Is Christopher Senyonjo a gay martyr or gay icon?

Is Christopher Senyonjo a gay martyr or gay icon? March 30, 2014

The Associated Press has a story out today on a former bishop of the Church of Uganda who has broken ranks over the issue of homosexuality. For those who follow Anglican affairs the story of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (also spelled Ssenyonjo) will not be new. The bishop is a frequent visitor to the United States and has spoken many times in public forums about his views on homosexuality.

The AP story entitled “Despite new law, Ugandan cleric ministers to gays” breaks no new ground, but offers an updated profile of the bishop in light of the country’s new laws on homosexuality. Given the low state of knowledge about religion in Africa held by the general public and the controversy the Ugandan gay law has created I can understand the editorial thinking that went into commissioning and publishing this article.

“African church leaders are anti-gay. Several African countries, including Uganda, have adopted laws toughening sanctions against homosexual activities. Here is a bishop who is bucking the trend,” says editor A. “Go for it.”

The article does a nice job in quoting the bishop and gay activists in Uganda. It  fits into the wider Western media narrative about homosexuality also.

However, the article is not balanced in that it does not offer the voice or views of those who hold the contrary position. And it does not test the claims made by the bishop and his supporters.

Yes, the article cites a past statement on homosexuality by the head of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, but we hear nothing from the church about this issue or about Bishop Senyonjo.

Which is a shame really as a little digging would reveal that the narrative given about Bishop Senyonjo is a false one. The story states:

For ministering to homosexuals, Senyonjo has become estranged from Uganda’s Anglican church. He was barred from presiding over church events in 2006 when he wouldn’t stop urging his leaders to accept gays. The parish that he once led doesn’t even acknowledge his presence when he attends Sunday services there, underscoring how his career has suffered because of his tolerance for gays in a country where homosexuals —and those who accept them — face discrimination.

The bishop was not kicked out of the Anglican Church over his views on homosexuality. I concede that this is not the conventional wisdom. In December 2013 Religion News Service ran a piece about Senyonjo that stated:

Ssenyonjo was defrocked 2002 for his ministry to gay men.

Gay specialty publications and a few mainstream news outlets have also repeated the claim that the bishop was defrocked over homosexualoity, but there are several dates floating about as to when this actually happened. The AP says 2006, RNS says 2002. As far as I can tell no one has ever looked at the documents or asked the Church of Uganda what it thinks happened.

I have.

Yes, Bishop Senyonjo is a vocal supporter of the normalization of homosexuality. I do not doubt he has said what has been reported and there is no evidence that he does not hold the views he propounds. This post is not about the bishop or his views. It is about reporting, and the reporting from RNS and the AP has been pretty poor.

The choice of topic and subject is not poor, I hasten to add. Rather an incurious Western media has not done the basic research expected in a news story — or they have egged the pudding a bit, and “sexed up” the story to make it even better.

In The Church of England Newspaper I have reported:

However, reports on the bishop’s background provided by his partisans have misstated his status, the Church of Uganda tells The Church of England Newspaper.  Claims the bishop was deposed in 2007 for his support for the gay community or his association with gay pressure groups are false, the church notes.

Bishop Ssenyonjo was deposed on Jan 17, 2007 by the Church of Uganda after he took part in the consecration as bishop of a former Anglican priest for the independent Charismatic Church of Uganda, the Ugandan provincial secretary told CEN.

“One of the co-consecrators was another deposed Uganda Bishop, the former bishop of North Mbale. He had been deposed because he took a second wife. So, Ssenyonjo was not deposed because of his association” with gay advocacy groups, the spokesman said, but for having conferred episcopal orders upon a priest in a church not in communion with the Church of Uganda.

It is true the bishop has sharply different views on the issue of homosexuality than his peers in the Church of Uganda. But the man portrayed in the West is not the man known in Uganda. My post does not attempt to resolve who the true Bishop Senyonjo is. A martyr to homophobic bigots or as his compatriots in Uganda believe, a retired bishop who once out of office found a group of wealthy Americans to bankroll him.

There is little doubt the bishop has become an icon for some in the West. But it is far from clear that he is a martyr. The truth is out there but it is not likely to be found when stories not checked.

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  • boinkie

    FYI: The Catholics also officially opposed the law, but never mind. A lot of this is political manipulation to distract from corruption, but it plays on the deep unspoken anger of the population. Male rape during Africa’s colonial times, in boarding schools, and as a punishment during their varisous wars is a story that hasn’t been well covered in the news because it is a taboo subject.

    • F Young

      “The Catholics also officially opposed the law, but never mind.”

      They at first celebrated it, then were reminded that the Catholic Church officially opposes the death penalty, then quietly supported it again once assured the death penalty had been removed.

  • Gregory Peterson

    Who are the wealthy Americans, how much have they donated, and for what is the money be used?

  • ahermit

    “the article is not balanced in that it does not offer the voice or views of those who hold the contrary position.”

    Those would be the people who want homosexuals thrown in prison or even executed, right?

    • jasonbmiller

      So you REALLY think that is the range of opinions? Either you support homosexual rights OR you want them executed? Nothing in between? You’re assertion is ridiculous.

      • ahermit

        ” Either you support homosexual rights OR you want them executed?”

        No, the prison option is still there… This is Uganda we’re talking about remember?

        And that is the “contrary position” in Uganda; that homosexuals (and anyone who argues on their behalf) should be treated like criminals.

  • Jeff Martinhauk

    I seem to recall that issue being a public (within the Episcopal church, anyway) point of conversation in the late-2000s. I can’t document that, but I vaguely recall the facts.

    I believe that was during the time when Henry Orombi was Archbishop of Uganda and broke communion with the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada over the ordination of gay priests and the blessing of same-sex relationships.

    Archbishop Orombi was no fan of LGBT people. That may not mean it was the only reason Bishop Christopher was defrocked, but as I recall Orombi had a pretty long list of other persecutions of LGBT people unrelated to Senyonjo that makes Senyonjos case pretty compelling. The Church of Uganda, at least at that time, was not known, at least in my opinion, for being forthright in their communications when so much media attention was being placed upon them during the middle of the newfound Anglican schism Orombi was nurturing.

    In short, I think if you go further back, the reporting was done — although perhaps not by the secular

    • George Conger

      There is no evidence that the Church of Uganda has not been forthright in its account of the deposition of Christopher Senyonjo.

      I should note that I have been one of the few, if not the only one, who has reported on this issue in the past — starting with the scandal of Uganda Integrity (of which Senyonjo was patron). That organization turned out to be a fraud — taking money from Integrity USA under false pretenses. Senyonjo appeared not to have dirtied his hands, but there is a history of gullible Americans sending money to Africa (both liberals and conservatives) and Africans responding with what their paymasters want to hear.

      • Jeff Martinhauk

        George, I was Treasurer of Integrity USA during that period and if there is evidence of any malfeasance I haven’t heard of it, although it has been some time since I left. Where is this article?

        • George Conger

          Do you not remember the scandal surrounding Erich Kasirye and Uganda Integrity? He created a shell group to solicit funds for gay Ugandans from Integrity USA and when Michael Hopkins checked into it further found Kasirye was a fraud.