A rebel Anglican bishop in Zimbabwe

If generic New York Times readers know anything at all about Anglican bishops in Africa, surely they know that most of them are quite conservative on matters of faith and practice. For example, they are opposed to homosexual activity of any kind — a position that is very common on a continent in which their growing churches often directly clash with conservative Islam.

But something strange is happening in Zimbabwe, where an Anglican bishop has openly rebelled against the Anglican shepherds in Africa, as well as the archbishop of Canterbury. While officially defrocked and excommunicated, Nolbert Kunonga has cast his lot with President Robert Mugabe and his regime’s efforts to strangle any churches who refuse to play by the government rules.

All of this is covered in frightening detail in a recent Times report, including reports of rape, murder, corrupt courts, confiscated churches, etc. While Mugabe has clashed openly with the bishops in his own faith — Roman Catholicism — tensions have been especially great in the rapidly growing Anglican churches in the region, which are highly evangelical and often openly Pentecostal.

Kunonga wants to grab control of more and more of these Anglican flocks, thus helping protect his, uh, lord.

Mr. Kunonga’s aim, he and his adviser, the Rev. Admire Chisango, said, is for their breakaway Anglican church to control about 3,000 churches, schools, hospitals and other properties in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi — a treasure accumulated since Anglican missionaries first arrived in what is now Zimbabwe during the 19th century. …

Like Mr. Mugabe, who encouraged the violent confiscation of white-owned commercial farms, Mr. Kunonga casts himself as a nationalist leader who is Africanizing a church associated with British colonialism.

At some point, I began to be very curious to know more about Kunonga and his beliefs and, I assumed, the Times would eventually tell me. I think that the editors think that they accomplished this goal. I am not sure about that.

So how does the Times describe this bishop, who has rebelled against the conservative Anglican bishops of Africa (as well as the establishment represented by Canterbury)? Well, we know that says he is an anti-colonialist who wants to confiscate properties so they can be used by the state. What else are we told about the theology and beliefs of this political scientist and bishop? There is this:

Mr. Kunonga, who earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from Northwestern University and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary outside Chicago, says that his success in controlling church properties is due to the persuasiveness of his legal arguments in court, not Mr. Mugabe’s influence.

“I’m superior intellectually and from a legal point of view,” he said. “I’m very superior to them.”

Then, of course, there is this:

Mr. Kunonga often echoes Mr. Mugabe’s favorite themes, including the president’s loathing for homosexuality. This issue provided Mr. Kunonga’s rationale for withdrawing from the mainline Anglican church in 2007. He claimed homosexual priests and congregants had gained influence in the church, though mainline church leaders here, as a matter of policy, do not conduct same-sex marriages or ordain gay priests. Bishops in the mainline church saw Mr. Kunonga’s move as a power grab.

So what does this tell us?

At this point, I have to ask a question: How many Times readers can we assume know anything about the theological background of the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary? For example, how many would know that this United Methodist institution has long — despite the presence of the word “evangelical” in the title — been a center for trailblazing work on the mainline left? Perhaps its bestknown faculty member, for many years, was Rosemary Radford Ruether, an articulate Catholic feminist who is on the far left edge of the Vatican’s most fiery critics.

Most of the Anglican conservatives from Africa would never come near this kind of campus, preferring to head to places such as Princeton, Cambridge, the Trinity Anglican School for Ministry near Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

This fact fact may or may not be crucial in this story. However, I think it’s possible that many if not most readers would do the following math — “evangelical” seminary plus opposition to homosexuality means that this rebellious bishop, who may or may not have blood on his hands, is another one of those crazy African Anglicans on the right that the Times has told us so much about.

Or, is there another scenario? After all, this brilliant anti-colonialist political scientist with a doctorate from a high-quality liberal campus (who is fighting the conservative Anglican bishops on his conservative continent) may be something completely different. Might be be rather complex, some twisted combination of liberal beliefs and totalitarian tactics?

Do we know that for sure?

No, we don’t. Again let me say: No. We. Do. Not. Know.

You see, we don’t have enough information. After all, the Times team didn’t really seem very interested in what Kunonga believes, other than that he loathes homosexuality. Oh, and he went to an “evangelical” seminary. Thus, this fallen bishop must be, well, you know.

No further questions needed.

PHOTO: The Garrett-Theological Seminary near Chicago.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://makaipa.blogspot.com tioedong

    ah, if they noticed that, they might notice how the World Council of churches and other “christian” groups actually helped Mugabe get power.

    Being liberal means you are one of the “good guys” and so don’t have to say you are sorry when your “freedom fighter” turns out to be a murderous dictator.

  • Jerry

    ah, if they noticed that, they might notice how the World Council of churches and other “christian” groups actually helped Mugabe get power.

    Being liberal means you are one of the “good guys” and so don’t have to say you are sorry when your “freedom fighter” turns out to be a murderous dictator.

    The voice of the extreme far right speaks up as usual to allege something with no proof provided along with post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.

    As Wikipedia documents, Mugabe was given many honors during the early years:

    Honorary LLD degree University of Edinburgh 1984 “… honoured not only for his extraordinary intellectual discipline and energy but for those qualities of statesmanship which made him one of the great figures of modern Africa.”[155]

    Honorary LLD degree University of Massachusetts 1986 “Your gentle firmness in the face of anger, and your intellectual approach to matters which inflame the emotions of others, are hallmarks of your quiet integrity.” … “We salute you for your enduring and effective translation of a moral ethic into a strong, popular voice for freedom.”[156


  • George Conger

    One item from Kunonga’s personal history … before returning to Zimbabwe to stand for election as bishop, Dr. Kunonga taught at UTS in New York. No, not Union Theological Seminary in NYC, but Unification Theological Seminary in Barrytown NY. Yes, Unification as in Dr. Sun Myung Moon.

    It may very well be that not all is well for Dr Kunonga—his support from the government appears to be flagging. The government newspaper has urged a settlement to the dispute (a break with its past unswerving support for the breakaway bishop.)

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    There are many matters that the Times article might have explored. For example, I would have been interested in the church polity angles. Under what circumstances was Kunonga deposed and excommunicated? And what does it mean that the “Anglican hierarchy” chose his successor in office? In an article which intends to focus on politics, looking at the mechanisms of church politics may tell us more about what is going on than an amateur attempt to summarize doctrinal positions.

    In addition, some clarity about the disputed legal decisions giving Kunonga’s faction use of the property would have been helpful. These are variously interpreted as giving him “control” or the right to “share” facilities with the faction recognized by Canterbury. What do the courts say, and is it demonstrably different from what the police say?

    To be frank, it looks as though the discussion of homosexuality (in Kumonga’s own statements, then in the Times and subsequently in Terry’s post) is a red herring. So far as I can tell, a victory or defeat for Kumonga will have no impact whatsoever on the position of the Anglican church in Zimbabwe regarding homosexuality — although it will have important effects upon the church in other ways. I’m inclined to think that Celia Dugger fell into a trap on that one.

    On the other hand, a quick web search turns up many articles about Kunonga, but very few of the length and (relative) depth of the Times piece. So this is a step in the right direction.

  • http://thinkinganglicans.org.uk Simon Sarmiento

    tmatt wrote:

    **which are highly evangelical and often openly Pentecostal.**

    Anglican churches in Zimbabwe???

    What is the basis for your assertion? Can you cite some source please.

  • Harris

    I believe this significantly misrepresents the Times and its reporting. The article was rather clear about the path to ascendency of Mr. Kunonga, and it’s not pretty, including death threats, and this particularly nasty piece of business:

    Anglican leaders also suspect Kunonga loyalists of involvement in the unsolved murder of Jessica Mandeya, a lay leader of a rural parish in Mashonaland East who had refused to join the Kunonga faction. A grandmother in her 80s, she was raped, mutilated and strangled in February.

    The article clearly frames the bishops rise in the context of the malevolence of the Mugabe regime — this is the third major piece in the past two weeks on the nation and its leader (see C Duggar’s report of 21 May, and M Kakutani’s review “Where Dissidents Are the Prey, and Horror Is a Weapon” on 23 May).

  • Richard A. Menees

    Several clergy who have served in Zimbabwe (as I did for six years in the Banket Parish of the Harare Diocese) have been evangelical and charismatic, for example Tim Neil at St. Luke’s (one of the largest parishes and most racially integrated) and David Bishop at the perennially evangelical St. Mary’s Parish in Avondale. Michael Harper the protege of John Stott and founder of the charismatic mission agency SOMA (Sharing of Ministries Abroad) ministered in the Avondale Parish and drew large crowds while we were in the Harare Diocese as did Dr. Stott himself when the canon missioner of the Cathedral Gordon Jones(himself and English evangelical) invited him to speak in Harare. The reputation of Zimbabwe Anglicanism as being high church although historically accurate enough ought not to preclude the truth that Evangelical and Charismatic (Pentecostal) activity is a generous part of the Anglican reality in Zimbabwe. However, I am not so sure that rapid church growth is as pronounced in Anglican Zimbabwe as it would be in Uganda, Nigeria or the Sudan but this is due in part to the persecution of Christians by Mugabe during the Chimurenga (which included church burnings and bible burnings and outright murder). It is generally well known that the World Council of Churches supported Mr. Mugabe’s freedom fighters (others including some Anglicans in Zimbabwe would call them terrorists) during the liberation war.
    When the world council of churches held its general assembly in Harare Mugabe was the key note speaker and thanked the WCC for its support of his struggles.

    It would be helpful if somewhat more of the theology of Mr. Kunonga (he has been deposed and excommunicated by the way) were generally known. He was always long winded and didactic at clergy conferences while in Zimbabwe before he left for his PHD studies in America (he said for sociology). Trouble is he never really had anything to say. One Shona priest and PhD in Mission and New Testament from Zimbabwe who worked under Mr. Kunonga basically describes him as a theological zero. Someone might prepare a bibliography of his published theological works and sermons so we could know what he believes. It might be a short list.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I wouldn’t read anything into Kunonga’s degrees one way or the other. This doesn’t say how old he is. I was a student at Northwestern University 1974-1978, and was friendly with some Ugandan Anglican seminarians who were studying there to keep them safe from Idi Amin. At least some of them also took classes at Garrett. Despite Garrett’s liberal tilt — which was also the case with some professors in NU’s religious studies department — these students arrived and remained thoroughly orthodox in their beliefs. Perhaps there was some scholarship money that made NU and Garrett a good choice for Africans. I don’t know. But I do know that the men I knew arrived with a well-formed faith and had no difficulty intellectually parrying western liberal theology.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    I would question whether it’s correct to call everyone who believes in charismatic worship ‘Pentecostal’. Perhaps a hundred years ago only the Pentecostals did things like speaking in tongues, healing, and the like, but nowadays there are plenty of Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, and others who integrate Charismatic practices into their own faith lives.

  • Dale


    The man answers accusations of complicity to murder with statements like this:

    “You must have a very good reason to kill people,” he said. “Being a political scientist, I know who to eliminate if I wanted to physically, and to make it effective. I’m a strategist.”

    Mr. Kunonga added, “If I want to pick on people to kill, Gandiya would not survive here.”

    “I didn’t commit this murder, because if and when I commit murder, I’m much more effective at it.”

    Some defense.

    Do you think his beliefs (or rather, his professed beliefs) are an issue anymore? Maybe he’s been around Mugabe too long, but this is as bald a statement of Machiavellian amorality as I’ve seen among politicians, let alone clergymen. Any statement by Bishop Kunonga about doctrine is entirely superfluous– after all, he’s a “strategist”.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    What Ann said – when I was at NU in 2007-08, I knew a few students and professors at Garrett who were very “evangelical” the way that word is usually used in the United States!
    The situation in Zimbabwe is sad all around – good to see the NYT covering it at all.

  • Julia

    Interesting that Kunonga taught at a Unification seminary in New York. The laicized former Catholic Archbishop Milingo of Zambia has also had associations with the “Moonies”.

    From an article about Milingo ordaining married men.

    Milingo himself was married in 2001 to a Korean acupuncturist chosen for him by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in a mass wedding performed by Moon’s Unification Church.