Anglican leader James Tengatenga, free to speak, opens up on homophobia
Photo credit: Ken Williams/SDGLN
James Tengatenga in Palm Springs, Calif. in March 2014
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – “Hi, my name is James.”
He looks like your typical tourist in the desert oasis that is Palm Springs, Calif., wearing white walking shorts and a casual shirt in a green-and-white plaid. No socks, no belt. No pretense. He flashes a friendly smile and extends his right hand, giving a warm welcome to a stranger he only knows from the Internet.
But James Tengatenga is not an ordinary man. He is man of God, the former Anglican Bishop of Southern Malawi who gave up a comfortable life in Africa to take a prestigious post at Dartmouth University but only to see his job yanked away from him after a group of protesters headed by the Dartmouth NAACP accused him of homophobia. Never mind that numerous people, gay and straight, rushed to Tengatenga’s defense, but to no avail.
This is the same Tengatenga who last Sunday gave the blessing at the 60th birthday party for the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, an openly gay Episcopal priest who is known around the world for his activism on behalf of LGBT people who are persecuted in 80 countries, including Malawi. This is the same Tengatenga who networked with LGBT leaders and their straight allies at an informal gathering in Palm Springs, and the same Tengatenga who gave an unprecedented two-hour interview with this LGBT media organization – his first major interview since the controversy erupted last summer.
That sounds real homophobic, doesn’t it?
A global leader with the Anglican Communion
James Tengatenga was born on April 7, 1958 in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and is of Malawi descent. He attended seminary at Zomba Theological College in Malawi and at The Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He was consecrated as a bishop in Malawi in 1998, where he became known for his HIV ministry and for his unwavering support for LGBT and human rights.
He has a Ph.D. (Church and State Relations) from the University of Malawi, D.D (honoris causa) from The Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and a D.D. (honoris causa) from the General Theological Seminary in New York, according to the Episcopal Divinity School.
Tengatenga is a leading player in the 80-million-member Anglican Community spread across the globe. He serves as chairman of the Anglican Consultative Council and chairman of the council’s standing committee, representing 44 member churches from around the world. His position on the council, which gathers every three years, makes him a powerful figure among Anglicans and someone whose words carry clout not only in Africa but on an international stage.
He was elected chairman of the council in 2009 for a six-year term, which will conclude at the 2016 gathering in Zambia. Tengatenga says he will not stand for re-election, and is ready to pass to torch to someone else.
After the Dartmouth debacle, Tengatenga became a Presidential Fellow with the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., a six-month term that will expire in July. After that, he says, he will be unemployed unless he can find another job, as he prefers, in academia. “I’ve done enough leadership,” he said. “I enjoy influencing the future leaders.”
Does this mean he will be a man without a country? Tengatenga says yes and no. “No, in a sense that I can go back [to Malawi] — but to what?” he said as we lounged in the shade next to one of the five swimming pools at the modestly-priced spa and resort hotel where we all were staying. “I would be a nuisance to my successor as bishop because I would not be restricted to speaking my mind. At least now, it’s not an option.”
But if Tengatenga doesn’t find a job in academia in the United States, he will be rootless. “In that sense, I would be a citizen of the world,” he said. “I’m still an Anglican priest and a bishop, and people cannot take that away from me. I can always go back to doing that.”
Reflecting on his newfound freedom
After the Dartmouth controversy, Tengatenga says he had a lot of time for reflection and saw the most positive thing that has happened is that he suddenly has the freedom to speak his mind, not having to worry what the Church will think or forced to play the delicate political game of being a progressive Anglican leader on a continent where homophobia runs rampant.
“I don’t have an obligation to be guarded anymore,” Tengatenga said. “My obligation now is to me. For better or worse, freedom to be with my wife. Work has its own obligations, and that meant being away from home a lot.”
During his weekend in Palm Springs, Tengatenga seemed happy and contented. At dinner Saturday night at the boisterous and crowded Lulu restaurant, Tengatenga was the center of attention but still found time to show public affection for quiet-spoken wife Joselyn, or “Josie,” gently stroking her hair and whispering in her ear.
About the Dartmouth controversy
Tengatenga respectfully declined to talk about the Dartmouth debacle because of ongoing litigation.
Dartmouth appointed Tengatenga as dean of its Tucker Foundation on July 16, 2013. According to its website: “The William Jewett Tucker Foundation educates Dartmouth students for lives of purpose and ethical leadership, rooted in service, spirituality, and social justice.”
As a major figure in the Anglican Communion, Tengatenga would appear to be a perfect fit for the post. Dartmouth Now published an essay by Tengatenga in which he shared his support for gay marriage and human rights, and how the “courageous moral leadership” role attracted him to Dartmouth and prompted him to give up his job as bishop in Malawi.
But in Hanover, N.H., a collection of naysayers began attacking Tengatenga for past comments on homosexuality and calling him homophobic. The Dartmouth NAACP led the charge, basing the bulk of their complaints on statements Tengatenga made in 2004 concerning the election and ordination of the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion.
Tengatenga had explained in the essay that like many people, even U.S. President Barack Obama, he had evolved in his understanding of human sexuality and was fully accepting of the LGBT community as equals.
Observers and outsider surmise that the issues were like an onion, with many layers needing to be peeled away. He was not American. He was not part of the Ivy League clique. He was not their preferred candidate. And so forth.
By mid-August, Dartmouth College president Philip J. Hanlon withdrew Tengatenga’s appointment as dean, as supporters on both sides of the fence protested.
One Anglican leader who wrote to Hanlon was Bishop Michael Ingham of the Diocese of New Westminster, where same-gender relationships have been blessed since 2002. Bishop Ingham noted how Tengatenga had visited his diocese and was welcomed with open arms.
He “came here to build bridges between Africa and Canada on the contentious matter of homosexuality,” Ingham wrote to Hanlon, according to Episcopal News Service. “He received three standing ovations. Mr. President, I can assure you no one with homophobic opinions would have received such a welcome here. His wisdom, humor, intelligence, and grace far transcends the narrow confines of a single issue.”
Fourteen esteemed colleagues signed a letter, published in The Living Church magazine, that was titled “Defending Bishop Tengatenga.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle were among those who defended Tengatenga.
In reflection since the post was rescinded, Tengatenga believes that “divine intervention” was ultimately at play at Dartmouth.
Challenges of chairing Anglican Consultative Council
Chairing the Anglican Consultative Council is a role made for Job. And Solomon, too. It requires the skills of a diplomat and the tact of a mediator, negotiating with an enormous complexity of religious viewpoints where serious disagreements can occur over minute subtleties.
He calls the chairmanship a “balancing act” between personal beliefs and church policy, a nearly impossible task especially when they collide on key issues.
“The question becomes: What serves the truth? What serves justice? What serves the Communion?”
It’s one of the many conundrums that exist in his life.
Anglicans, like many others of faith, are divided over homosexuality, gay rights and marriage equality. African Anglicans, in particular, tend to be rigidly against equality for the LGBT community. So for Tengatenga, he has had to walk a tightrope within the council and the Church. He is known to be fearless in opposing corruption and dictators bent on ruling with an iron fist, while reaching out of sexual minorities and those who were neglected or scorned.
This kind of thinking can get you killed in many places in Africa and Asia.
And, now, after publicly declaring his support for marriage equality and gay rights, Tengatenga is in a tenuous place for an African religious leader. He would likely be arrested and imprisoned in places like Nigeria and Uganda, where it is now a crime to be a gay ally. He would likely be charged in Russia, where he could be accused of “gay propaganda.”
In Malawi, where Joyce Banda was elected president with the promise of overturning the nation’s anti-homosexuality law, things haven’t changed much. Caving under stiff opposition from political and religious figures, Banda backed down from her pledge, saying Malawi isn’t ready to repeal the law.
But later this month, Malawi is being challenged in the nation’s high court by UNAIDS, the Malawi Law Society and other human-rights groups over the law that criminalizes homosexuality.
Malawi also made international headlines in 2010 when authorities jailed Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga after they had a wedding ceremony. The two men were eventually pardoned after an international uproar.
How language shapes the dialogue
Numerous times during our interview, Tengatenga stressed the importance of language in the battle to win over hearts and minds. What works in North America doesn’t work in Africa. What works in western Europe doesn’t work in Africa. Language is crucial to the debate about homosexuality, he says.
Americans and Europeans may be well-intentioned in trying to change the thinking of Africans, but they would be wise to watch what they say. Using words like “gay,” “homosexual” and “LGBT” are like waving a red cape in front of a charging bull. But to utilize words like “MSM” (men who have sex with men) and “WSW” (women who have sex with women) are less explosive. That’s why mainstream international organizations and grassroots groups avoid putting the LGBT into their names. “Sexual minorities” and “human rights” are preferred terms that encompass a bigger tent.
Tengatenga is dismayed by the harsh anti-gay laws passed by Nigeria and Uganda, and under consideration elsewhere across Africa. He blames post-colonial anger as part of the problem, where African independence triggers resentment over attempts by western powers to tell Africans how to think and what to believe. Then there is the matter of desperate despots trying to cling to power in nations struggling with rampant poverty and high unemployment, where politicians collude with religious leaders to find an easy bogeyman to distract from the real problems in society.
“Africa is the site of contest,” he said, noting the rising influence of Russia and China on the continent that had long been dominated by European colonists. “There are a number of things at work. There is new reason for that conflict. Part of it is post-colonial in nature.
“Gay issues is one of the things that have found a common ground …
“Out of all this will come a new alignment. Where is the ‘axis of evil’ – George W. Bush language – and how do you draw it? Islam is also an issue for Christians.”
Tengatenga predicts the world will see “strange bedfellows” emerging in Africa over the gay-rights issue.
“What is the actual fight about? Is this the new frontier for another Cold War? Will there be a political realignment based on sex and sexual attitudes?”
He points to the billions of dollars of investments by China in many parts of Africa, claiming not to come with any strings attached. But China wants Africa’s riches, its minerals in particular. He warns politicians that those who lie down with dogs will get fleas … and says that Russian president Vladimir “Putin is miffed that China is the new East.”
Tengatenga concludes the rising influence of Russia and China is a new form of colonialism in Africa.
Gays: The common enemy
Meanwhile, Tengatenga sees the gays as political fodder.
“The common energy [for politicians] is the gay people,” he said. “Nobody cares for the LGBT. They are considered weak and a small minority.
“You flex your muscle by fighting equals. That’s the Jesus story. … Why is the attention there? Why trample on the weak? But when you run out of ideas, you have to find a common enemy.”
As a result, desperate despots demonize LGBT people. They call gays “dogs” and “criminals.” They dehumanize the gays. They know they can say such horrible things with impunity.
“They brainwash the population,” he said. “‘He’s a dog … he’s a criminal.’ So who controls the language? … We are talking about human beings after all.”
The demonization of LGBT Africans and the criminalization of homosexuality will have extraordinary ramifications. Jails and prisons will be overcrowded with people convicted of being gay, where they will be victimized further by others who are incarcerated. People with HIV or AIDS will fear seeking treatment, worrying that they will be labeled as gay or bisexual.
Yet Tengatenga hopes that the healthcare system is where the issue of being gay can open a dialogue and start a debate in homophobic Africa.
Tengatenga also outlines why Africa differs from North America and Europe in coverage of LGBT issues. Most western nations are blessed with freedom of speech and a free press. Television is filled with positive images of LGBT people, and the Social Media outlets brim with LGBT sites that can be accessed by all.
But in most places in Africa, the media are either controlled by the government or independently owned but operating in an anti-gay environment. For many LGBT Africans, they live with few gay role models unlike in the western world. Access to the Internet can also be controlled by the government and LGBT websites can be blocked.
Tengatenga admires and respects the bravery of Africans who come out, despite a hostile climate, as well-known Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina recently did in response to the passage of the anti-gay laws.
Still, he would like to see ordinary Africans to come out, the doctors and the teachers and the postal workers. He acknowledges that the act of coming out would create hardship and that most who come out would likely have to flee their homeland, but the process will be crucial to stoke positive change.
“It would create the possibility of more people coming out, and it would challenge the process,” Tengatenga said.
In many ways, this interview was a “coming out” for Tengatenga as well. He was able to speak his mind for perhaps the first time since leaving the seminary in Texas so many years ago.
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Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at [email protected], @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.