RGOD2: Who is my gay ally?

Tenga Tenga sounds like an African drum beat. For Western ears, untrained to the subtle variations of African cadence and meaning, the sounds may be confusing at first. Is the beating drum a call to peace or a call to war, to dance or to mourn?

This semester, the sound of Tenga Tenga reverberates in the hallowed halls of one of America’s most prestigious Ivy League universities, Dartmouth College.

Hired and fired

James Tengatenga is an Anglican bishop from Malawi, and after serving the church there for 28 years and 15 years as a bishop, he was offered an appointment at Dartmouth as the Virginia Rice Kelsey Dean of the William Jewett Tucker Foundation to begin his new job on Jan. 1, 2014.

The Tucker Foundation is “the center for spirituality and chaplaincy overseeing the development of moral leadership and service placement for the college.” Tengatenga was well placed to receive this important leadership appointment as a final flourish to a distinguished career in the church and in public service. He had been critical of the one party system in Malawi and was not afraid to speak his mind. He chaired the National AIDS Commission and a variety of Muslim/Christian Interfaith bodies.

In the wider 80 million-member Anglican Communion, Tengatenga has been a long-standing member of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) and its Standing Committee. He was elected as ACC chair in 2009, and therefore is also chair of the Standing Committee. In a continent where 40% of all health services are provided by faith-based organizations, Tengatenga is a very influential leader and it was unusual for someone with these global credentials to take up such a position at Dartmouth. Two of his adult children study at Hartford College and he has many friends in the USA, so the appointment seemed to be a call to a different drumbeat. He wrote to his clergy and called for an election for a new bishop:

“It is my belief that it is time to move on and let others lead the church to new levels, and that this new calling is another opportunity to serve the Lord in the molding of a moral world-leadership.

“I will indeed miss ministering among you as your bishop but I look forward with fear and trembling to this new challenge the Lord has put before me … Where I am going (Dartmouth) the motto is ‘Vox Clamantis Deserto’ translated ‘The Voice Crying in the Wilderness’ and such is my new call. Pray for me as I continue to pray for you.”

However, serving the Lord, molding world-leadership and being a voice crying in the wilderness are all very difficult things to do as Bishop James discovered when the president of Dartmouth wrote to him and rescinded the appointment. Philip Hanlon’s statement expressed his growing concern over Tengatenga’s appointment and made him rethink the decision to hire the bishop to lead the college’s social justice foundation. Hanlon wrote, “… It has become clear to me that Dr. Tengatenga’s past comments about homosexuality and the uncertainty and controversy they created have compromised his ability to serve effectively as dean of Tucker.”

Even though the bishop had several opportunities to share his views on homosexuality and how his experience had evolved (not unlike President Barack Obama’s public admission that his view had changed on gay marriage), Tengatenga was not given the same moral latitude or opportunity for personal transformation and growth. Dartblog captured his position HERE. But it was still not enough to convince the president of Dartmouth College that Tengatenga was not a moral liability for his liberal university.

Several key African and American religious leaders wrote letters of support to the college including one from the St. Paul’s Foundation, but without even consulting LGBT leadership or our allies, the president of Dartmouth issued his statement and all hell broke loose. It is no surprise to learn that even respected institutions of ancestral liberal wisdom can still screw up.

It would appear Dartmouth does not think bishop Tengatenga has the moral leadership needed to shape future generations in a globalized world. In the past week, this unfortunate decision has been challenged by a growing number of people including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. An open letter in defense of Tengatenga was circulated to The New York Times (which thought it was not newsworthy) while some religious news services are publishing it and beginning to discuss the implications of the appointment, the college’s decision to rescind it and what may happen next.

The spiritual journey begins in exile

I spoke to Bishop Tengatenga last week as he was about to travel outside Malawi to conduct several retreats and wind up his long ministry there. It is difficult to focus or plan ahead when you have just been hit by an unexpected train. His successor is appointed and the bishop will move out of his home in December with no job and nowhere to go.

The bishop’s close association with LGBT issues will make it difficult for him to remain in Africa as a religious leader, and many of the safeguards that protected him as a bishop have been removed by his resignation. He really is embarking on a strange and frightening journey into the wilderness and it remains what he has to say to Dartmouth, to liberal American Christianity, to LGBT people globally and to the African church and wider Anglican Communion.

He is only in his mid-50s and clearly is not ready to simply go away or retire to some quiet assignment. If anything good has come from this bitterly disappointing decision, Tengatenga’s profile has only become more significant. Dartmouth’s decision raises deeper questions about who was really behind this surprising U-turn. Little thought has been given to the long-term impact of this decision upon the moral integrity of the chaplaincy programs themselves, designed to build moral character in the next generation.

President Hanlon is reputed to be a good listener, but LGBT people and allies who know the bishop’s work were not fully consulted or listened to. When our judgment is not fully informed, people and institutions get hurt.

Image vs. substance

The Dartmouth saga is the most recent example of American Christian liberalism paying more attention to the symbols of LGBT equality and inclusion rather than actually in the business of forming new moral paradigms for the 21st century.

Most liberal institutions in the USA including academia and the faith community have not taken the time or spent the resources needed to understand global homophobia. We are not paying attention to our own collusion in building up a new faith-based industry supported even by funding from the American taxpayer. Dartmouth’s response is only another example that we are really not listening and are prepared to throw good and resourceful people like James Tengatenga under the bus to protect some public persona that we are somehow more inclusive than we really are. Image trumps substance. The Rev. Kapya Kaoma, who was deeply shocked by this sad melodrama, expressed the delineation of battle zones simply as: “America is right. Africa is wrong.”

The drumming sounds echo around hallowed halls. The presence of absence is palpable. Who wants to hear voices crying in the wilderness? Dartmouth’s actions have inadvertently created a place for someone who now has something unique to tell us. The spiritual and moral journey both begin in exile and liberal American academia has unwittingly endowed Tengatenga with an even greater moral imperative than any secured academic chair could ever confer. He certainly has my attention and the drum beat is both compelling and disturbing. Our letter is HERE.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE. The foundation has added a Tengatenga Transition Fund designation on its donation page, for those who wish to help out the bishop.

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