MUKONO, Uganda — The High Court in Uganda has directed members of the Anglican Church to use canon law to resolve conflicts arising from the process of electing their bishops instead of petitioning the country’s courts for legal redress.
For years, members of the Anglican Church of Uganda who were dissatisfied with the elections of bishops dragged the archbishop to court. However, in a ruling handed down last month, Uganda’’s Principal Judge Flavian Zeija noted that nation’s courts lack the competence to hear the bishops’ election petitions and directed that those who feel aggrieved to petition responsible church organs.
Zeija made the remarks while delivering a ruling in a case that arose from the process of electing the Anglican Bishop of Luweero Diocese in central Uganda, where a group of parishioners challenged the decision of the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Uganda to rescind the election of the diocese’s bishop-elect.
For decades, the Anglican church has been grappling with election petitions stemming from the electoral processes of bishops in the different dioceses. The petitions against the electoral processes recently sparked a heated national debate about the integrity of the exercise. In the debate, Christians expressed concern that election disputes could have the potential to taint the institution’s image and possibly split the church. As a result, Zeija’s ruling came as a relief to many in church circles and was broadly welcomed.
The House of Bishops nullified the election and consecration of Bishop-elect Rev. Canon Godfrey Kasana Ssemakula on June 28. The Rev. Canon Kasana had been elected to the office in April and was supposed to be consecrated on July 16.
The statement from the Anglican church indicated that Kasana’s election had been rescinded on grounds that his integrity was misrepresented during the nomination process. The decision to rescind the the election followed a petition by a section of parishioners in the diocese to Archbishop Dr. Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu, asking him to conduct an audit into the infidelity allegations lodged against Kasana.
The petitioners noted that, although Kasana was married in the 1990s, he maintained a relationship with two other women with whom he has children. Although Kasana denied the allegations, the House of Bishops didn’t change its decision of rescinding his election, forcing a section of parishioners to petition the High Court and challenging the revocation of his election.
The petitioners had asked the court to declare the decision by the House of Bishops to rescind Kasana’s election and declare it invalid in order to pronounce him as the elected bishop of Luweero Diocese. They further asked court to bar Archbishop Kaziimba from interfering with Kasana’s consecration.
On Oct. 25, a judge dismissed the petition against Archbishop Kaziimba on the grounds that it lacked merit and that it was not tenable under the law. He directed the Anglican church on how to deal with the election wrangles.
“Once you subscribe to a certain faith, you must go by its tenets,” the judge ruled. “The respondents subscribe to the Anglican faith. The Anglican Church in Uganda has certain canons it follows. Without a doubt, the canons provide for how a bishop is elected in the Church. It’s not the business of this court to entertain disputes relating to the consecration of a bishop. Courts cannot appoint a bishop for the Church. That is a spiritual matter for which courts can’t claim to be competent. The Anglican Church in Uganda has all the necessary bodies to resolve such disputes.”
The judge noted that since the courts could not appoint bishops for the church, he dismissed the case. During the hearing of the case, Archbishop Kaziimba argued that the nullification of Kasana’s election was done in accordance with the rules and regulations that govern the Anglican Church of Uganda.
“The defendant contends … that the election and consecration of a bishop in the Church of Uganda is a matter of religious nature and calls for interpretation of the provincial constitution and canons together with the traditions and practices of the church and this honorable court has no jurisdiction to entertain the same as it amounts to judicial intervention in religious questions and the doctrines of ministerial exceptions applies to it,” Archbishop Kaziimba said.
The Rev. Dr. Grace Lubaale of Uganda’s Kyabongo University told Religion Unplugged that this was the best judgement on the subject and was made with logic and coherence.
“Court has no powers to determine and decide spiritual, doctrine, theological and customs of any religion,” Lubaale said, “including choosing bishops.”