The daughter of the late archbishop Desmond Tutu, a tireless campaigner against apartheid, revered human rights activist, and once one of the most famous Anglicans in the world, has been barred by the Church of England from officiating at the funeral of her godfather Martin Kenyon, one of her father’s dearest friends.
The reason is that Mpho Tutu van Furth, formerly an ordained Anglican priest in South Africa, is married to another woman, and while Anglican churches in the US, most of Canada and other parts of the Communion marry same-sex couples and fully accept openly gay and married people as clergy, the English church has a more “nuanced” position. Priests may be gay, and may enter into civil partnerships, but on the assumption that they are celibate.
It is, of course, a tediously inconsistent stance, layered with convenient dishonesty, and generally only tested when a gay priest seeks to become a bishop or, as in this case, a high-profile figure is involved. The case is made all the more challenging for the Church of England because in 2016 Tutu van Furth was forced to give up her right to officiate as a priest in South Africa because she married another woman. She remains a priest in the Diocese of Washington DC.
Thus, even though Kenyon, 92, had directly asked his goddaughter to conduct his funeral, the church said no. In the end the ceremony was moved from the original location of St Michael and All Angels church in Wentnor, Shropshire, to a nearby marquee so that Tutu van Furth could preside.
The Diocese of Hereford said, “We acknowledge this is a difficult situation”, but also that “advice was given in line with the House of Bishops current guidance on same-sex marriage”.
That advice may well have mentioned those African churches that just last month at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury had made such a fuss over LGBTQ+ affirmation and equal marriage. They would have been extremely angry if such a well-known figure as Tutu van Furth had been allowed to officiate.
Technically, Hereford Diocese had little choice. Morally and theologically it’s rather different. There are many Christians – including myself – who see clear and compelling Biblical arguments for equality. Others disagree, especially in Africa, where the Anglican Church is large and growing. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is trying – with, it must be said, a certain skill and delicacy – to keep a divided church together over the issue.
Desmond Tutu himself had no doubts. He gave his blessing to his daughter’s marriage, and said: “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven… I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid.”