13 December 2012

Uganda: Feature - Is Uganda Ready for a Woman Bishop?

The recent consecration of the first female bishop in Swaziland has renewed debate about the future of female priests in Church service. Last month, Ellinah Wamukoya, 61, became Southern Africa's first female bishop, in the small, conservative kingdom of Swaziland.

Her election came at a time when the Anglican Church synod in Canterbury had again rejected ordaining female bishops. However, there's some ray of hope for female bishops, after the pro-women bishop advocates in Canterbury lost the vote narrowly.

Uganda is known to defy the Church of England especially on homosexuality; but whether it can allow the consecration of women bishops remains doubtful, although Archbishop-elect Stanley Ntagali says there is no problem with the consecration.

The Church constitution, laws and canons make both men and women suitable for all positions in church but that has largely remained on paper. Rev Diana Mirembe Nkesiga, the vicar of All Saints Cathedral Nakasero, says becoming bishop is still riddled with encumbrances because the House of Bishops that makes the final decision has no woman.

"The natural thing that comes to their [bishops'] mind is always a male bishop," she says, adding that women representation in Church structures like the House of Clergy and House of Laity that vote bishops is also still low.

Another female priest who does not want to be named says society and the Church of Uganda have for long been ready for female bishops.

"We have always been ready but the system hasn't given way for women to take up top positions in the Church," she says, "I don't think our church is ready for us." Another female clergy agrees: "Amongst our fellow clergy, I am not sure." She attributes the marginal gains to the Holy Spirit, "Even in South Africa, some people tried to resist but they couldn't resist the hand of God."

This woman, who prides in 16 years of church service, says: "The issues are cultural, tagged with the Bible. The Bible was written in a cultural setting and Jesus respected the culture at the time."

The cause

She believes Jesus couldn't move with the women on his extended evangelism missions because of the nature of cultural and societal expectations that relegated women to domestic work and rearing children.

In her long service, she has never led a parish, "Yet men junior to me in experience and training come, find me in ministry and are picked up to become vicars in charge of a parish."

"Most of us [women priests] are assistants, we have to serve under somebody," she said. "There are few women vicars, archdeacons and diocesan secretaries in Uganda."

She estimates that women ordained in pastoral service in the Anglican Church are about 200. Another female priest, who didn't want to be named recalled that at one point, a lady was fronted to replace William Magambo, the retired bishop of West Ankole diocese.

But this was strongly resisted. Magambo was replaced by Bishop Yona Katoneene. She says society is often quick to see mistakes in women than in men. Whilst she admits that women have problems that could affect their role in ministry like pregnancy and marital obligations, she says that even those who "aren't married and will never get pregnant and, have children aren't promoted."

Despite this, women are not only the majority but are more active in Church activities than men. Training of women priests can be selective. She for, instance, says that when she sought to join priesthood, she was first rejected and was only admitted when officials at her institution specifically asked for female students who would head female dormitories and represent women on some committees. She doubts that the Church of Uganda can stand alone and allow women in top ministry positions like they have done on the homosexuality issue.

"I don't think so, the gay thing is different. Being an abomination, there was consensus against it."

"The issue of women involvement in church leadership has men beneficiaries who want to maintain the status quo," she said.

The solution, she says, is in having more women joining the ministry to increase their prospects. "If we had several deacons, archdeacons, [and] diocesan secretaries, it would be better but there are few women in those positions."

"Whether we are bishops or not, the role of women in ministry is vital like their pastoral care," she says.

Rev Nkesiga shares her optimism.

"The possibility [of getting a woman bishop] is growing especially on the side of the laity. It will happen, only that we don't know when."

Church speaks

Rev Barfoot repeats the narrative that the constitution and canons of the Church of Uganda allow for women to be made bishops, "It's possible but we are still waiting for the day when a woman will be elected a bishop."

She also moved to defend the House of Bishops, saying it's not to blame. "The House of Bishops receives two names from whom it chooses a bishop for the diocese. It chooses from the names forwarded to it by the diocese."

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