By Rosie Dawson
When Mohan Sharma entered his guest room at the University of Kent just over a week ago, he was greeted with a hamper of fruit, chocolate and wine from the university’s management.
“It was a simple gesture but it resonated so loudly,” he says. “The very warm welcome we’ve received from the university has meant the world to us.”
The university at Canterbury has been the setting for the Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade conference of Anglican bishops from around the world, which for the past 30 years has been dominated by the issue of homosexuality.
Mr Sharma, a sitting judge from Ontario, is married to the Bishop of Toronto, Kevin Robertson, one of the 650 bishops taking part in the conference this week.
Most of the bishops’ spouses have been participating in their own parallel programme. But Mohan and six other spouses were not invited, because they are in same-sex relationships.
Bishops from three African provinces had already decided they would be boycotting the conference because of the presence of other churches within the Anglican Communion who have approved same-sex unions. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said he took the decision not to invite same-sex spouses after it became clear to him that there would be no conference if he did.
“It was a huge shock when I learnt I hadn’t been invited,” Mr Sharma told the Religion Media centre. “I’d been out for 30 years. This was the first time I had been subject to such discrimination since then, and it felt very personal. I felt like a teenager having to navigate my sexuality all over again.”
When the archbishop’s decision was announced in 2019, the University of Kent came in for some criticism for allowing the conference to go ahead on site. In response it issued a statement noting that a client had the legal right to withhold invitations. However, it added: “If we, the university, were running the conference, we would not apply this prohibition under any circumstance.”
Mr Sharma and four other same-sex spouses decided to accompany their partners to Canterbury anyway.
“It’s really quite ironic that the University of Kent has been the one to show true hospitality and generosity during this Christian conference,” said LGBTQ+ rights campaigner Jayne Ozanne on Twitter.
She said the spouses and their supporters have been given free accommodation on the campus. The university’s vice-chancellor, Karen Cox, hosted a lunch for them and the Pride flag has been displayed throughout the conference on the Jarman school of arts building. On the opening day of the conference, the university’s LGBTQ+ staff organised a march of support.
Although he doesn’t hide his pain at being excluded from the spouses’ programme, Mr Sharma said he recognised the difficult position the archbishop had found himself in.
“I’m not going to weigh in on the decision except to say I wish it had been different for me and for others,” he said. “I know the plight of LGBT people in other parts of the world is loss of liberty and sometimes life. My experience pales in comparison. But it is still important for LGBT Anglicans everywhere that we attend the conference for our own sake and for them.”
However, Mr Sharma said the archbishop’s office had made efforts to be hospitable, including inviting him to the conference opening, closing and plenary sessions and enabling them to take their meals with participants. He had particularly warm words for the archbishop’s wife, Caroline, whom he said met him to discuss how he and his fellow same-sex spouses could get the most out of being on the conference fringe.
“Caroline Welby went out of her way to make the excluded spouses welcome. In addition to tea at the Old Palace, she found each of us during the service at the cathedral to exchange the peace. At Lambeth Palace on Wednesday she found each of us at lunch to specifically welcome us. While we were excluded, Caroline’s spirit of hospitality and kindness was clearly present.”
Mrs Welby also facilitated a meeting between the same-sex spouses and some spouses of Bishops from the Global South where resistance to the idea of same-sex marriage is strongest. “That meeting was very helpful and informative,” Mr Sharma said. “They wanted to us to understand that the reason they can’t support LGBT causes is not because of homophobia or hatred, but because their view is informed by a cultural tradition that requires a literal interpretation of the Bible.”
Ironically, it was Mr Sharma rather than the spouses in straight relationships who, as a conference observer, witnessed one of its key moments. The bubble inside the conference and the press outside had been waiting for Tuesday afternoon when the archbishop addressed the bishops on the call to human dignity and the issue of human sexuality.
“For some here it will be a great relief [that] there is no attempt being made to alter the historic teaching of the vast majority of churches of the Anglican Communion. For some, this will be hugely painful,” he said. To change the church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality was unthinkable for many if not most churches within the communion, while not to change it was equally unthinkable for others.
“I think Justin Welby did well in that address,” Mr Sharma said. “His strongest point was that the Global North view would lead to evisceration of church in the Global South if it prevailed, but that the church in the Global North would be equally eviscerated by imposing the view of the Global South. As such, the call simply sought to respect that there were different views on marriage.”