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“Not Everything Good to Eat, Good to Talk”: The Antilles Bishops and the Buggery Laws

Keywords: Antilles Episcopal Conference, buggery laws, Caribbean, homosexuality, catholic teaching.

“Stop using religion to justify hate: One LUV” – placard of LGBTI activist celebrating with Jason Jones.[1]

Most countries in the Commonwealth Caribbean, which were former colonies of Britain, maintain laws on their books that criminalise “the abominable crime of buggery [anal intercourse]”, even when done in private between consenting adults.  These laws are vestiges of the colonial era which continue to be maintained and voraciously defended. In Jamaica, for example, the Offences against the Persons Act, Article 76, entitled, the “Unnatural Crime,” reads, “Whosoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery committed either with mankind or with any animal, shall be liable to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for a term not exceeding ten years”.[2] This wording is pretty much the same as the original 1861 law, which is no longer in force in Britain. Not only is buggery a criminal offence in the Caribbean, but it is specifically associated with gay men who are scorned, discriminated against and may even be subject to violence.  With the growth of the Human Rights Movement and, latterly, the movement for LGBTQI rights in the region, there has been a sustained challenge to those laws: In 2016, Caleb Orozco in Belize won his case against the government despite widespread opposition and even violence against his person.[3] In Trinidad and Tobago, in April 2018, Jason Jones, who lived outside of the country for fear of his life, was victorious in the High Court in having the buggery laws struck from the books.[4] In Jamaica, the case brought by Canadian-based lawyer, Maurice Tomlinson, is working its way slowly through the Courts.[5] Tomlinson’s client, Javed Jaghai, withdrew his case in fear for his life and that of his family and Tomlinson stepped into the breach. Similar agitations are afoot in Barbados against Section 9 of the Constitution, which deals with buggery and Section 12, which relates to serious indecency.[6]

Throughout it all, religious groups have been among the most vociferous in countering attempts at removing these laws. Many of these have formed cross-denominational coalitions, led and supported by conservative Christian groups out of the USA, to fight the removal of these laws.[7] Indeed, the Christian Bible is claimed to offer moral grounds for rejecting homosexuality, particularly as it is seen in the abomination of male-male intercourse. One Christian group that has presented a public perspective on the criminalisation of buggery that is not consonant with the usual religious stance is the Antilles Episcopal Conference.

The Antilles Episcopal Conference (AEC) “is an assembly of Bishops located within the Caribbean that faithfully serves the peoples of their Arch/Diocese in a manner which proclaims the truth of the gospel” ( The bishops, who serve the Anglophone, Francophone (except Haiti), and Nederlanderphone nations of the Caribbean, have issued several pastoral letters and various statements on matters such as evangelization, justice and peace, crime and violence, education and climate change. In 2001, they issued a Statement on Homosexuality and Homosexual Behaviour and, in 2018, another entitled, Marriage: A Covenant between a Man and a Woman.  In addition, over the years, a few AEC Bishops have come out in favour of decriminalising buggery at different points, in the face of opprobrium. 

Their perspective can be summarised using the Jamaican proverb: “not everything good to eat, good to talk”.  Strictly speaking the proverb means that not everything that is known about a situation needs to be revealed; there may be wisdom in holding back some information. In this case, however, the discussion takes licence with the meaning of the proverb to argue that the bishops engage an ethico-pastoral stance, particularly in their public individual utterances, that “not everything that is immoral should be criminal or illegal”. There is wisdom in this position, which, while it maintains the unchanging nature of the teaching on homosexuality and homosexual behaviour, opens the door to recognising the dignity of those who are too often the victims of cultural and other forms of violence.  It also presents a check on the falsehood that the moral issues that are of concern to the Church must needs be legally defined and punished without regard for the ambiguities and struggles in the lives of the vulnerable persons involved. Theirs is not the perfect position but it is a move in the right direction.

In 2001, before the Government of Trinidad and Tobago repealed the 1861 Buggery Law and outlawed same-sex intimacy in much clearer terms (Sexual Offences Act 2000), the AEC released their Statement on Homosexuality and Homosexual Behaviour. In that Statement, the Bishops acknowledged the moves a foot to “decriminalize consensual homosexual activity . . . now present in the Caribbean” (1). They do not proffer a position concerning the move toward decriminalisation nor do they explicitly mention the Buggery Laws. However, they noted that it was important to make clear the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. They expressed a particular concern for this given that “sincere but uniformed people tend to operate on the assumption that what is legal is moral” (1).  They maintained that a person engaging in homosexual behaviour acts immorally while committing the Church to “continu[ing] to manifest the reconciling love of the Lord” in their pastoral care of such a person (3).

Over the years, the controversy around on the issue continued, with the media becoming more focussed on the evangelical groups, who loudly proclaimed their opposition to the removal of the buggery laws.[8] The AEC Bishops continued to speak out, as when, in 2012, within two months of taking up office, Bishop of Antigua and Barbuda, Kenneth Richards (now Archbishop of Kingston since 2016), said he was not against the decriminalisation of buggery on the basis that adultery, which had once been illegal, is no longer considered a crime against the state, implying the not everything that is immoral should be illegal perspective. Bishop Richards also claimed to support decriminalisation as a means of reducing the discrimination experienced by gays. Around the same time, Bishop of Dominica, Gabriel Malzaire, called for the removal of criminal penalties for homosexuality and the end of all forms of violence against homosexuals. Malzaire noted his position is in keeping with the Holy See’s 2008 Statement to the 63rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the Declaration on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

Following the 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 2014 and before the Synod of Bishops in Rome, 2015, the AEC issued their Statement on Marriage, on April 25, 2015. While not their first document treating with marriage and family life, this one addressed the issues connected to same-sex marriage which were on the agenda in the region.  They re-present the Catechism’s teaching and call for respectful treatment of homosexual, bisexual and transsexual persons. They reject unjust discrimination. They reiterated that, if and when the State does decriminalise the anti-buggery law, “legality does not make a thing moral” (5). 

Later in 2018, following the Jones case, Archbishop Gordon is reported to have said, “[he] does not believe buggery should be criminalised at this time”.[9] Robert Shine reported that Archbishop Gordon claimed that it was the Church’s position that buggery not be criminalised and, where any country has buggery as a criminal offence, “the church should find ways to remove it from the statute books”.[10] Gordon was again referring to the Vatican’s Statement to the 63rd Session of the United Nations in 2008. The reason the Church holds this position, according to Gordon, is that it views homosexuality as a moral issue not a criminal one.  He reiterated, on a television interview, “There is no question in the church’s mind or teaching that this is an act that is immoral, disordered, one would even say a sin against nature”.[11] In this latter comment, Archbishop Gordon echoes the language of the various framings of the buggery laws, which paint acts of buggery as “unnatural” or “against the order of nature”. Indeed, historically, the Common Law “recognised the crime of sodomy as an offence against God”.[12] The natural law arguments used by the Church in deeming homosexual actions “intrinsically disordered”, not in keeping with the divine plan for human sexuality, also echo this idea of “against nature”.

In closing, the AEC attempt to maintain the balance between unchanging church teaching and pastoral care of all persons, especially persons who “struggle with the difficulties they may encounter from their condition” (CCC #2358 in Statement on Marriage, 5). Their stance in support of the decriminalisation of the buggery laws offers an important perspective that recognises the dignity homosexuals, who are too often the victims of violence and unjust discrimination. It also calls into question the idea that the moral issues that are of especial concern to the Church should be made illegal, for “legality does not make a thing moral”. Their ethico-pastoral approach attempts to be welcoming of and present with gays as they struggle to fulfil God’s will in their lives. Theirs is not the perfect position but it is a move in the right direction.

[2] Joseph Gaskins (2013), ‘Buggery’ and the Commonwealth Caribbean: a comparative examination of the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.  Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in The Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change.  Corinne Lennox and Matthew Waites (eds). London: School of Advanced Study, University of London:, pp. 429-54., 432

[3] Kenneth A. Benjamin (2016), Full judgment on Caleb Orozco v The Attorney General of Belize. Supreme Court of Belize, August 10.  The Government of Belize has since appealed the ruling and the court has reserved judgment until a later date.

[4] Monique Roffery (2018), A Win against Homophobia in the Caribbean,” New York Review of Books, June 6.  Of course, the ruling has since been challenged

[5] Public Defender Blocked from Joining Court Challenge to Anti-buggery Laws, The Gleaner, Friday November 9, 2018

[6] Sherrylyn Toppin (2008), “LGBT taking aim at buggery laws”, Nationnews, 5 June.

[7] Anna Kasafi Perkins (2016).  “Evangelical Christianity and Social Change in the Caribbean: A Battle for/in the Public Sphere?”  Journal of Eastern Caribbean Studies (Special Issue on Religion in the Caribbean) Vol.41 No. 1 (April): 13-46.

[8] See Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, Presentation to the Joint Select Committee of Parliament Reviewing Laws on Sexual Offences in Jamaica, Wednesday, June 21, 2017.

[9] Robert Shine, Archbishop’s Criticism of Anti-LGBT Criminalization Law Reveals a Need for More Education., April 18, 2018.

[10] Shine, Archbishop’s Criticism of Anti-LGBT Criminalization Law Reveals a Need for More Education.

[11] “Buggery shouldn’t be against the Law,” The Vincentian, Fri, Apr 20, 2018.

[12] Sherry-Ann McGregor, Jamaica’s buggery laws, The Gleaner, August 29, 2016.