By Francis Omondi
The appointment and now the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Libby Lane as Bishop Suffragan of Stockport, prompted many conversations in the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK). Our ties with the Church of England have progressively loosened since March 1955, when Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher consecrated two Africans, one of them Festo Habakkuk Olang, who became the first archbishop of the Anglican Province of Kenya in 1970.
Many Kenyan Anglicans still regard the C of E as their mother church, and they watch events in faraway England carefully. Some now wonder how long it will be before Kenya has a woman among its bishops.
Not every Anglican in Kenya wants this change, and it is an irritation to conservatives. In October 2014 the ACK’s House of Bishops declared a five-year moratorium on the possibility, but this has not silenced voices calling for change.
Some think that adding women to the episcopate is premature and requires more consideration. Most evangelical-leaning bishops oppose it altogether. Others think the matter should have been settled in 1990 when the Kenyan church approved ordaining women to the priesthood.
There are legal and constitutional issues to consider. Article VI, clauses 4 and 5 of the ACK Constitution make a clear demarcation between the work of a bishop and that of a priest. Clause 4 refers to bishops exclusively as male, while clause 5 recognizes that priests can be male or female.
In October a meeting of diocesan chancellors concluded that these incongruencies had no weight and did not prohibit women as bishops. The chancellors further observed that the national constitution of Kenya made illegal any form of sex-based discrimination in appointments to any leadership position. The chancellors concluded the church would lose if a woman appealed to a civil court after being barred from the episcopate.
The Most Rev. Eliud Wabukala, Archbishop of Kenya, asked bishops to approve amendments to the constitution that would dispel any doubts about women being eligible for election to the episcopate.
In December 2013 the Diocese of Eldoret overwhelmingly approved a motion to allow women in the episcopate. No one epitomises the mood of support more than the Rev. Elijah Yego, an influential priest, who changed his mind on the issue after deciding that many women exercise “superior ministry.”
In August 2014 another synod, in the Diocese of Maseno West, unanimously approved the ordination of women as bishops. The Rt. Rev. Joseph Wasonga, Bishop of Maseno West, said the Kenyan church understood the episcopate as 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.”
Perhaps more significantly, Kenya came close to having a woman bishop ahead of the Church of England. The Rev. Canon Rosemary Mbogo, provincial secretary of the ACK and chairwoman of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, was on the slate in the Diocese of Embu.
Proponents of women in the episcopate point out that the 1978 Lambeth Conference said member churches may ordain women as they chose. It was on this basis that the ACK agreed in 1980 to permit ordaining women as priests. Three years later the Rev. Lucia Okuthe became the first woman in the priesthood of the ACK. The Church of England began ordaining women as priests in 1994.
Dioceses may, in theory, act autonomously and elect women as bishops. It could be argued the moratorium has a limited constitutional warrant. The real challenge lies with the fact that the more evangelical wing of the ACK is looking over its shoulder, concerned about working relationships outside Kenya.
American voices are influential too. The Rt. Rev. Bill Atwood of the Anglican Church of North America recently warned against 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.”
What is at stake is clear. The Rev. Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, has observed: “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.
“The already-existing divide between these groups and Canterbury is likely to widen,” he added. “[O]rdained 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.”
The Rev. Canon Francis Omondi serves at All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi.