Dr. Emily Onyango has been consecrated Assistant Bishop of Bondo, making her the first Kenyan female Anglican bishop and the second GAFCON-affilaiated woman bishop.
The Anglican Church of Kenya announced her consecration on 27 March 2021 at St Michael’s and All Angels Cathedral in Bondo. Bishop Onyango was appointed assistant bishop of Bondo by the dicoesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. David Kodia, at the diocesan synod held on 12 January 2021.
Dr. Onyango serves as senior lecturer and dean of students at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. She earned a PhD from the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia, as well as a ThM from the Asian Center for Theological Studies and Mission in Seoul, South Korea, and a BD from St. Paul’s University in Limuru.
Bishop Onyango is the fourth African female bishop and the second GAFCON woman bishop, following in the footsteps of the Rt. Rev. Elizabeth Awut Ngor as assistant bishop of the Diocese of Rumbek who was consecrated on 31 Dec 2016 by the Most Daniel Deng Bol, Primate of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan.
The first African woman bishop was the Rt. Rev. Ellinah Ntombi Wamukoya, who was elected bishop of the Swaziland on 18 July 2012 and ordained and installed on 10 November 2012. She passed away from the COVID virus earlier this year. The Rt. Rev. Margaret Vertue was elected on 12 Oct 2012 Bishop of False Bay, South Africa. She was consecrated and installed on 19 January 2013.
Bishop Onyango’s consecration comes as a challenge to the GAFCON coalition of Anglican primates, who have asked its members to place a moratorium on the election of women bishops. Following the publication of the news of Bishop Awut Ngor’s consecration in 2018 by Anglican Ink, the Most Rev Peter Jensen, General Secretary of GAFCON issued a statement saying the moratorium on women bishops “remained in place”.
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.
The GAFCON moratorium arose 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.
The appointment was also challenged by members of the Dicoese of Bondo, who in a 19 January 2021 petition to Archbishop Ole Sapit said it had been unlawfully engineered by Bishop Kobia in violation of diocesan and provincial canons. 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. At the synod meeting, Bishop Kobia said 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,” the petitioners argued.
An assistant bishop does not require the endorsement of the primate, under Kenyan church law, only the approval of a majority of the members of the House of Bishops. The Kenyan church has not stated how and when the approval was given, however, Archbishop Ole Sapit was not present at the consecration service, which was led by Bihsop Kobia.