First women diocesan bishop elected for Kenya

Rose Okeno

The second woman bishop for the Anglican Church of Kenya was elected this morning by a special meeting of the Diocese of Butere synod. The 31 July 2021 election of the Ven. Rose Okeno, the archdeacon of Shikunya and vicar-general of the diocese of Butere, will pose a problem for the Primate of Kenya, the Most Rev. Jackson Ole Sapit, as Kenyan canon permits women bishops, but Kenya’s endorsement of the GAFCON moratorium on women bishops does not.

Bishop-elect Oken will succeed the Rt. Rev. Tim Wambunya who retired last year. If confirmed in office, she will become the fifth woman elected to the Anglican episcopate in Africa.

Kenyan canon law requires Bishop-elect Okeno’s election to be confirmed by the Kenyan House of Bishops. She will become the second Kenyan woman bishop, following the election of Dr. Emily Onyango as assistant bishop of Bondo in January. If confirmed Bishop-elect Okeno will be the first woman diocesan bishop in Kenya, and the third woman bishop among the GAFCON affiliated churches.

On 31 December 2016, the Most Rev Daniel Deng Bul, primate of South Sudan and Archbishop of Juba consecrated the Rt. Rev. Elizabeth Awut Ngor as assistant bishop of the Diocese of Rumbek, making her the first GAFCON-affiliated woman bishop.

Bishop Awut Ngor followed  the Rt. Rev. Ellinah Ntombi Wamukoya, who was elected bishop of the Diocese of Swaziland on 18 July 2012 and ordained and installed on 10 November 2012. Her appointment was closely followed by the election, on 12 October 2012 of Margaret Vertue as bishop of the Diocese of False Bay. She was consecrated and installed on 19 January 2013. Bishop Wamukoya succumbed to COVID-19 earlier this year.

It is unclear whether Bishop-elect Okeno’s election will be confirmed. The 24th meeting of Anglican Church of Kenya’s General Synod in 2019 affirmed its support for women bishops. However in 2018 Archbishop Ole Sapit endorsed the GAFCON moratorium on the consecration of women to the episcopate. In a communique released on 20 April 2018 at the close of their meeting in Entebbe, Uganda, the GAFCON archbishops stated they would uphold the “historic practice” of consecrating only men to the episcopate, until such time as a consensus for change emerges within GAFCON.

While Bishop Onyango’s election was challenged on two points — local objections the electoral process had been unfair and provincial concerns over the GAFCON moratorium, Bishop Oyango’s election was affirmed by the primate. Sources in Kenya stated the decision not to block Bishop Onyango lay in legal advice given to the primate that such an action would violate the church’s constitution and canons. It was also explained that as an assistant bishop, Dr. Onyango would not exercise episcopal jurisdiction.

The legal prohibition with Kenyan canon law still exists that forbids blocking the election of a woman solely on grounds of her sex, but as a diocesan Bishop-elect Okeno would pose difficulties for Archbishop Ole Sapit in his relations with GAFCON primates.