LONDON – The daughter of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu had wanted to honor her godfather’s personal wish: that she perform his funeral in England after he died last week.
But the Church of England stopped Rev. Mpho Tutu van Furth, a priest ordained in the United States, from doing so this week because she is married to a woman, she said.
“I am shocked at the lack of compassion,” Tutu van Furth said in a phone interview from Shropshire in central England on Friday, calling the decision to bar her from officiating at the funeral of her godfather, Martin Kenyon, 92, unfriendly. “You can’t speak a message of welcome and love and live a message of exclusion,” she said of the church’s teaching.
Mr. Kenyon was a long-time friend of Archbishop Tutu, a powerful force in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and an early, outspoken critic of the Anglican Communion’s stance on gay rights. The archbishop was also godfather to Mr. Kenyon’s daughter.
The incident has focused on the long-standing divide within the global Anglican Communion over whether to accept same-sex marriage and ordain openly gay priests and bishops. The Church of England and the Episcopal Church are bound together in the global Anglican Communion, which represents some 85 million worshipers around the world.
But the fellowship has been slowly fracturing for years as it has debated policies toward ministers and worshipers on same-sex relationships and marriage. The Episcopal Church has taken a stance in favor of the acceptance of gay priests and members, beginning with the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, in New Hampshire in 2003.
However, the Church of England has said that under its religious laws, while it allows same-sex civil partnerships, it does not support same-sex marriage because it would be against its teachings. Gay priests are expected to remain celibate, and those in same-sex marriages are not allowed to be ordained.
Rights activists and some religious leaders have condemned the incident and the church’s policies as homophobic, discriminatory and contrary to the message of religion.
Tutu van Furth said she was informed by local representatives of the church that although she could sit in the congregation during the ceremony, she would not be allowed to give the eulogy, pray or perform readings at the funeral. She said she understood why local officials had relayed the message, but said the way church authorities had handled it was “not right.”
The local Diocese of Hereford, where the funeral was held, acknowledged it was “a difficult situation” and added that they had followed advice given in accordance with published guidance from the church’s senior leadership – who said that marrying someone of the same sex was not “appropriate contact” and “would clearly be contrary to the teaching of the Church of England.”
“The Church of England believes that all people are made in the image of God and should be valued for who they are,” a church spokesman said in a statement. The church was “learning and listening about issues of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage,” the statement said, which had caused “deep and painful divisions.”
Bishops are expected to formally publish recommendations on a way forward on LGBTQ policy, among other issues, in February when General Synod, the Church of England’s national assembly, meets.
“There are people of all ages who need the church in times of hardship and pain and loss,” Tutu van Furth said, adding that the decision had also upset Mr. Kenyon’s family. “This is supposed to be the place for people to go who have nowhere else to go.”
To honor his wishes and allow her involvement, Tutu van Furth said the funeral – which she described as prayerful and joyous – was ultimately held on Thursday not in a church but in the garden of Mr. Kenyon’s home in Shropshire.
Mr. Kenyon and Archbishop Desmond Tutu grew close while the two lived in London in the 1960s, when Archbishop Tutu studied theology at King’s College. (Mr Kenyon also gained some notoriety for his reactions to being one of the first people in the UK to receive a Covid vaccine in 2020, tells the New York Times he looked forward to being embraced by his grandchildren.) The archbishop was a supporter of gay rights, tells the BBC in 2007: “If God, as they say, is homophobic, I would not worship that God.”
Tutu van Furth has previously spoken about her painful experiences with the church after she married Marceline van Furth, a Dutch academic specializing in global child health. It forced her to surrender her license to serve as a priest in the Anglican Communion’s province of Southern Africa, a decision that she said then, that felt like it was “stripping away,” a part of her. Based in the Netherlands, Tutu van Furth now preaches in a church in Amsterdam.
For Jayne Ozanne, an advocate for gay rights in the church and a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, its legislative body, the priest’s experience confirmed that the Church of England was “institutionally homophobic.”
“It’s a cruel, gross and hypocritical decision,” she said, adding that church leaders had been silent for too long on LGBTQ rights.
“We are investing millions in mission and evangelism without getting the basics of a church that serves everyone and shows the unconditional love of England,” she added.