Yesterday morning we took the bus 35km from Nairobi to Machakos to meet the Bishop Joseph Kanuku. He is an old friend of Michael Kimindu, and this was presumably why he had agreed to meet both of us. Michael had been one of three candidates for Machakos when Bishop James was elected.
As we walked through the compound gate a woman rushed across and asked if we would like tea. Before we had crossed the compound and reached the diocesan office door, she had returned with two mugs of tea for us.
We arrived and were greeted by the bishop and invited into his personal office. He disappeared and returned with two women carrying folders and notebooks. I assumed they were staff members or secretaries who were there to record our meeting. In fact they came from the Cooperative Bank and the bishop proceeded to discuss the diocesan accounts with them without introducing us or explaining who they were. He was charming with them.
When they left, he went and found the Dean and having both arrived, invited Michael to introduce me and explain the purpose of our visit. In African style, Michael began by recounting how Bishop Joseph had helped find his daughter a school place and had adopted her almost as his own child.
Eventually the bishop interrupted, saying he was busy and had many people waiting to meet him. He turned to me and said: “We are not accepting money from the Americans to promote homosexuality.” I wasn’t sure how to respond to what felt like a very confrontational opening but began by saying that in the context of our meeting, two things were important. I am a gay Anglican priest and I am working for equality and understanding for LGBTI members of the Anglican Church.
The bishop said he didn’t believe there was any such thing as a homosexual identity and that all his teaching was based on and found in the Bible and he wouldn’t accept anything found outside the Bible. I tried to explain how in the core of my being when I was 11 years old, through emotional attraction to another boy, I knew I was attracted to other boys as my class mates were being attracted to the opposite sex. The bishop didn’t believe we should follow our emotions – in that case, the church would accept people who were adulterers, prostitutes and thieves – he trotted out the usual list – and then the usual, ‘we are all sinners’. I said I did not accept that I was a sinner because I was gay and that I was insulted that he was likening my identity to being a thief or a prostitute.
The conversation became more intense with Michael and the Dean both trying to join in. At one point the bishop said he had a gift of healing and laid hands on prostitutes and thieves and healed them and also laid hands on homosexuals and healed them. The conversation moved on – and came to an end – before I was able to say to him, here I am, a homosexual, I want you to cross the room, lay hands on me and heal me right now of my homosexuality
Instead I told him that I was an adult, I was perfectly well-aware of my identity, that I represented a ministry conforming with the Anglican Communion’s listening to the experience of lesbian and gay people. Around that moment, the Dean stepped in and told the bishop that they were wasting their time and the bishop should dismiss us. Michael was astonished that the Dean should intervene and tell the bishop what to do. The bishop said he would pray with us, which he did, and then, all smiles, dismissed us.
Throughout the encounter the bishop had shown a depth of anger and bitterness, ignorance and prejudice that amazed me, given he had offered us an appointment and we had travelled from Nairobi to meet him. There was nothing Christian in his welcome, and despite his assertion that he was a loving man, no love in his feelings towards me. Here is a bishop, a senior Anglican, who is incapable of containing his feelings and prejudice and behaved in an aggressive and dismissive way.
Michael and I walked back to the compound gate, when another woman stopped us and asked if she could say hello. She’s had joined our bus at the Machakos junction. She really did just want to say hello, but with encouragement, revealed that she was a woman deacon in the diocese. Michael gave her his Other Sheep Ministries card and she responded openly. The woman at the gate greeted us warmly as we left and we invited the deacon to join us for lunch.
She had been ordained 6 months ago, had trained at the Church Army College and was in the diocese as a Church Army missionary priest. Her home town was far outside Machakos diocese. She said she had a good lesbian friend whom she had met at college, a single woman. I was curious about the acceptance of women in ministry, given that the bishop had told me he accepted the whole teaching of the Bible. It was other women who were most reluctant to accept her ministry, and that in a church were 70% were women.
Many prostitutes were members of her congregation, with single mothers and some single fathers. She wasn’t aware of any who were lesbian or gay, but they would be equally welcome, and communion at the church was open to all, because God would never reject those who often lived at the margins of society. The prostitutes were some of the most faithful and responsive members of the congregation, she said. She baptised their children.
Now, all this is against the teaching and practice of the Kenyan Church, though I’d earlier learnt that many ignored the teaching. Perhaps the same happens in England – the deacon is operating her own don’t ask, don’t tell policy, and could understand why the Church of England had often done the same with LGBTI people. She was deeply authentic, open, loving and pastoral, in dramatic contrast to her bishop who was hostile and judgmental.
As Michael and I journeyed home on the bus, we reflected on our encounters with bishop and dean and the woman deacon and gatekeeper, and we smiled together. The deacon is just 27, married to a Luhya, confident in the Christ-like values of her ministry. The episcopate is open to women in Kenya but none have yet been elected. One day, our woman deacon friend will make a truly wonderful, pastoral bishop, teaching by example. She will highlight the hollowness of the ministries of those allied to the Global South who claim to uphold the Gospel but are in fact wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are deeply ignorant, and blindly unaware of the many LGBTI people faithfully living the Gospel and ministering and worshipping under the radar in Kenya.