Monday, November 25, 2013

Eyebrows, Up! EDS Courts African Bishop Spurned by Dartmouth

In July of this year, the Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga, Anglican Bishop of Southern Malawi, was offered an appointment as Dean of the William Jewett Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth College. A month later, the offer was rescinded. On November 15, Episcopal Divinity School, with the support of the Episcopal Dioceses of Connecticut and Massachusetts, announced that Bishop Tengatenga had been offered a six-month presidential fellowship. It’s enough to give LGBTQ activists whiplash, since the withdrawal of Dartmouth’s offer was due to protests by campus LGBTQ activists, and Episcopal Divinity School is the most progressive, pro-LGBTQ seminary of the Episcopal Church.

On August 15, the Boston Globe reported on the rescinding of the offer from Dartmouth:
"His [Bishop Tengatenga’s] appointment had sparked a campus controversy as word spread that he had sharply criticized the election of the Right Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, and that he had asserted in 2011 that the Anglican dioceses in Malawi remained 'totally against homosexuality.'" 
These two statements are technically true, and are surrounded by some very complicated context.

The withdrawal of the offer to Bishop Tengatenga sparked a letter of support with 14 signatories, including the Most. Rev. Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa; the Right Rev. Ian T. Douglas, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut; and the Very Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, President and Dean of Episcopal Divinity School. The letter, which was published in The Living Church, reads, in part:
"The President’s decision brought applause from some in the Dartmouth community. Others were appalled, as are we. The action represents a gross injustice to an individual who would have made an ideal person to provide moral and ethical leadership at the College. It casts serious doubts on what is being learned in American universities when members of those communities fail to distinguish between public positions of institutions and the views of individuals who participate in those institutions. It reflects badly on western human rights advocates who consciously or unconsciously engage in forms of cultural imperialism that undermine their own success and credibility by demanding proofs identical to their own kind and, in this instance, by also ignoring the voices of Africans and church leaders who have known and worked with Tengatenga in some cases for decades."
Andrew Longhi, a junior at Dartmouth, is among those who were not convinced of Bishop Tengatenga’s support of LGBTQ rights. In an article in the Huffington Post, he states, "Tengatenga's appointment is deeply disrespectful to the Dartmouth LGBT community and its allies, who need leaders whom they can trust and learn from."

The withdrawal of Bishop Tengatenga’s appointment as Dean of the Tucker Foundation left the bishop without a job (he had already resigned his episcopate in Southern Malawi) and his public statements in favor of LGBT rights (after his appointment but before the controversy surfaced) left him in a difficult position should he try to return to Malawi.

Episcopal Divinity School stepped into the breach by offering Bishop Tengatenga a six-month Presidential Fellowship. EDS’ press release gives examples of the Bishop’s support of LGBTQ rights in his context:
"Bishop Tengatenga’s long record of support for LGBTQ rights in his native Malawi and across Africa was a decisive factor in inviting him to EDS as a Presidential Fellow. In 2007, Bishop Tengatenga opposed a move by church leaders in Africa to cut ties with the U.S. Episcopal Church because of its support of LGBTQ clergy, and in 2010, together with bishops from Central and Southern Africa, wrote a strong counter-statement to an anti-LGBTQ communique from church leaders at the All-African Anglican Bishops' Conference."
So, what are we to conclude about Bishop Tengatenga’s support for LGBTQ rights? Personally, I am persuaded by the testimony of those who know him; people whom I know personally and whose LGBTQ activist credentials I trust. Thanks to EDS, we will have opportunities to hear more from Bishop Tengatenga himself. I look forward to learning more.

Marie Alford-Harkey is Province I Coordinator of Integrity and Deputy Director of the Religious Institute. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School.

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