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Bishop Tengatenga, Esq.

The relevant sections of Bishop Tengatenga’s personal statement are the below two paragraphs:

Let me state unequivocally and categorically that I consider all people equal regardless of their sexual orientation. The dignity of all should be honored and respected. As is the case with many people, my ideas about homosexuality have evolved over time. I’m not ashamed to say that, but I also think I’m not alone, and I think it’s important to have some historical context. The changing attitudes on this matter, especially in the United States, have been staggering. The 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire represented an extraordinary gift because it forced people—from parishioners to bishops to people outside the church—to think carefully and critically about the issue of homosexuality and gay rights. As a result, many of us came to very different understandings of the faith and the gospel.

So, let me be clear. I support marriage equality and equal rights for everyone, and I look forward to working with everyone at Dartmouth—everyone. I believe that discrimination of any kind is sinful. When I say that I am committed to the human rights of all, I mean all.

Once again, I detect a wordsmith’s cleverness, rather than the unequivocal and categorical statements for which one would hope. It is easy for Bishop Tengatenga to generally declare that he considers “all people equal regardless of their sexual orientation,” but where was he last November, when the Malawi Council of Churches, of which he was the Chair from 1998-2001 and of which his diocese is a prominent member, pressured the Malawian government to continue to imprison homosexuals for terms of up to 14 years. This position is doubly indefensible when you consider Tengatenga’s important role in Milawian public life over the past twenty years, as reported by the Anglican Communion News Service:

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.

Tengatenga2.jpgIn addition, Tengatenga has chaired the Anglican Council in Malawi since 2008, and held any number of other prominent positions in that country and in the world-wide Anglican Communion. Could Bishop Tengatenga not have spoken out in support of the Malawian government’s desire to end enforcement of the anti-gay statutes? What possible risk did he run, when this position would have been in support of a government minister’s announced policy?

And why did he not comment about the atrociousness of these anti-gay laws in his Dartmouth statement today?

At this juncture, it is important to note that the lives of numerous Malawian gay men and women were at stake — the dispute was not over doctrine or even the support of a new bishop in the faraway United States. One would expect more from the man hoping to lead the Tucker Foundation.

As to Bishop Tengatenga’s comments on the naming of Gene Robinson as New Hampshire’s Episcopalian bishop, once again we see slippery words — when only clarity should do. Tengatenga wrote that Robinson’s consecration was an “extraordinary gift because it forced people… to think carefully and critically about the issue of homosexuality and gay rights. As a result, many of us came to very different understandings of the faith and the gospel.”

And? Seldom are heard more encouraging words, but when you think a little more about them, what has the Bishop actually said? What exactly was the end result of his own thinking on these matters? Does he now support the consecration of gay bishops the world over? Does he now support the consecration of Gene Robinson? We don’t know. All that Bishop Tengatenga really says in the statement is that Gene Robinson’s appointment provoked a great deal of thinking. Does that give us an aperçu into Bishop Tengatenga’s character? Nope. Though you can tell that he certainly wants us to believe certain things — while keeping an out for future use among his supporters back home.

That leaves marriage equality — hardly a frontburner issue in Malawi, especially given that the phrase itself is of the most recent vintage. We should congratulate the Bishop on his support of this issue, even if his support is succinct, and even if his own diocese is on record as taking a diametrically contrary position.

That said, the man does exhibit a certain complexity. Bishop Tengatenga is on the editorial board of Modern Believing, which refers to itself as “the journal of Theological Liberalism.” He is the only representative of an African church in that position. And he has the respect and even the friendship of Colin Coward, the leader of the UK’s Changing Attitude, an organization that “works for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the Anglican Communion.”

What to conclude from all of this? I’ll leave the decision to you. One choice is that Bishop Tengatenga can encompass a broad range of beliefs and work across ideological lines; another is that he is a theological opportunist, someone who can be a liberal one day, and then support the imprisonment of gays the next.

If you are an optimist, you might think that the Bishop is good enough for the Tucker Foundation. Myself, I can’t believe that Dartmouth cannot find someone with a more savory, consistent record of moral achievement.

Addendum: The story on Tengatenga in today’s D contains the following astute observation:

The global Anglican Communion has faced internal conflict over LGBT rights, said Adrienne Clay, African and African-American studies department program coordinator…

“Although Tengatenga’s new statement strikes some encouraging notes, it seems very polished and a little too ambiguous for my taste,” Clay wrote in an email. “How do we measure Tengatenga? By a statement directed to a college audience in the U.S. or by his words and actions, as well as inaction, over the past decade?

Addendum: Today’s D contains letters pro and con respectively concerning Bishop Tengatenga’s appointment from Professor Irene Kacandes, who chaired the Tucker Dean search committee, and Andrew Lewin ‘81, a former member of the Tucker Foundation Board of Visitors.

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