This is a pretty shocking sign of the times: Reuters reports that a prominent African Anglican bishop hired to run a Dartmouth spirituality/ethics/social justice foundation has been dismissed before starting his job because the Anglican Church in Malawi, of which he is a part, defends traditional Christian teaching on the moral status of homosexuality. What caused the ruckus? Bishop James Tengatenga’s strong criticism years ago of the Episcopal Church’s election of an openly gay bishop. From the story:
Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon said the school revoked the appointment because “the controversy (Tengatenga’s comments) created have compromised his ability to serve effectively.”
Tengatenga had been named as dean of the school’s William Jewett Tucker Foundation, which seeks to educate Dartmouth students “for lives of purpose and ethical leadership, rooted in service, spirituality and social justice,” according to the college’s website.
The appointment drew criticism after it was announced last month because of Tengatenga’s leadership of an Anglican church in Africa that opposed gay rights. He served as diocesan bishop of Southern Malawi and chair of the Worldwide Anglican Communion’s Anglican Consultative Council, a network of 44 churches.
“The issue is that he has championed the church’s official position against homosexuality,” Dartmouth junior Andrew Longhi wrote in a blog post on The Huffington Post website. “The tendency to discriminate against (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people is so diametrically opposed to how I understand faith and religion that selecting a ‘social conservative’ to this post baffles me.”
Get this: poor old Tengatenga kowtowed to gay rights, but that wasn’t enough to save his job:
Tengatenga said in a statement following the appointment, but before his hiring was blocked, that his views on homosexuality had changed.
“Let me state unequivocally and categorically that I consider all people equal regardless of their sexual orientation,” he wrote. “As is the case with many people, my ideas about homosexuality have evolved over time.”
On Thursday, he reacted to Dartmouth’s decision.
“I am disappointed,” he said by e-mail. “It’s a sad for the liberalism they claim. It is what it is. Life goes on.”
So, now he no longer has a job, but no longer has his theological integrity either. That’s not fair, actually; maybe he came to support gay marriage and gay rights for reasons having nothing to do with a quid pro quo for naming him to the Dartmouth post (a Tengatenga critic at Dartmouth thinks his statement was opportunistic, not genuine). Still, the African bishop abased himself fully before the P.C. gods at Dartmouth, and still got kicked in the teeth.
The Boston Globe’s report quotes critics blasting Dartmouth for its privilege and parochialism:
“You are asking the impossible of someone coming out of that African situation,” said the Rev. Nicholas Henderson, a parish priest in West London, an editor of Anglicanism.org, and a vice president of Modern Church, the oldest theological society in the Anglican communion. “Just rescinding that [appointment] is to show a lamentable lack of understanding of circumstances that are outside the confines of privileged North America.”
It turns out that Bp Tengatenga is actually fairly liberal by the standards of a continent where popular opinion is strongly antigay:
The Rev. Kapya John Kaoma, who has conducted extensive research on religion and sexuality in Malawi and other African countries for Political Research Associates, said Tengatenga is widely considered a friend to gay activists there. In 2010, Tengatenga organized bishops from Southern Africa to put out a statement countering an assertion by other African bishops encouraging governments to criminalize homosexuality, Kaoma said.
In 2005, Henderson was elected bishop of a diocese in Malawi, but a majority of prelates in the Church of the Province of Central Africa voted against confirming him after conservatives attacked Henderson for his affiliation with Modern Church, which promotes liberal theology, and his support for the gay and lesbian communities.
Tengatenga, Henderson said, was among the minority of bishops who supported his election.
“This is a big blow, because it leaves African activists on the ground wondering if they can work with Westerners,” Kaoma said. “All human rights defenders in Africa are working under very, very hard conditions, and the violence against them is always there. What they have done is exposed Bishop Tengatenga and then dumped him back into Malawi.”
Bishop Ian Douglas of the Diocese of Connecticut, who has known Tengatenga for years and serves with him on the Anglican Consultative Council, a worldwide representative elected body, said that Tengatenga played a crucial role in keeping the Anglican Communion from splitting apart in the last decade, following Robinson’s election and controversies over other issues.
“It’s an incredible lost opportunity — I would go so far as to say a travesty to justice with respect to James and a compromise of what academic institutions are supposed to stand for with respect to trying to seek a higher truth through academic freedom and genuine conversation,” Douglas said.
According to Anglican News, this is what Bishop Tengatenga has been up to for the past couple of decades:
Bishop Tengatenga has been heavily involved in public life in Malawi primarily as Bishop of Southern Malawi since 1998 and most recently as Chair of the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), a civil society interfaith organisation consisting of Christians and Muslims. PAC was instrumental in leading Malawi’s transition from one-party dictatorship to political pluralism between 1992 and 1994 when the country’s first democratic elections in 30 years were held.
The man helped lead a nation to a peaceful transition from dictatorship to pluralist democracy, and led efforts to keep peace between Muslims and Christians in his country, even as Christian-Muslim conflict threatens to tear other African nations apart. And, as I said, he recently issued a public statement affirming his support for same-sex marriage and gay rights. But he failed to hold the same views to the same degree as American academics and students living in a small town in New Hampshire, who concluded that he has nothing to teach anybody about spirituality, ethics, and social justice.
What a gutless disgrace the Dartmouth leadership under president Philip Hanlon have shown themselves in this matter. But this is a sign of the McCarthyite times. If a man of Bishop Tengatenga’s experience and stature can be cashiered by a college over something like this, it sends a message to other Africans and traditional Christians. Any support for traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality, even if you have changed your mind, will be enough to get you blacklisted, no matter what else you have to offer to a university and its community.