Amid the hesitation in Africa’s Anglican provinces, Kenya appoints the first two female bishops

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) – In a predominantly Anglican region in western Kenya, a long-time priestess elected Anglican bishop was controversial.

Rev. Rose Okeno, 52, will lead Butere, a rural diocese where the majority of the faithful are small farmers and traders. Okeno was favored by more than three-quarters of the electoral college delegates, beating two male contenders. Her episcopal ordination is planned for September.

Okeno’s election, shortly after Kenya’s first appointment of a woman bishop in January, underscores a new trend in Kenya and Africa where more women clergy are called to Church leadership positions.

“I see it as a calling from God,” Okeno, who has served the Anglican Church for more than 20 years, told Religion News Service in a telephone interview. “There might be some challenges, especially when you consider how our society views women, but it’s the majority men who voted for me. So this is a confirmation that I am their leader. I am self-confident.”

Earlier this year, Rev Emily Onyango was ordained assistant bishop of Bondo, a diocese on the edge of Lake Victoria. The 59-year-old scientist and researcher became Kenya’s first Anglican bishop and the first in the Anglican Church in East and Central Africa.

“I could be the first female bishop in the ACK (Anglican Church of Kenya) from the Diocese of Bondo and may the doors be open to other female bishops. I will actually join a house of bishops, but pray that they will remember to accept me as sister bishop, ”Onyango said in her acceptance speech on January 20th.

Kenya, red, is in East Africa. Card courtesy of Creative Commons

In 2012 Rev. Ellinah Ntombi Wamukoya became Africa’s first Anglican bishop when she was elected Bishop of Swaziland. Wamukoya died of COVID-19 in January this year.

In 2016, the South Sudanese primate Daniel Deng Bul consecrated pastor Elizabeth Awut Ngor as Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Rumbek.

While the Kenyan canon allows female bishops, this is in contradiction to a moratorium of the Global Anglican Future Conference, which does not allow female bishops. The 2018 moratorium allows men to be ordained to the episcopate until a consensus on the matter has been reached. Most of the African provinces are affiliated with GAFCON, but the dioceses in the provinces are independent.

Religious experts predict that the continent will change as more and more young women become priestesses in the church. Some Church clerics note that it is only a matter of time before the number of female bishops increases.

The Anglican Church in Africa has an estimated following of 40 million, with the highest concentration in Nigeria and Uganda. Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania also have sizeable populations. Most of these provinces are conservative.

According to Jesse Mugambi, professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Nairobi, the transition of women to key positions in the Church is a growing trend. However, he feels that it is too late as the most serious and committed people in the churches are often women and young people.

“The old idea that religions must be led by an old man has to change. If we delay it, we will pay for it, ”said Mugambi, noting that women are the vast majority of most parishes.

Like many provinces in Africa, the Church of Kenya approved the ordination of women to priesthood in the 1990s, but the number of women becoming priests has lagged because of the patriarchal nature of the church, according to Rev. Joseph Njakai, an Anglican priest in Mount Kenya Western Diocese.

“There is no resolution in the entire Church to appoint female bishops. The issue is very controversial and there is resistance, ”said Njakai.

When Onyango was elected, attempts were made to stop her ordination. Six lay members of the Church petitioned the land’s primate for the election to be non-procedural, saying they had disregarded canon law. They also alleged that the electoral bishop used blackmail, threats and intimidation.

“There are no solid arguments against the ordination of women as bishops in the Kenyan Church. This is how we inherited the Church. He is everything in the priesthood, ”said Njakai, highlighting the division between conservatives and liberals.

“The dioceses in western Kenya are liberal and ordain women. Most of the Kenyan Anglican dioceses are conservative, ”he added.

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