By Jesse Masai

1/21 Update:

Six lay synod members in the Diocese of Bondo filed a petition on January 19 with the Kenyan Church’s primate, the Most Rev. Jackson Ole Sapit, objecting to Onyango’s consecration. They allege that the appointment process “was unprocedural and in complete disregard” of canon and civil law, and that Bishop of Bondo David Kodia used “blackmail, threats, and intimidation” to secure Onyango’s approval.

The petitioners also claim that the diocese cannot afford to pay the new bishop, as contributions to the diocese by parishes are in arrears by 13 million Kenyan shillings (about $120,000), and some parish vicars have received no salaries in over a year.

They criticize the decision to immediately “second” Bishop Onyango back to her teaching post at St. Paul’s University, noting “if they can appoint someone then second her back where she came from then they do not need her services.”

The petitioners, who say that diocesan clergy agree with them but “would not dare talk,” urge Ole Sapit to intervene and to withhold his consent to Onyango’s appointment.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Emily A. Onyango has been announced as the first female bishop for the Anglican Church of Kenya. The Anglican Diocese of Bondo unanimously endorsed the appointment at a  January 12 synod.

She will become the first assistant bishop of Bondo, a post created by the diocese. She is expected to assist the Bishop Rt. Rev. Professor David H. Kodia in training of clergy, in addition to programming for women’s ministry and gender issues, including initiatives focused on ending gender-based violence and encouraging child empowerment.

The Rev. Emily Onyango

Onyango’s appointment will chip away at decades of male leadership of the church and comes 38 years after the first women became priests in the ACK. Following the 1978 Lambeth Conference, which stated that ordination of women need not be a communion dividing issue, the Anglican Church of Kenya permitted women to join the priesthood in 1990.

Dr. Onyango has been in ministry over many decades, starting with children’s ministry in the then Diocese of Maseno South. She was made a deacon on July 29, 1984 and priested in December 1986 by the late Rt. Rev. Dr. Henry Okullu, who had also ordained the Rev. Lucia Okuthe, the church’s first woman priest, in 1983.

In 2012,  the Rev. Dr. Lydia Mwaniki, currently the director of gender and women at the All Africa Conference of Churches, unsuccessfully sought to be elected Bishop of Kirinyaga Diocese. Then, in 2014, current Provincial Secretary of the Anglican Church of Kenya, the Rev. Canon Dr. Rosemary Mbogo failed in her attempt to be elected Bishop of Embu Diocese. In October of the same year the ACK’s House of Bishops declared a five-year moratorium on the possibility of appointing and consecrating women as bishops in the East African nation.

Onyango, currently a lecturer in Kenya’s St Paul’s University’s department of Theology and Development studies, has been a canon in Bondo Diocese since February 2018. She chairs the Africa Centre for Biblical Equity and is a founder-member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.

Speaking in Bondo, 431 kilometres from the Kenyan capital Nairobi, the assistant bishop said it was a historic moment for her and the church. “I see a vibrant Church with two pillars. First, spiritual nurture and revival, grounded on empowerment through continuous training of clergy and laity. Secondly, a well-managed Church, through proper administration and management.”

She added: “I am thankful to be asked to participate in a well-structured pastoral ministry focusing on marriage, family and gender issues, including empowerment of widows. I particularly expect us to offer hope for those shackled by gender-based violence.”

Mwaniki, congratulated Dr. Onyango and said: “The Diocese of Bondo has just chosen to implement Article IV of the ACK Constitution in recognition and acknowledgement that male and female are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Leadership qualities are bestowed by God upon female and male as God desires, but unfortunately for a long time, ACK has regarded top Church leadership positions in the ordained Ministry as a male preserve. Thanks to Bishop Kodia for leading the way. We hope and pray that others will follow.”

Dr. Mbogo added: “Leadership is intergenerational. We are called to work together. There is space for each one of us to serve. I ask my other sisters not to shy off from ministry.  There may be barriers and difficulties, some of which may not be overcome in this generation.  But we shall overcome.”

Prof. Esther Mombo from St. Paul’s University’s Center for Christian-Muslim Relations in Eastleigh, noted that the development opens the door for other women to be nominated and elected. “The ACK has approved women bishops. Nyanza region and, more so, the Diocese of Bondo leads in the move to open space for women at the apex of leadership.”

Among those welcoming the news were Dr. Onyango’s former students, the Rev. Rebecca Bartocho of the Reformed Church of East Africa’s Kitengela Parish, and the Rev. Nolavy Arisoa of the Anglican Church of Madagascar’s Diocese of Toliara.

“The Church in Kenya is embracing change and having faith in women leadership. My own RCEA should not be left behind in embracing more of this,” said Bartocho.

Arisoa added: “I praise God for her elevation! We are still struggling with ordaining women in Madagascar. I am, since 2019, the first female priest in all of Madagascar. Pray for us!”

The Rev. Canon Francis Omondi, who serves at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi, acknowledged that that the ACK is entering into a new phase of existence, but said it may be too early to assess Dr. Onyango’s impact.

“An assistant bishop has little influence to shape direction. Had she been tipped for diocesan bishop, that would have allowed room for some evaluation. Members of the Diocese of Bondo’s Standing Committee had initially been clear that the diocese has neither the capacity nor need for [an assistant bishop]. They said only the Synod could declare a NO,” he observed.

Dr. Onyango, who will be consecrated early March upon approval by the House of Bishops, obtained her doctorate in philosophy from the University of Wales in the United Kingdom. She earned her master’s degree from the Asian Centre of Theological studies and a bachelor of divinity degree from St. Paul’s United Theological College, the forerunner of modern-day St. Paul’s University. She further holds a certificate in ecumenism from the Ecumenical Institute of Graduate Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

The soft-spoken but firm priest has published extensively and taught on women, missions and Church history.

Her husband, Mr. Apollo Onyango, is a retired high school teacher. According to Mr. Onyango, her social interests include reading and documenting new ideas. Their two children, Margret Nyakeno Yegon and Patrick Ngoye Onyango, are adults. They are parents in-law to Edmond Kirui Yegon and grandparents to Taita Kipchumba Yegon.

Africa’s first female Anglican bishop, the Rt. Rev. Ellinah Wamukoya, is also from Kenya. She was elected as the fifth Bishop of the Diocese of Swaziland on July 18, 2012.

Jesse Masai is a freelance journalist based in Limuru, Kenya.