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by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times, No. 22 - Jul 2006
The story so far. In July 2005 the Revd Nicholas Henderson, currently Vicar of two West London parishes, and until a few years ago General Secretary of the MCU, was elected Bishop of a diocese in Malawi. He was well known to the people, as he had often visited to promote various development projects.
Subsequent objections from five people in the diocese led the Archbishop of Central Africa, The Most Revd Dr Bernard Malango to refuse to confirm the election, on the ground that his association with the Modern Churchpeople's Union made him 'not of sound faith.'
In February 2006 Mr Henderson visited Malawi and, much to his surprise, was given a hero's welcome at the airport. He was then carried shoulder-high in procession, by local clergy, to the Archbishop's office, where they demanded a meeting with Dr Malango to present their case for appointing him.
Instead of agreeing to meet them, the Archbishop ran out of the back door and left Malawi. Later he appointed James Mwenda, a retired bishop, to the post. The manner of the appointment was unconstitutional, as correct procedure would have required the support of other clergy and officials. The enthronement service was conducted by Frank Dzantenge, the Vicar General appointed by Archbishop Malango. We are informed that both Malango and Dzantenge are subject to accusations of misusing church funds. The service was not well attended: four serving priests, three retired priests and two suspended priests. The rest of the diocese boycotted it. One of the priests who had been suspended (for misappropriating funds) locked the church elders in the vestry for the duration of the service, and was afterwards rewarded with the post of Archdeacon. During the service the cathedral was surrounded by police to keep protesters away. Two men were arrested for throwing stones.
After the enthronement the laity sealed the bishop's house, preventing Mwenda from taking up residence there, and applied to the local court for an injunction preventing him from conducting his duties. They also appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury to rule in their favour.
On 12th April a temporary court injunction forbade Mwenda to carry out his duties as bishop. The case was heard on 25th May and determined that the matter should be settled by the church courts. They found Mwenda in contempt of court for failing to abide by the terms of the injunction.
Nevertheless, Mwenda took it that he and Dzantenge were free to take up their duties until such time as the Panel of Reference reported. He got on with his business as bishop, doing tasks like sacking clergy who opposed him.
Which led to another court case. On 28th June the court ruled that the sacked clergy were to be reinstated, and Mwenda and Dzantenge were to cease performing their duties until the Church court issues its verdict.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has referred the issue to the Panel of Reference set up after the Primates' Meeting at Dromantine. This in itself is a surprising development. The primates' intention in setting up this Panel was to provide a court of appeal for conservative parishes who objected to their bishops for being too sympathetic to homosexuality. This is the first time it will be used for a different purpose.
The wheels will turn slowly. We expect a decision some time next year.
Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.