Tributes pour in for Bishop Ellinah Ntfombi Wamukoya, First Woman to be Elected an Anglican Bishop in Africa

On Tuesday this week (19 January) Archbishop Thabo Makgoba made the following announcement: “It is with profound sorrow that I have to announce the devastating news that the Bishop of Swaziland in Eswatini, the Right Revd Ellinah Wamukoya, died today….We express our deepest condolences to her husband, Okwaro Henry Wamukoya, their children and grandchildren. May her soul rest in peace.”

Interestingly, it was the 1992 Provincial Synod, meeting in Swaziland, that voted to ordain women to the priesthood (women had been permitted to be made deacons).  This resolution also provided for women to be elected as bishops.  In Revd Ellinah Wamukoya a women was elected at the Elective Assembly for the Diocese of Swaziland on 18 July 2012.  She was consecrated as a bishop on 17 November 2012 by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba.

This was a significant milestone in the history of our church.  At the time the Archbishop wrote: “We have witnessed a great occasion, and now it does indeed seem that the heavens are about to fall upon us – the falling of rain, which this country and its people so desperately need.”

At the time Bishop Ellinah was the first women to be elected an Anglican bishop in Africa.  When elected she said: “I am going to try to represent the mother attribute of God….A mother is a caring person but at the same time, a mother can be firm in doing whatever she is doing.”

There are currently two other women Anglican bishops in Africa: Bishop Margaret Vertue, the bishop of False Bay (in ACSA) and Bishop Emily Awino Onyango, who was appointed this month to serve as Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Bondo, in the Anglican Church of Kenya.

Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya was previously the Town Clerk of Manzini, having earlier served as the City Planner. She held a Master’s degree in Town and Regional Planning.

In 2015 Bishop Ellinah was awarded a MA in Theology through Pretoria University with a dissertation entitled “The environment in Eucharistic worship in the authorised Anglican liturgies in Southern Africa from 1850.”

With a passion for evangelism and youth work, it was in her concern for the integrity of creation that Bishop Ellinah is most well-known: she was the liaison bishop for the Environment in ACSA and the chair of the Anglican Communion Environment Network.

Within her own Diocese Bishop Ellinah got the church “to work with the Swaziland Environmental Authority (SEA) in ensuring that the environmental laws are implemented and ensuring that environmental Impact Assessments are undertaken for all Diocesan projects. Waste management and alien invasive species are two of the key environmental challenges in the country.

Wamukoya has ensured that the church plays a leading role making sure all church premises are litter free and engage in national programmes towards combating invasive species takeover. The Diocese under her leadership has received recognition from the government as the most environmentally sensitive faith-based organization.”

For the second time this year the Diocese of Swaziland won the Environmental Active Faith Based organization in Swaziland awarded by the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Affairs.

On 14 January Bishop Ellinah offered Prayers for our Planet as part of a Lambeth Conference initiative of “Prayers of Hope for the World” and was thanked by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  She offered the following prayer: “Creator God, we thank and praise you for giving us the opportunity to be co-creators with you and to ensure the sustainability of “Mother Earth,” our meeting place with God. God as a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit teach us as the Anglican community to work together for mutual respect with one another and your creation. We repent for our negligence leading the earth to be in peril from loss of habitats and species. Help us to be caretakers of your gifts, protecting the land from abuse, and ready to share with all in need. Amen.”

In expressing her great sadness, Canon Dr Rachel Mash, Provincial Environmental Coordinator, who worked closely with Bishop Ellinah commented as follows: “A great tree has fallen – Bishop Ellinah taught us to love God and care for Mother Africa. She led with heart and hands.  May the seeds that she has planted across Africa and the world grow in her legacy. May her memory be blessed.”

Both Revd Sabelo and I have worked with Bishop Ellinah through our environment work in the Province. We were both with her in November 2019 in Benoni where she was a speaker at the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI) Policy Conference.

The Anglican Communion News Service [ACNS] highlighted her concern for the rights of women. “In 2018 Bishop Ellinah took part in a panel discussion at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London, to discuss the role faith communities can play in tackling gender-based violence.  The Anglican Communion’s Director for Gender Justice, Mandy Marshall, described Bishop Ellinah as “an excellent advocate for women.”   [ACNS, 19 January 2021]

There have been tributes from around the world. The Executive Director of the Anglican Alliance, Rachel Carnegie, said “Bishop Ellinah was an inspiration to so many. A great loss to the whole Communion…” [ACNS, 19 January 2021]

Bishop Andrew Swift of the Diocese of Brechin in Scotland, with whom there is a partnership with the Diocese of Swaziland, said: “It is a devastating news that Bishop Ellinah has died.  She has been a great friend and support of the Diocese of Brechin for her time as Bishop of Swaziland and I found her a wise and insightful colleague as I have developed my understanding of the episcopacy….Bishop Ellinah was an inspiring bishop with a great and effective presence in the wider Anglican Communion as well as in her own province and diocese.  She will be greatly, greatly missed by all who knew and loved her.”

Bishop Ellinah’s funeral will be held on Saturday 23 January at All Saints Cathedral at 14.00.  Thereafter she will be cremated.  The funeral service will be livestreamed through the Cathedral’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Hamba Kahle!

Compiled by Andrew Warmback, Rector of St Paul’s Anglican Church, Durban, 21 January 2021