The appointment of the Revd Libby Lane as Bishop Suffragan of Stockport, the first ever woman bishop in the Church of England (CoE) will without doubt excite those who have pushed to have Women bishops in the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK).
This news in equal measure will irritate conservative within the ACK who had clung to the robes of tradition as their excuse, now that the CoE ‘mother church’ has changed its long held position on women episcopacy. The import of this appointment is the springing of demands for the same action in the ACK by those who adjudged the moratoria on the women bishops concentration imposed by the house of Bishops and the provincial synod October 2014 a blockade.
I agree with many calling for women Episcopacy and I am convinced it will happen. I echo the words; ‘Be comforted’, ‘it will come.’ These were prophetic words Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wrote to the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Dr John Sentamu, to, [as he puts it] ‘pour some balm’ on his ‘ ‘wounded heart’, when the General Synod rejected the proposals to ordain women bishops in November 2012. It has come at last! It will come in ACK too.
The possibility to have a woman bishop appears to divide opinions in the ACK with some feeling this is too early in the day and requires more time. The evangelical leaning bishops oppose it all together. A significant influential group thinks it is too late and should have followed the approval of the ordination of women into priesthood in 1990.
There is a growing feeling that the House of Bishops fumbled when it recommended to our provincial synod of October 2014 to issue ‘a Five (5) year moratorium on consecration of women Bishops to give time and opportunity for discussions and consensus. Why the retrogress? This once courageous and astute church whose leadership had been prophetic world wide seems to stumble at an hour of need.
There is concern that legal and constitutional citations could be an impediment to women episcopacy. According to the Article VI of our Constitution ON THE MINISTRY; Clause 4 and 5, there is a clear demarcation between the work of a Bishop and that of a Priest. In clause 4, the Bishop is referred to exclusively as male while in Clause 5, which deals with priests, the constitution recognizes that the holder of such office could be male or female.
But meeting in Nakuru under the chairmanship of the bishop of Nairobi, the chancellors [Church legal advisors] ruled that the incongruences had no weight and would present no legal impediment. Our church Constitution read properly did not explicitly bar women from being available to be elected bishops even though the language used did not consider women. They further observed that the Constitution of Kenya was against any form of discrimination based on gender in appointment to leadership position. They concluded that the church would lose against a litigant barred on gender grounds.
But in a bid to erase any grammatical ambiguities and to be clear Archbishop, the Most Rev Eliud Wabukala, wrote to the bishops of the Anglican Church of Kenya asking that they approve amendments to the language of the church’s constitution erasing any doubts that women priests are eligible for election to the episcopate.
There is a swelling tide in support for women bishops among Christians. Kenyan Anglicans are visibly ready for women bishops. Already the Diocese of Eldoret in its Synod sitting in December 2013 had approved overwhelmingly to elect women bishops. No one epitomises the mood of the support for women bishops than Rev Elijah Yego, an influential clergy of the diocese who was the face of opposition to women becoming priest, was unusually vocal in support for women bishops in this synod, having been won over by what he termed ‘their superior ministry’.
Another diocese, the Diocese of Maseno West in their August 2014 ordinary synod session, approved unanimously the ordination of women bishops. Justifying the vote the Bishop of Maseno West and Dean of the ACK, the Rt. Rev. Joseph Wasonga said the Kenyan church understood the ministry to be a functional office; “Ministry belongs to all who are baptised, be they men or women, and as such no one can deny the other an opportunity to serve in whatever capacity.” He said.
But the more significant development was the formal nomination of a woman priest Rev Canon Rosemary Mbogo, the Provincial Secretary of ACK and also chairman of NCCK, to vie for bishopric election in Embu. She was second clergy to be nominated after Rev. Dr. Lydia Mwaniki for Kirinyaga diocesan. Had she been successful we would have had our first Kenyan woman bishop in 2014 before the CoE.
Africa got its first female Anglican bishop on 18 July 2012. The Rt. Rev. Ellinah Wamukoya who was elected as fifth Bishop of the Diocese of Swaziland has roots in Kenya. She is married to Wamukoya Kadima a Kenyan agriculturist from Mumias diocese whose home is in Moi’s bridge Kitale, where she has established her home.
Those within the church who want more time have viewed women bishopric to be an issue of Doctrine and Order in the church. This therefore requires consensus by the Bishops, a process that should be prudently taken. I have difficulty to separate women episcopacy issue from ordination of women into priesthood. The Lambeth Conference, in 1978, had already resolved that it was acceptable for member churches to ordain women if they chose. A long and engaged effort at Communion-wide consultation over the issue of women in the episcopacy gave rise to a report, endorsed by the Communion’s archbishops, to maintain communion as far as possible even while various churches carried on with different practices.
It was this framework that saw in 1980, the Anglican Church of Kenya agreeing in principle that women could be ordained, allowing also that each diocese remain autonomous in taking up the issue. That year, the Bishop of the Diocese of Maseno South in the Anglican Church of Kenya ordained the Rev Lucia Okuthe as priest.
I found it ironical that Kenya which ordained women ahead of the Church of England, did not begin ordaining women priests until 1994, has not articulated and prepared for women episcopacy. The Anglican Church in Australia and the Church of Southern Africa who now all have women bishops made women priests after Kenya.
Women bishops are likely to widen the already growing chasm within the more conservative Evangelical wing of the church which is gaining influence. Attempts to reach consensus among our dioceses will be a challenge. But a more daunting task will be to agree with other provinces we are in working relationship with who do not ordain women like Church of Nigeria. We may be wise to adopt the posture that each diocese is autonomous in taking their own decision on the issue, like we did on ordination of women in 1980 and avoid stifling those who have resolved to support women episcopacy.
We however need to be very cautious of being cajoled into walking away from our convictions on this because of other provinces. Bishop Bill Atwood, Bishop of the International Diocese of the Anglican Church in North America [ACNA], warned that the direction Kenya takes will impact on other provinces in the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon ). Writing in Global View this October Atwood reported that : “…bishops warned of taking action that would be in opposition to Nigeria’s position…that a decision to include women as bishops at this time would also be damaging to the Anglican Church in North America because it is such a high priority for a significant number of leaders.”
We should rather err on the side of caution rather than risk in these associations. Ephraim Radner a professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto Canada,observed that; “Within North America, churches like the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) that have separated from the Episcopal and Canadian churches, are moving in a direction that may well prohibit women’s ordination altogether.”
Radber warned that “the already existing divide between these groups and Canterbury is likely to widen,…ordained women in ACNA and in other evangelical churches may well decide that their own vocations are better pursued back within Church of England-related Anglican churches, and one may see a strengthening of conservative female leadership there”.
We cannot abscond from responsibility of solving the issue of our own women. ACK should give premium to the voice and advice of professor Michere Mugo, Meredith Professor for teaching at Syracuse university, who writes, ” women are indispensable resource in society, constituting major driving force in every aspect of human development.”
She invites us to fight for “women inclusion in this historical process, reiterating the absolute need for their full participation, representation and empowerment in all areas of life. By insisting on locating women at their marginalisation, silencing, impoverishment and disempowerment are major barriers standing in the path of potential human development, globally, but more so in Africa, which represents the most oppressed of global humanity”.
The situation in the ACK reminds me of the counting game often played by young girls to foretell their futures …The “tinker, tailor, soldier sailor” rhyme; When shall we have a woman bishop? This year, next year, sometimes, never!
Canon Francis Omondi is a priest in the anglican church of Kenya All saints Dioceese. opinions expressed here are his own.