By Mark Michael
The Rev. Charles Okunya Oode, a former priest of the Anglican Church of Uganda’s Diocese of Kumi, was consecrated on June 26 as bishop of the Reformed Anglican Church of Uganda’s new Diocese of the Upper Nile. The service, which featured consecrators from several continents and drew thousands of congregants to the Eastern Ugandan city where Okunya previously served, is the latest flashpoint in one of the first major schisms faced by the conservative evangelical province, Africa’s second-largest Anglican church
Okunya, who had engaged in a two-year legal battle with the Church of Uganda over its disqualification of his appointment as Bishop of Kumi in 2019, is the fifth bishop to be consecrated for the continuing Anglican church, which was founded in 2020 by the Most Rev. Jonathan Kyangasha, a former Church of Uganda archdeacon.
In November 2019, Okunya, who had served for 15 years as a priest in the Diocese of Kumi and as principal of the Kumi Bible College, was elected as the diocese’s second bishop by the Church of Uganda’s House of Bishops. The Most Rev. Stanley Ntagali, then the church’s primate, canceled Okunya’s consecration a month later, after a petition was lodged by a group called Concerned Christians of Kumi Diocese, alleging that Okunya was a polygamist and had borne children out of wedlock.
Subsequent investigations by the Church of Uganda revealed that Okunya had lied about his age on materials submitted to church authorities. The Ugandan church’s canons require that bishops be at least 45, and because Okunya was too young, his election was nullified by the church’s House of Bishops in February 2020, and he was disqualified for standing for election as bishop in the future.
Okunya’s supporters, who include many of his former students, launched protests across the diocese in response to the House of Bishops’ decision, disrupting services in several churches and threatening violence. Police arrested 30 protesters at St. Philip’s Cathedral in Ngora on February 23, 2020. Ten months later, a gang of protesters stormed the church again, stealing money and assaulting five congregants and two clergymen, including the Ven. Martin Ejiet, Archdeacon of Ngora.
A January 2021 report from Uganda Radio Network indicated that Okunya’s supporters then controlled six of the diocese’s ten archdeaconries, which had stopped sending funds to diocesan headquarters.
The protest movement climaxed in an attempted “self-consecration” of Okunya as Bishop of Kumi in January 2022. Police shut down the unauthorized service at St. Philip’s Cathedral, arresting over 50 of his supporters.
Okunya also contested the House of Bishops’ decision in a lawsuit against the current Ugandan primate, Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba, that was eventually dismissed by Justice Musa Ssekaana, of the High Court in Kampala in July 2021. Some of his backers also filed legal challenges against the election of the Rev. Michael Okwii Eskan, who was chosen for the see of Kumi in February 2022.
In April, shortly after Okwii’s consecration, Okunya resigned his position as the Diocese of Kumi’s director of education services, a post he had continued to hold throughout the conflict over his election. He said in his resignation letter that he planned to pursue further studies and “to take leave until God communicates a further course of action.”
A few weeks later, Okunya was formally received into the Reformed Anglican Church of Uganda at a large service in Kumi. Archbishop Kyangasha announced at the service that Okunya was the bishop-elect of the church’s Diocese of the Upper Nile, whose territory includes the Diocese of Kumi. Okunya’s supporters claimed to be raising 250 million Ugandan shillings ($68,000 USD) to cover the costs of his vehicle and consecration robes.
Okunya’s new archbishop is also a veteran of Church of Uganda scandals. In 2017, while serving as an archdeacon and theological college tutor in the Diocese of Ruwenzori in Western Uganda, Kyangasha was sacked for mishandling church funds.
Shortly thereafter, Kyangasha affiliated with the tiny Episcopal World Wide Church, and later was recognized as a bishop of the African Orthodox Church, one of the oldest continuing Anglican churches, which was founded by a group of Black American Episcopalians and the noted Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey in 1918.
The Reformed Anglican Church of Uganda was formally established in January 2020 under his leadership, and has since grown to five dioceses. It claims fellowship with various continuing Anglican churches around the world. Bishops from various parts of Africa as well as the United States and Japan were expected to participate in Okunya’s consecration.
The Independent reported that thousands of people attended his consecration service, including over 100 lay readers and “a host of clergymen from Kumi diocese.” But, the report continued, “it’s not clear whether all the clergy in attendance will be joining the Reformed Anglican Church.”