Bishop Tengatenga Interprets

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Anglican Communion has a communication problem that too often escalates cultural differences into conflict and perceived threats to the Church, according to a prominent African bishop who’s building a platform in America to tackle it.

“Do we know where the other is coming from before we can simply dismiss them as being ignorant?” asked the Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga, chairman of the Anglican Consultative Council and former bishop of Southern Malawi. “Is it because their ways of reaching decisions, either moral or otherwise, come from a different base?”

Bishop Tengatenga is spending this year at the University of the South’s School of Theology, where he’s a distinguished visiting professor of global Anglicanism. He hopes the position will lead to a permanent post at Sewanee, where he would teach, convene dialogues on thorny global issues, and serve as a consultant for dioceses and congregations.

“Within our differences, we have committed ourselves through Christ to work together,” Tengatenga said. “I see my task as facilitating interpretation on both sides.”

Tengatenga knows the challenges of cross-cultural communication all too well. In 2013, he resigned his bishopric in Southern Malawi to accept a job offer as dean of the Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth College. But Dartmouth rescinded its offer after some faculty and students demanded it. They objected to earlier statements that Tengatenga said were taken out of context and did not represent his understanding of homosexuality.

With no diocesan episcopacy to return to, he taught last spring at Episcopal Divinity School, then came to Sewanee this fall. He’s now helping American students see how assumptions and philosophical biases can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings and rifts.

For example, what residents of developed Western nations regard as normal assertiveness often comes across as belligerence to Africans. Likewise, Westerners can seem condescending when they insist on the paramount importance of individual rights.

“People in the West tend to look at the individual as significant, so that the individual is the controlling factor in decision-making,” Tengatenga said. “In the African context, the community is more important. … It can override what individual choices and thought may be.”

Tengatenga, 56, brings to Sewanee his status as an important figure in the worldwide Communion. He meets regularly with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other members of the ACC’s standing committee, on which he has served for 12 years, including the last five as chairman. Every three years, he oversees a global meeting of 100 or so bishops, priests and laypeople, who consider resolutions from around the world and commend proposals — including the Anglican Covenant — for Anglicans’ consideration.

Like Tengatenga, Sewanee is hopeful his presence on campus will become permanent, according to the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, dean of the seminary. He sees the relationship bearing fruit already in classrooms and beyond.

“This has got an unquestionably good future, and we expect it to be a regular part of our life from now on,” Bishop Alexander said. “His role in the Anglican Communion means he has contacts and entrée into places around the Communion. Relationships between those places, those institutions, and Sewanee may be enhanced by that.”


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