Renowned Ghanaian bishop Dag Heward-Mills has attracted controversy and praise alike in South Africa.
The outspoken bishop is reported to have said in a sermon: “There is nothing like that [homosexuality] in nature.” in one of South Africa’s biggest churches, Grace Bible Church in Soweto.
The church is trending on social media after a local celebrity said he walked out of a service because of a homophobic sermon. Somizi Mhlongo said in a video posted on Instagram that Bishop Heward-Mills had said being gay was “unnatural”.
The TV and radio personality said he was deeply offended by the words. Gay marriage is legal in South Africa and the pastor’s reported comments have sparked debate about religious views. Some have called on the church to denounce homophobia.
Reacting to the comments, Mhlongo said: “The church was cheering. I am not going to sit there and listen to someone offend me. This is who I am. I am a gay man, get it straight into your skull. My soul is alright with my God.”
The hashtag #GraceBibleChurch has been trending in South Africa, with some criticising the sermon and others defending it.
The church has since said that while it does not condone homophobia, these views are held by certain people not only in the church but in wider society.
“That was not the only thing that he was talking about. There are other people who are smokers who were offended because he also referred to a lot of lifestyle issues. And a lot of people who are having multiple partners were very offended,” broadcaster ENCA quoted Reverend Ezekiel Mathole as saying.
The BBC’s Milton Nkosi in Johannesburg said the controversy about a sermon delivered in one of Soweto’s biggest churches by bishop Heward-Mills demonstrates how sensitive the subject of homosexuality still is on our continent. South Africans are steadily coming to terms with being a tolerant society when it comes to matters of sexual orientation. But in doing so, they may be out of kilter with the rest of the continent.
Take the South African position at the UN in July 2016 for instance, when its ambassador in New York abstained on a vote on setting up a gay rights watchdog. This was something that the constitution back home would support. So it was expected that the ambassador would have voted for the motion.
Explaining the country’s unusual stance when it had in the past advocated for gay rights, Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko said: “We learned from our struggle against apartheid that if we are clear about the end goal, which for us is the end of violence and discrimination against the LGBTI persons, a better approach is building maximum consensus.”
She later explained further on a local radio show that the majority of African states had voted against the motion and therefore she would have been out of step with them.
So as this debate rages and as the television personality, Somizi Mhlongo, leads the charge on social media against what he called an offensive sermon, it is important to recognise that part of the solution in this debate lies with the concept of time. Many people tell me they’re still trying to come to terms with the more liberal constitution but they need time.