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Should the laity have more say in electing bishops?

By Vision Reporter

Added 11th February 2003 03:00 AM

The Anglican Communion in Uganda should be having sleepless nights over the failed consecration of Bishop-elect Rev. David Sebuhinja to lead the Diocese of Muhabura.

The Anglican Communion in Uganda should be having sleepless nights over the failed consecration of Bishop-elect Rev. David Sebuhinja to lead the Diocese of Muhabura.

By Ibra Asuman Bisiika

The Anglican Communion in Uganda should be having sleepless nights over the failed consecration of Bishop-elect Rev. David Sebuhinja to lead the Diocese of Muhabura. Although preparations for the installation of Bishop-elect Rev. Jackson Tembo Nzerebende to replace Bishop Kahangwa Masereka in South Rwenzori Diocese are said to be in high gear, there are reports of muted dissension among the laity and the clergy that may affect the consecration, scheduled for July 6.

That this muted dissension against the installation of Rev. Nzerebende comes in the wake of what is now called ‘the crisis in Muhabura Diocese’ is worth the concern of the Anglican Communion in Uganda.

The laity and a section of the clergy in Muhabura Diocese have openly protested against the consecration of Rev. Sebuhinja. Uncertainty still surrounds his consecration ceremony, which should have taken place last year.

The controversy surrounding the succession of Bishops in the diocese of Muhabura and South Rwenzori is not without precedent in the Church of Uganda. In the 1990s, Busoga Diocese was plunged into crisis when the laity and some members of the clergy said they did not want Bishop Cyprian Bamwoze as their leader; not to forget the mini crisis in which Bishop Eustace Kamanyire of Rwenzori Diocese in Fort Portal was ‘kindly requested’ by the church establishment to retire.

Christians in Uganda seem to realise that they have the power to reject a bishop they do not want as their leader. But does the dissension in the Diocese of Muhabura and South Rwenzori represent a challenge that calls for the review of the canonical and ministry doctrines of the Anglican Communion? How should the Church react to the demands of a fast-paced society with a high affinity for democratic dispensations and socio-moral justice?

The root of the problem in the Anglican Communion lies in the mystery in which the office of the bishop is shrouded. Since the establishment of the Church— first under a Papal Order and later an Episcopal system— the office of a bishop has been shrouded in mystery. As late as the 18th Century, bishops still exercised a lot of political authority, in part because of the teaching that the Church was above the state. The moral high ground that the church still enjoys over the state today is actually a residual carry-over from the old times.

Even with the increased biblical literacy and the democratic trends that characterised the 19th and 20th centuries, the office of the bishop in the Anglican Communion is still associated with awe, luxury, pomp, power and unquestionable decrees. This makes being a bishop attractive to the extent that some members of the clergy would do anything (I hear even consulting witch doctors) in order to be elected bishops.

For the purposes of electing a bishop, the diocesan synod chooses from among themselves seven members who constitute the diocesan electoral college. The synod chooses from the diocesan house of the clergy seven names to be forwarded to the electoral college. From the seven names forwarded to them, the electoral college picks only two names, which they forward to the house of bishops for the final choice. Although the sitting bishop is not a member of the Electoral College, it is commonplace that he influences the electoral process.

The diocesan synod, which is the legislative body of a diocese, is very representative. The constitution of the Church of Uganda provides that every parish be represented by five members (four members of the laity and the parish priest/reverend) in the diocesan synod. It should be noted that even when the synod is relegated to the peripheral and remote role of nominator, it is still in awe of the sitting bishop’s authority.

The electoral process is basically open to the exploitation of the sitting bishop. The laity, who are the majority in the synod, are people who (outside the synod) are used to directly electing political leaders and demand accountability without fear and influence. And therein lies the contradiction of the influence of politics on religion and vice versa.

The controversy in Muhabura and South Rwenzori therefore presents the Church with the opportunity to change this unbiblical image of the office of the bishop. The office of a bishop is that of service, best appreciated by the Greek word diakonia, loosely translated as “serving at the table.”

St. Paul’s description of a bishop (episcopos) is that of a servant, leader, overseer, elder and presbyter entrusted with the duty to teach, guard and guide all those under his charge. St John’s gospel explains this mode of service with the word ‘tend.’

Rev. Yona Kule Mugisa, the diocesan secretary of South Rwenzori, openly calls on the Anglican Communion to revisit provisions regarding the office and powers of the bishop. In a sermon he delivered on New Year’s Day, the Rev. Yona Mugisa said provisions should be made to make it practically possible for a bishop to be answerable to the diocesan synod: “The diocesan synod should have the last word on the election of a bishop,” Rev. Mugisa said.

Mugisa’s calls for reform go way back. In a comment published in one of the local newspapers in January 1998, Rev. Mugisa wrote: “An erring bishop should be called to order by an established and empowered ecclesiastical court whose verdicts should be binding. Corrupt and un-Godly bishops should be derobed. If a member of the clergy can be disciplined, what is so special with bishops? Are they not Christians in one Church, with one faith and one hope? The Church should make the office of the bishop truly biblical,” Mugisa wrote this in a comment on the Bamwoze crisis in Busoga Diocese.

A lay member of the South Rwenzori Diocesan Synod, who preferred anonymity, said that the demand for the laity to have more say in electing the bishop and all church matters has some merits: “On electing a bishop, my proposal is that the diocesan house of clergy should propose seven names from which the diocesan synod would elect one in a secret ballot. No need for the House of Bishops in the matter,” he said.

Asked to comment on whether the laity should have more say in the church, South Rwenzori Bishop-elect Nzeberende said he cannot comment: “I can perhaps contribute later. I would like to know who is holding the debate,” said Nzerebende.

Bishop Kyamanywa of Bunyoro Kitara Diocese says that the laity already play a very big role. He said: “The Anglican Communion is structured in such a way that the bishops, the clergy and the laity share responsibilities in the election of a new bishop and indeed all matters pertaining to the church. This arrangement has worked for a long time and I do not see any problem with it.”

Asked how that reconciles with the situation in Muhabura Diocese, Bishop Kyamanywa said that the circumstances there arise from individuals with hidden agendas and it has nothing to do with how our system relates with contemporary realities. The laity is in it as much as the clergy and the bishops. What more would they want?”

The Rev. Hannington Mutebi, the Provincial Secretary of the Church of Uganda, said that the system is good: “The challenge is on the diocesan synod, which is predominantly composed of the laity, to send the right people to the House of Bishops. When the diocesan synod sends two names to the House of Bishops, I would take it that the two are bishop material. I would not expect any complaints from the synod or the laity when the House of Bishops choose one of the two as bishop,” he said.

Bishop Zebedee Masereka of South Rwenzori said that the election of a bishop is like any election; there are winners and losers.

“The public or you journalists should be looking at the bigger picture not the petty differences among individuals,” Masereka said.

Should the laity have more say in electing bishops?

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