Appointment of women bishop in Kenya challenged

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The appointment of the Rev. Canon Emily Onyango as assistant Bishop of Bondo in the Anglican Church of Kenya was unlawful and improper, lay members of the diocesan synod have claimed in a 19 January 2021 petition filed with the primate, the Most Rev. Jackson Ole Sapit.

Six lay members of synod have alleged the appointment of Canon Onyango was unlawfully engineered by their bishop, the Rt. Rev. David Kobia in violation of diocesan and provincial canons. They have asked Archbishop Ole Sapit to investigate the circumstances of her appointment and election and to withhold his consent. The appointment of Canon Oyango also threatens to unravel the GAFCON coalition, as the member churches have agreed not to consecrate women bishops at this time.

On 12 January 2021, the Bondo synod affirmed the appointment of Dr. Onyango as assistant bishop. A senior lecturer and dean of students at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Dr. Onyango earned a PhD from the University of Wollongong in New South Wales and was one of the first women ordained to the priesthood in Kenya in 1984. 

If her appointment is affirmed, she would become the fourth African female bishop, following the Rt. Rev. Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland (who died last week of COVID -19), the Rt. Rev. Margaret Vertue of False Bay and the Rt. Rev. Elizabeth Awut Ngor assistant bishop of Rumbek.

The petition alleged the episcopal electoral process in Bondo process had been conducted in “complete disregard” of canon law. They further alleged Bishop Kodia used “blackmail, threats, and intimidation” to cajole synod into affirming her appointment.

The petitioners stated the diocese was unable to afford an assistant bishop, stating parish contributions were 13million Kenyan Shillings in arrears, with some clergy not having been paid for almost a year. They further questioned the reason for appointing a bishop at this time. The new bishop would not serve in the diocese but continue her teaching ministry at St Paul’s, but with the title of bishop.  “If they can appoint someone then second her back where she came from then they do not need her services.”

Appointing a woman assistant bishop is within the language of the Kenyan canons, but violates informal agreements made by the House of Bishops and Archbishop Ole Sapit.

In 2014 the GAFCON primates adopted a moratorium on the ordination of women to the episcopate in their provinces. The move came after women priests unsuccessfully stood for election in the Anglican Church of Kenya in 2012 and 2014.  After the moratorium was introduced, the GAFCON primates created a Task Force on Women in the Episcopate chaired by the Rt. Rev. Sampson Mwaluda of Kenya. Their 2017 report recommended a moratorium be placed on ordaining further women bishops, “as the issue poses a threat to the unity we prize”, former GAFCON chairman Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney said.

However, the 24th meeting of Kenyan General Synod held 25-26 September 2019 at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi, affirmed its support for women bishops. The language of the constitution allows any priest in good standing in the province aged 35 and older to stand for election. The consensus of synod was that the language of the constitution should explicitly state that male or female clergy may stand for election — not relying upon grammar to imply that male pronouns in the language of the constitution include the female. The amendment will not take legal effect until it is endorsed by the 2021 meeting of synod.

Archbishop Ole Sapit reminded synod, however, that he had agreed to honor the GAFCON moratorium and noted the Kenyan House of Bishops in 2015 had voluntarily entered into a five-year moratorium also.

A member of the GAFCON Task Force on Women in the Episcopate, Prof. Stephen Noll, told AI:

“The work of the Task Force on Women in the Episcopate is ongoing, as GAFCON is committed to addressing issues of common concern and church order biblically, in accordance with the Jerusalem Declaration, and collegially. In my view, this action in Kenya is a breach of that commitment and fellowship.”

“It is true that the East African Revival has emphasized egalitarian ministry more than some other provinces; nevertheless they said they were willing to wait for a further consensus. But the precipitate action is reminiscent of actions in the West over the past fifty years, and I would not be surprised to discover that there has been western influence and money involved here as well.,” Prof. Noll said.