Sex -- Almost a Non-Issue

Media reports prior to the eighth assembly had cited disagreements among and within churches over homosexuality as potentially the most explosive issue to be dealt with by delegates. Conflicts over whether or not gays and lesbians may be ordained to the ministry have raged for years in many Western Protestant denominations. The topic has yet to surface as an important issue in most churches in the southern hemisphere and was not on the official assembly agenda; yet many came to Harare expecting sexuality-related controversies to take centre stage.

A dozen Padare workshops focused on gays and lesbians in the church, and questions from journalists about homosexuality dominated the first few press conferences. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been outspoken in his condemnation of homosexuality, fanned the flames by telling several journalists that gays and lesbians attending the assembly had "come to the right place" (a church meeting) to be "purged" of their homosexuality. But he did not mention the topic in his plenary address to delegates or in a smaller reception for assembly participants at his official residence.

The issue did not make it to the assembly floor until the last day, during discussion of the resolution on human rights. Paul Sherry of the United Church of Christ (USA) criticized the resolution for not mentioning discrimination against gays and lesbians. "Our support for human rights will ring increasingly hollow until we speak out against the violence done to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters," he said. "Our silence in the midst of this violence is deafening."

The issue of human sexuality was identified in the report setting out the guidelines for future WCC study and action as one of the focal areas for attention in the coming years. Vladimir Shmaliy of the Russian Orthodox Church warned delegates that "any move to develop a homosexual agenda would severely jeopardize Orthodox participation in the WCC". But his motion to delete the reference to a study of human sexuality from the committee's report was soundly defeated.

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