The sad case of Dartmouth and Bishop Tengatenga

I’d like to add my voice to those who are deeply disappointed that Dartmouth College has revoked Bishop James Tengatenga’s appointment as dean of the school’s Tucker Foundation. The more I speak with friends in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa, the more wrongheaded and damaging to the cause of LGBT rights the decision seems.

Lisa J. Wangsness of The Boston Globe quotes several of the bishop’s able defenders in her story this morning.

“You are asking the impossible of someone coming out of that African situation,” said the Rev. Nicholas Henderson, a parish priest in West London, an editor of, and a vice president of Modern Church, the oldest theological society in the Anglican communion. “Just rescinding that [appointment] is to show a lamentable lack of understanding of circumstances that are outside the confines of privileged North America.”


“This is a big blow, because it leaves African activists on the ground wondering if they can work with Westerners,” [the Rev. Kapya John] Kaoma, [a priest formerly in the Church of Zambia who has conducted extensive research on religion and sexuality in Malawi and other African countries for Political Research Associates] said. “All human rights defenders in Africa are working under very, very hard conditions, and the violence against them is always there. What they have done is exposed Bishop Tengatenga and then dumped him back into Malawi.”

Bishop Ian Douglas of the Diocese of Connecticut, who has known Tengatenga for years and serves with him on the Anglican Consultative Council, a worldwide representative elected body, said that Tengatenga played a crucial role in keeping the Anglican Communion from splitting apart in the last decade, following Robinson’s election and controversies over other issues.

“It’s an incredible lost opportunity — I would go so far as to say a travesty to justice with respect to James and a compromise of what academic institutions are supposed to stand for with respect to trying to seek a higher truth through academic freedom and genuine conversation,” Douglas said.

In an email that he has given me permission to quote, my friend the Rev. MacDonald Sembereka, a leading activist on LGBT issues in Malawi said:

This is sad and defeatist news from some of us who are on this side of the divide because Bishop James is an astute defender of rights for all. In our part of the world an advocate of rights of PLHIV [people living with HIV] cannot afford to just advance one side of the argument because evidence has it that we need to defend all vulnerabilities. HIV provides a huge platform or stepping stone for advocates of lgbti in africa that you cannot dismiss Bishop James on the premise being advanced by the President of Dartmouth and the nay sayers. Further, none of those who said a lot against the appointment ever consulted us on the ground so much so that we may end up fighting our own allies.

I see this matter in fairly simple terms. The people whom MacDonald calls the “nay sayers” at Dartmouth have behaved as though one affects change primarily by making statements of unassailable correctness and then standing back while one’s will is done. There is no room for diplomacy in this way or thinking, no occasion on which an activist would hold his or her tongue in order to play a more effective role behind the scenes. Bishop Tengatenga knows differently. He has skillfully helped move homophobic institutions and organizations toward acceptance of LGBT rights and helped defend those who were marginalized for doing the same. Dartmouth is punishing him for his effectiveness.

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