Thursday June 21 2012

Orombi: the archbishop who chose not to fight

Orombi: the archbishop who chose not to fight

Archbishop Orombi 

By John K. Abimanyi

Eight years ago, Henry Luke Orombi took his seat as the Archbishop of Uganda’s Anglican Communion, marked with a consecration at Namirembe Cathedral.

In a 1,800-word-speech, he promised to continue the development works of his predecessor (like the Church House and others like Uganda Christian University), to draw the bridge between Anglicanism and other Christian denominations, to make the Anglican Church in Uganda a learning board for the wider Anglican communion, and, to work harmoniously with government for development and peace.

And in the end, it is on these pledges, and how he came to fulfil them, that one can stand to make verdicts on his reign, which is a full year short of its intended tenure. Bishop Orombi’s successes quickly stand out in the leadership role that the Church of Uganda (CoU) had in its external relations; with other member churches of the Anglican Communion, and, with other Christian churches, especially the Pentecostal movement that had made it a habit to launch ridicule at the CoU.

He, however, will be noted for having failed to always have his house of clergymen in order, with some publically disagreeing on issues that one would expect the church to have an agreed position on, at least publically. And his relationship with the state, especially cordiality with President Yoweri Museveni, draws criticism for having limited him from calling the state to order, even when it evidently fell below its expectations.

Rebel Archbishop?
At the home of the worldwide Anglican church in the UK, (where another battle to replace an archbishop is in its early stages – with a Ugandan, the Most Reverand John Sentamu, in poll position), the church is divided right down the middle. Reason? A failure to agree on issues of doctrine; whether to allow the church consecrate female bishops, but more controversially, whether to admit gay men as clergy, and, whether to wed homosexuals in church.

While the church’s leadership in the UK was divided on these issues, the church in Africa had a more unified and indeed conservative view, especially against the church’s tolerance of homosexuality. And Bishop Orombi, no less, was at the engine’s end of the train, leading African calls for the church not to lose its rooting in scripture.

It all took a head in 2008, when a month to the Lambeth Conference (an assembly of all Anglican Archbishops in the world, occurring every 10 years), Bishop Orombi led a number of parsons from Uganda to Jerusalem to attend the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon), as an alternative to the Lambeth Conference. Bishop Orombi and his colleagues then boycotted the Lambeth Conference.

It all seemed like a breakaway faction of the church was forming, just like it was in the days of Martin Luther and the British ruler, King Henry VIII, who led the Anglican church’s breakaway from the Roman Catholic church in the 1500s.

As he took over as archbishop, Orombi said, “This Church pledges to stand firm on the apostolic faith where many churches today lack confidence. At this time in the Anglican Communion, we are willing to take the leadership role to demonstrate that Jesus is alive. Please humbly learn from us.”

Bishop Orombi thus managed to stand as a beacon of leadership for the church’s conservative roots, to the rest of the world. But his strike action could as well be seen as an agent of disunity.

The Buganda factor
Just like the Church of England, the Church of Uganda (CoU) is closely tied to a cultural leader. Namirembe Cathedral is the provincial headquarters of the CoU, and the Kabaka of Buganda is the patron of Namirembe Cathedral. And there have been undercurrents of leadership squabbles between Baganda and non-Baganda members of the CoU leadership.

It is a feat that Bishop Orombi addressed in an emotional sermon he delivered last year. But it was not just a sermon. It was a confession, an act of repentance as the highest-ranking official in the church, Bishop Orombi himself, sought forgiveness from Baganda Christians for having mistrusted them. An act of reconciliation at its most pure, Bishop Orombi was leading by example, mending fences and showing not only other fellow Anglicans but Ugandans as a whole, the power of forgiveness, and, the need to accept people of different cultures in a society as varied as ours.

Meeting Pentecostal preachers halfway
Obstinacy is a cardinal characteristic of many Pentecostal teachings and preachers. It is seen in a near militant approach to what it refers as the Anglican Church’s conservatism.

This has been manifest in blatant attacks on the CoU by Pentecostal preachers who often openly advocated members of Anglican Churches to defect into Pentecostal ranks. Saying there was bad blood between the Anglican and Pentecostal Churches, would not be far from the truth.

Yet thanks to efforts by Bishop Orombi, there has been an attempt to bring an end to this clutching at straws. It formed part of his speech as he took office. “The Christian Church has rainbow colours. No one Church contains it all,” he said back in 2004. “Let us share each other’s gifts and contribution. Let us learn from each other out of humility,” he added.

And Kampala Pentecostal Church (now Watoto Church) thus had the privilege of being the very first Pentecostal Church to host an Anglican bishop as a preacher. It is important to note that it is he who took the all-important first step of reconciliation between the two. He, together with other Anglican Bishops would later meet pastors from the Pentecostal movement, for a-month-long peace-making retreat that left many on both sides shedding tears of repentance and asking for forgiveness.

The small matter of politics and clergymen
None that read the news on the Monday after Easter Sunday this year could have failed to notice the very conspicuous disagreement in opinion at the very top of the Anglican Church. Bishop Orombi, while preaching at All Saints Cathedral, asked his fellow clergymen to keep away from politics. His deputy, however, the Assistant Bishop of Kampala diocese, Zac Niringiye, was at a church in Kisugu, not more than five kilometres away, doing the exact opposite, begging President Museveni to retire in 2016.

Whether clergy should or shouldn’t be involved in politics, or at least criticise it, is a matter of varying opinions. But from a leadership point of view, it reflected a failure on Bishop Orombi’s part to rally his house into unity or agreement on an issue of doctrine, a feat that could have such effects as leaving the 10-million-plus flock in the Anglican church confused as to what is the right course of direction.

President Museveni’s influence is being watched closely as a successor is sought for Bishop Orombi. The president’s game of politics has been to keep all religious leaders close – and this is the case in Islam as well. President Museveni is known not to miss Bishop’s consecrations, even if they are hundreds of miles away from Kampala, taking the opportunity to have photo moments and donate a Sports Utility Vehicle to the new Bishop.

Yes, it still is a matter of opinion, but Bishop Orombi has been marked with accusations of being too apolitical, of being too close to the president or simply turning the other way when government goes wrong. And the fact that his immediate deputy offered the best chance to compare and contrast his views, will help further embolden this as typical of his reign.

Bishop Orombi’s reign is marked with the contradiction that as he managed to foster some form of unity in and out of the church at home, he was the exact opposite on the international scene, where he also played a key role.

Having found plans to construct a building in Kampala already formulated, Bishop Orombi leaves offices having seen the building rise out of the ground; a feat that shows the Anglican Church is not being left behind by the Catholic Church, which recently opened Mapeera House, just a few metres away.

While he served as the archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Henry Luke Orombi oversaw a period during which we learned that it was possible to agree, even when disagreement was the weather condition of the day. And his shyness to politics will not do much to slur that.