Making women bishops in Kenya, the impact on GAFCON and implications for human sexuality divisions

The Star newspaper, Kenya, carried an article on 30 December 2014 by Canon Francis Omondi, a priest in the Anglican Church of Kenya.

Canon Omondi writes in the context of the recent appointment of the Rev Libby Lane as Bishop Suffragan of Stockport, the first ever woman bishop in the Church of England. He says her appointment will without doubt excite those who have pushed to have women bishops in the Anglican Church of Kenya [ACK].

However, he says the news that the CoE ‘mother church’ has changed its long held position on women bishops will equally irritate conservatives within the ACK who cling to the robes of tradition. Evangelical leaning Kenyan bishops oppose women in the episcopate. Another significant influential group thinks the appointment of women should have followed the approval of the ordination of women into priesthood in 1990.

Canon Omondi says there is a growing tide of support for women bishops among Christians and Kenyan Anglicans are visibly ready for women bishops. The Diocese of Maseno West, in their August 2014 ordinary synod session, approved unanimously the ordination of women bishops, fully supported by the Bishop, the Rt Rev Joseph Wasonga. In a more significant development the Rev Canon Rosemary Mbogo, the Provincial Secretary of ACK was formally nominated for election in Embu, the second woman to be nominated following the Rev Dr Lydia Mwaniki in Kirinyaga diocese. The Rt Rev Ellinah Wamukoya is Africa’s first Anglican woman bishop, elected as fifth Bishop of the Diocese of Swaziland on July 18, 2012.

There are, however, much wider implications and ramifications for any decision taken in Kenya to elect a first woman bishop, and Canon Omondi goes on to outline the impact this would have for GAFCON, ACNA and the working relationships with Provinces such as Nigeria who do not ordain women. The task could be daunting, he says.

Bishop Bill Atwood, Bishop of the Anglican Church in North America [ACNA], warned that the direction Kenya takes will impact on other provinces in the Global Anglican Future Conference [GAFCON]. Writing in Global View in October, Atwood reported that “… bishops warned of 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 because it is such a high priority for a significant number of leaders.”

Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto Canada, observed that “within North America, churches like the Anglican Church in North America that have separated from the Episcopal and Canadian churches, are moving in a direction that may well prohibit women’s ordination altogether.”

Radner warned that “the already existing divide between these groups and Canterbury is likely to widen. Ordained 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 Primate of Kenya, Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, although Chairman of the conservative GAFCON Primates’ Council, supports moves to ensure that the path is clear to enable AKC to elect its first woman bishop. Last year he wrote to the bishops of the Anglican Church of Kenya asking that they approve amendments to the language of the church’s constitution erasing any doubts that women priests are eligible for election to the episcopate.

The question of the ordination of women as priests, let alone bishops, is a potential make or break issue for GAFCON. It’s a divisive issue for ACNA and a potent issue of division between the powerful Nigerian Church which opposes the ordination of women and other African Provinces which do ordain women and will remain fully committed to their full inclusion. Some of the Kenyan bishops who support women in the episcopate also support a change in Church attitudes to LGBTI people.

It often looks to those of us campaigning for the full inclusion of LGBTI people that we face an incredibly powerful and intransigent conservative block in GAFCON, a block which repeatedly claims ultimate power because it ‘represents’ the majority in the Anglican Communion. In reality, GACON faces a challenge potentially far more divisive than human sexuality. The place of women in the ministry of the Church affects 51% of the world’s population. Divisions over the ordination of women could be the downfall of GAFCON and change the whole dynamic within the Anglican Communion.

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