Did Women Priests in the Church of Uganda Hit a Glass Ceiling?


2014 will go down as a historic year in the Church of England, as it marked the passing of legislation allowing women to become bishops. Women were ordained priests in the Church of England in 1994, but for the last two decades they faced a glass ceiling as they could not be consecrated as bishops. Many women welcomed the decision with tears of joy and relief, for this had been a protracted and arduous process. In 2012 their hopes and the hopes of those who supported female bishops were thwarted when the General Synod voted narrowly against the appointment of women bishops. Interestingly, both the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy voted in favour, but the vote was lost in the House of Laity by a margin of just six votes.

But as women in the Church of England celebrated this landmark decision, I could not help reflecting on the position of women clergy in the Church of Uganda. Actually, the young vibrant Anglican Church of Uganda ordained women as priests nearly a decade before the mother Church of England did. It was a courageous decision spearheaded by the late Bishop Festo Kivengere in Kigezi Diocese that raised some eyebrows in other Dioceses, but which they all adopted subsequently. I have always wondered why the Church of England, which is more liberal than the Church of Uganda in many respects, should have dithered on the question of women priests and bishops.

Reasons used to oppose the ordination of women to the priesthood or their appointment as bishops were based on the Bible (or more accurately, a particular interpretation of it) and orthodoxy or tradition. It was argued, for example, that Jesus’ Twelve Apostles were all men and that they are representative of ordained ministry in the church. Some have used texts in the New Testament to suggest that women should not have authority as a priest or bishop. Another hindrance was fear that ordaining women as bishops would cause a split in the Church of England and damage dialogue between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church.

There was a surge in the number of women training for ordination at Mukono in the 1980s, some of them later receiving further training abroad. Their capability or suitability was not in question. One hoped not only to see these women in senior positions in the Church of Uganda, but also to see them as role models for girls in our society. This however does not seem to have been the case. There are currently few women clergy in the Church of Uganda who head a department at Provincial level, and hardly any women Provosts or Cathedral Deans or Archdeacons.

The leadership of the Church of Uganda is not opposed to women bishops. Recently, Bukedde, a Luganda daily, interviewed some bishops in the Church of Uganda, including a former Archbishop, and all were unanimous that there were no theological grounds preventing women from becoming bishops. This was a progressive view coming from the bishops. The only challenge is that we are yet to see a woman appointed as bishop in the Church of Uganda. That there are none so far does not mean that there are no women who have the relevant qualifications, experience or ability. But having made the bold step to ordain women as priests one wonders how long it will take before the COU appoints its first woman bishop.

Revd Amos Kasibante