Africa’s Six Anglican Women Bishops

A product of Britain’s colonial period, the Church of England has 14 of its 46 churches in Africa. Many of those churches severely restrict the role of women within the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

But a sea change began a decade ago with the election of Ellinah Ntombi Wamukoya in 2012 as bishop of Swaziland, a diocese of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa also known as Eswatini. Since then, more women have broken through the glass ceiling and have been elected bishop in a continent where the church has an estimated population of 40 million.

In January 2024, Africa’s six female Anglican bishops met for the first time in a weeklong gathering where they called for authentic leadership, empowerment and mentoring for African women.

The six met at St. Julian’s Centre in Limuru, near Nairobi, where an inaugural Africa Anglican sisters’ journeying retreat was being held. The theme of their meeting was “African Anglican women bishops embarking on a journey of faith: Defying conventions and leading with grace.”

“We are scattered—six of us—in the whole continent,” said Bishop Rose Okeno of the Butere diocese in western Kenya. “We have never had time to meet just to pray, to know each other and fellowship.”

Okeno is a rural diocese serving mostly small-scale farmers and traders. When ascending to the post in the summer of 2021 she commented, “I see it as a calling from God. There could be some challenges, especially given how our society views women, but it’s majority men who elected me. So this is a confirmation that I am their leader. I am confident.”

Earlier that year, scholar and researcher the Rev. Emily Onyango became Kenya’s first female Anglican bishop and the first in the Anglican church in East and Central Africa.

“I may be the first female bishop in ACK (Anglican Church of Kenya) from the Diocese of Bondo, and may the doors for other female bishops be open. I will join indeed a house of brother bishops but pray they will remember to include me as a sister bishop,” Onyango said. Despite attempts to stop her ordination, Onyango assumed the position, which she holds to this day.

At the January meeting were Okeno, Onyango, Bishops Vicentia Kgabe and Dalcy Dlamini of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, Bishop Elizabeth Awut Ngor of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, and Bishop Filomena Tete Estêvão of the Anglican Church of Angola and Mozambique. Never before has Africa laid claim to six female bishops at the same time, much less having those six appear at the same place together.

At the meeting, the six spoke out on what they called the triple threat of gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. They rebuked Anglican churches in Africa for their silence on these issues which affect many African women.

“We note that the affected are our congregants who could be described as perpetrators and survivors of the aforementioned triple threats and demand of us to intervene,” they said in a statement issued at the end of their meeting.

They also acknowledged humankind’s responsibility for damage to the environment: “We remain well aware that our actions as human beings have impacted negatively on the climate.”

Of the historic meeting, Esther Mombo, a professor of theology at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya, said, “They are unique women in leadership in a church that has not accepted women.”

That uniqueness may not last long however, for according to Jesse Mugambi, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Nairobi, the growing trend is for women to take key positions in the church. He feels it’s late coming, however, since the most serious and committed people in churches are often women and young people.

“The old idea that religions have to be led by an old man has to change. If we delay, we will pay for it,” he said.


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