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Right Rev. Bishop Christopher Senyonjo | Profile

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Biography

The Right Rev. Christopher Senyonjo, bishop in the Anglican Church of Uganda and advocate for LGBTQ persons, was born on December 8, 1931, to Maria Nosianta Nakalyango Terugwa Mukulu-Abula-Aware and Erika Kapere.  His father named him Senyonjo, which is a clan name from the Buganda area of Uganda.   The name signifies “cleanness,” perhaps deriving from the clan’s totem, an egret.  These ancestral family lineages are critical social identifiers.   Christopher was his mother’s first-born and had two younger siblings, a sister Meresiane (4 years younger) and a brother Langton (9 years younger).  He was the youngest of his father’s three children with two elder half-brothers, Ananias and Yokana.

Christopher’s mother taught him to read Luganda, the native language of the Buganda kingdom, at a young age. However, she could not teach him to write.  Senyonjo read voraciously throughout his life.  His mother was Catholic and remained a devout follower her whole life.

Christopher’s father spoke fluent English, which was unusual at the time, and served a chef to the English colonial governor at Entebbe.  His father followed and encouraged young Christopher’s education.   He arranged for Christopher—at age ten—to live and study with a relative, Douglas Kyeyune.   Kyeune taught at Bukomero, then at Nsangi and later at Nakayonyi. In April 1944, his father was attacked by a cobra and died two days later.    Words of his father’s death did not get to Christopher until after the burial, which Christopher recalls left a wound in his heart for a long time.  After his father’s death he went to live with an aunt.  Christopher continued to excel in his studies and received a full scholarship to King’s College Budo for secondary school.   

After completing secondary school Christopher was admitted to Makerere University’s Faculty of Science in 1953 to study medicine. Having spent most of his life in rural areas, Christopher enjoyed living in large city of Kampala. However, he neglected his studies and was dismissed after his first year there.  

Christopher took a position teaching English, math and health science at Luwule Secondary School from 1954-57.  In 1958, he transferred to Seeta Secondary School.  When he reached the age of 27, he decided it was time to marry.  An uncle introduced him to Ruth Makanwagi, whom he married in spring 1959 at the Misanvu Anglican Church. A few days later, while working in the garden, Ruth was bitten by a poisonous snake and died. They had been married for only 17 days. This was a huge tragedy for Senyonjo.

During this time of grieving Senyonjo found Scripture to be a consolation.  He experienced a profound religious conversion while listening to preaching on August 9, 1959.  Subsequently, he decided to dedicate his life to the service of God.  He passed the exams and was admitted to Buwalasi Theological College in Mbale.  He thrived in his studies, but struggled with being called to the priesthood.  He was one of two students in a new program, an East Africa diploma in theology, and graduated in 1963.  After graduation was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church of Uganda.

It was expected at that time that a priest would have a wife as a partner in ministry.  During his search  for a suitable partner, he met Mary Kyebakola to whom he was immediately attracted. He set out to court her to win her affections. They were married at the Namirembe Cathedral on December 28, 1963.   Senyonjo had been ordained deacon there two weeks earlier.

Senyonjo was assigned to work with Rev. Asa Byara in the Greater Kampala Project which opened worship centers in various Kampala locations including bars, restaurants and marketplaces.  The intent of the mission was to go where the people were, rather than wait for them to come to the church.  

Seeking additional theological training, Senyonjo applied to Union Theological Seminary in New York City and was accepted, receiving a scholarship.  He traveled there in July 1964; Mary joined him a year later.  This was a rich time of theological development for Senyonjo.   Rev. Hugh McCandless at Church of the Epiphany took Senyonjo under his wing and prepared him for ordination.  On December 19, 1964, Senyonjo was ordained a priest by Bishop Horace Donegan at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  He worked as a chaplain for two years at the James Ewing Cancer Hospital (now Sloan Kettering).  On May 2, 1966, a son Joseph was born at Woman’s Hospital in New York. Senyonjo received a Bachelor of Divinity (now M.Div.) degree in 1966 and a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) in 1967.  

In August 1967, Senyonjo and his family returned to Uganda, stopping along the way in London, Paris and Rome. Beginning in 1968, he was appointed a vicar of Namirembe Cathedral, under the dean, the Very Rev. Yokana Mukasa.  Senyonjo enjoyed doing ministry among this cosmopolitan community.   Beginning in 1969, he was appointed as a full-time lecturer at Bishop Tucker Theological College at Mukono. He taught there for four years, during which time he got a good sense of the breadth of issues facing African churches.  In 1973, he was hired by the Uganda Bible Society for an ecumenical project to translate the Bible into Luganda.  Although he had to leave after a year—to become bishop—the translation was completed and is still used today.

In October 1973, Senyonjo was told by some ecclesiastical colleagues that he was being nominated to become the new bishop of the West Buganda Diocese.  Senyonjo’s response was mixed—he felt joy and also trepidation for being so young (not yet 42) and inexperienced for such a challenging role.  He was elected to the episcopacy by the House of Bishops.  After the election Senyonjo took a 40-day sojourn in the U.K. to meditate and to prepare for his episcopal duties.  On January 27, 1974, he was enthroned as the third bishop of the West Buganda Diocese by the archbishop, Most Rev. Eric Sabiti at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kako.   West Buganda was a large, mostly rural diocese, much of it accessible only by unpaved roads, so the bishop spent much time traveling to visit parishes.  At the time of his election, the diocese was deeply divided between two factions that placed the headquarters in different areas and had marginalized a previous bishop who fueled this conflict.  Senyonjo moved to open lines of communication and reconcile this disagreement.  

Uganda was a colonial construction bringing together several African nations that were historically in contention.  The internal conflict between the different groups and areas within the country was rampant throughout the years of Senyonjo’s episcopacy.  In 1971, Idi Amin had overthrown President Milton Obote in a coup d’etat.  Amin’s security agents were actively arresting persons seen in opposition.  Amin also proposed to make Uganda a Muslim state.  In 1974, Janani Luwum became Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire.  Archbishop Luwum spoke out against Amin’s terror and religious oppression.   On February 5, 1977, government soldiers invaded the archbishop’s official residence, ostensibly looking for hidden weapons.  Three days later, the archbishop summoned the House of Bishops to meet and together they wrote a letter to Amin protesting the treatment of the archbishop and the regime’s human rights’ abuses.  

President Amin was not pleased with the letter and summoned the archbishop to meet him in Kampala on February 16, 1977.  The archbishop invited the other bishops to accompany him to this meeting.    Senyonjo was one of six bishops who traveled there with Luwum.  Upon their arrival, they were met by rowdy crowds and a battalion of soldiers who forced them to stand outside in a courtyard for several hours.   They were then led into a small room inside the presidential quarters. An official instructed the other bishops to leave while the archbishop was to sign a document and then rejoin them.  The bishops were forcibly removed and never saw the archbishop again.   They learned later that Amin had asked the archbishop to sign a document implicating him and the church in a plot to overthrow the government.  Realizing that this could be a justification to ban the Anglican and Catholic churches in Uganda, the archbishop refused.  He was subsequently beaten and apparently shot by Amin himself.    Years later Archbishop Luwum was officially recognized by the global Anglican Church as one of the martyrs of the 20th century.  In the aftermath, Senyonjo, as well as and other bishops, feared for their own safety.   Senyonjo went to live for a period of time in cognito with a distant relative.    

In 1982-83, Bishop Senyonjo was granted a sabbatical to pursue doctoral studies in marriage counseling and worship at Hartford Theological Seminary in the U.S.  During this time, he lived in the Yale Divinity School community.   In his studies Senyonjo was seeking to address issue of polygamy which was embedded in the Uganda culture.  The result of his work was to uphold the value of monogamy while encouraging the church to reach out to polygamists.   

During Senyonjo’s episcopacy, the churches of the diocese grew significantly, so two new dioceses were carved from West Buganda.  During his 24 years of service, Bishop Senyonjo confirmed over 170,000 persons into the church. He continued the campaign initiated by a previous bishop to construct a new cathedral in Kako.  The planning and fundraising for this project were prolonged.  The cathedral was still under construction when Senyonjo retired. He was invited back for the dedication of the new cathedral in 2009.    

Senyonjo retired on February 28, 1998, after 24 years of service as bishop of the West Bugunda Diocese. In his retirement he decided to pursue his interest in Christian counseling, particularly pastoral issues of marriage and sexuality within a Christian context.  He set up a counseling service in a suburb of Kampala.  

In December 2000, a colleague asked that Senyonjo provide counseling to some young persons who were feeling marginalized by the church.  Starting in January 2001, Senyonjo had his first encounters with young gay men. His response to the tribulations that he heard was to affirm that everyone was made in God’s image and was loved by God.  Since he was one of the only church leaders who did not vilify LGBTQ persons, Senyonjo was asked to become chair of Integrity Uganda.   

In March 2001, Senyonjo traveled to the U.S. to attend a conference. He got word there that back home he was being accused of promoting homosexuality instead of condemning it and leading persons to conversion.  Some of the criticism came from his close friends and colleagues.  Senyonjo responded with an affirmation that he was called to proclaim Good News to all persons, including marginalized and LGBTQ persons.

In May 2001, the Namirembe Diocesan Council met and passed resolutions condemning Senyonjo and his LGBTQ ministry.  Because of the virulence of the attacks upon him, Senyonjo did not think it safe to return to Uganda, so he extended his stay in the U.S.  Receiving an expression of support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was heartening for him.  

On May 14, 2001, Senyonjo wrote a letter to Anglican Church of Uganda outlining his beliefs and ministry to LGBTQ persons and inviting dialogue. He returned by Uganda shortly after 9/11/2001.  On January 24, 2002, the House of Bishops called him in and accused him of deviating from 1998 Lambeth Conference’s resolutions on homosexuality.  Senyonjo prevailed upon the bishops to appoint a committee of three bishops to hear his case and report back to the full house. However, that meeting did not happen and on July 25, 2002, he received letter from the archbishop indicating that he was to refrain from participating in the consecration of other bishops.  This was expanded by 2006 into instruction that he could not function in any capacity of bishop, retired bishop—or even as a priest.   

Oppression of LGBTQ persons in Uganda was on the rise.  In March 2009, Senyonjo observed a conference “Exposing the Truth behind Homosexuality and the Homosexuality Agenda” which featured a number of American antigay speakers. This event stirred up interest in the Parliament to consider and adopt an anti-homosexuality bill.  Senyonjo was one of several leaders who expressed opposition to the law which was passed on December 20, 2013 and took effect starting March 10, 2014.  

Throughout this turmoil Senyonjo continued his counseling ministry in support of LGBTQ persons.  In 2010, he founded St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Centre.   He continued to speak out publicly to advocate for LGBTQ persons.  In 2010 and in 2011, Senyonjo traveled to the U.S. and spoke before many church groups and received numerous honors and awards.  In 2012, he was honored by U.S. President Bill Clinton with a Clinton Global Citizen Award for leadership in civil society.  Senyonjo was featured in the award-winning 2012 documentary entitled Call Me Kuchu and also in God Loves Uganda in 2013.  

Senyonjo continued to be banned from churchly functions within the Anglican Church of Uganda.  He and Mary celebrated their 50th anniversary on December 28, 2013, at Namirembe Cathedral where they had been married.  He was thankful that the archbishop allowed this to happen there.  In 2014, Senyonjo returned to Union Theological Seminary in the U.S. as a scholar-in-residence and to write his memoirs.  This was published in 2016 as Defense of All God’s Children: The Life and Ministry of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo.  In 2018, Senyonjo was awarded an honorary document by the University of Leeds.

(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from information in Defense of All God’s Children by Christopher Senyonjo.)

Biography Date: April 2022

Additional Resources

Adriaan van Klinken, Ph.D. gave this introduction to Bishop Senyonjo when he received his honorary doctorate in 2018.

Bishop Senyonjo recorded this conversation with Adriaan van Klinken.

Theology & Sexuality, vol. 26, no, 1 (2020) includes a special section on Bishop Christopher Senyonjo.  

Tags

Church of England (Anglican) | Ally | Uganda | Clergy Activist | Integrity

Citation

“Right Rev. Bishop Christopher Senyonjo | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 26, 2022, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/christopher-senyonjo.

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