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Kenyan court orders mediation to solve Anglican homosexuality dispute

A bruising fight over unproven allegations has ended with a court order that the bishop and his priests settle their differences face to face.

Bishop Joseph Kagunda, center front, and clergy of the Mount Kenya West diocese during a news conference that announced the suspension of priests. RNS file photo by Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — A long-running dispute over three Anglican clergymen accused of homosexuality will be resolved through mediation, a court here ordered last week.

The three had sued Bishop Joseph Kagunda of the Mount Kenya West diocese in the High Court in Nyeri, challenging their 2015 suspensions over allegations that they were engaging in homosexual relationships and encouraging homosexuality among the church’s youth. They have denied all charges.

But last month, after a nearly three-year court battle, Justice Abigail Mshila of the Nyeri High Court ordered the parties to settle their disagreement by meeting with a mutually agreed-upon mediator. It is the first time mediation has been used to resolve a case of this kind.

“This is what we have been looking for,” the bishop told Religion News Service in a telephone interview on Oct. 26. “When we are in the courts, we cannot respect each other, but when we sit at the table, we come up with a way of working together. We are one people. When we sit at the table, we can start a new journey together.”

Kenya, in red, located in eastern Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, as it is in many other African countries, though a lawsuit seeking to lift the ban on gay sex is currently awaiting a ruling by Kenya’s Supreme Court. For now, convictions can draw up to 14 years in prison.

A majority of Kenyans also frown at homosexuality, and LGBT people are frequently threatened. Anglican church leaders here hold that same-sex relationships contradict God’s teachings.

The trouble in the Mount Kenya West diocese began in 2015, when a young churchgoer came forward seeking prayers because, he alleged, he had been lured into an affair with one of the priests. An investigation ordered by the bishop eventually implicated five clergymen.

Three of them — the Rev. Paul Warui, the Rev. James Maina and Archdeacon John Gachau, a priest who oversaw one of Mount Kenya West’s diocesan precincts — challenged their suspensions in court. The other two settled the dispute out of court and were readmitted as priests.

In October 2017, the court, citing a lack of evidence against the three, ordered their reinstatement and redeployment. The diocese was also ordered to pay the priests — who had not been receiving their pay since the suspension — a total of 6.8 million Kenya shillings, or about $68,000, for damage to their reputations.

But when the priests and the archdeacon were deployed to new parishes in July after the court orders, the congregations blocked the priests’ entry into the churches and forced them to flee.

At the peak of the disturbance, Kenya’s Anglican Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit called a special gathering at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Nyeri, where he called for unity but stressed that the bishop could not force the priests on the congregations.

“A bishop cannot force a priest to minister to a certain congregation if he is rejected. The church followers have the right to work with a church minister they relate with accordingly,” Kenyan local press quoted Ole Sapit as saying in July.

Anglican Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit speaks in Nairobi on May 19, 2016. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

The priests say they welcome the latest attempt to resolve the impasse through mediation, convinced that their concerns will be addressed and their names cleared.

“These were false allegations, but we have to look at the bigger picture in relation to the church fellowship,” said Warui. “It was not our intention to drag the church into court, but attempts to reach the church administration had proved impossible.”

Maina said, “It has cost the church in a big way. Its dignity has been lowered, but I think when we sit with the bishop, justice will be served. I think we will also come to an agreement.”

According to Kagunda, if the issues had been handled in the church and not the secular courts, the people would have listened.

“It would be my joy to get back my people,” Kagunda said, referring to the priests. “We have no interest in fighting anyone. It is my joy to see them come back to the flock.”