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One female priest’s tireless journey to the top

Rev Diana Nkesiga, the vicar of All Saints Cathedral Nakasero, says the journey to uplift women clergy in ministry has been on since the 1960s.

The amiable Nkesiga says a lot has been achieved regarding the uplifting of women clergy in ministry but a lot still needs to be done. She says at the start, women in church service started work as commissioned workers. They would then be made deaconesses.

Most women served on this rank for decades because women couldn’t be ordained. Rev Prudence Kaddu, for example, one of the first females to train in Theology, was commissioned on November 12, 1967 and ordained deacon in December 1978. But Kaddu was only ordained priest in 1990, 24 years after her training.

Nkesiga recalls that it was 1983 when Bishop Festo Kivengere ordained the first three women as priests.

“It was controversial at the time.”

On her part, Nkesiga was a commissioned worker in 1989 and was ordained deacon in 1991. She recalls she was meant to be priested in 1992 but she was left out.

“No reason was given, but I remember I was pregnant with my second born.”

She was then serving in South Africa and recalls that at that time the debate was also raging on the priesthood of women. It was eventually lost in the synod. While in South Africa in 1994, then Bishop Misaeri Kauma of Namirembe diocese called Nkesiga for ordination, but his tenure was also ending.

Kawuma was replaced by Bishop Balagadde Ssekadde.

“I almost missed. But I was priested with people I had taught; they [almost got] priested before me.”

Back in South Africa, she says, it was difficult for a woman to be posted to a parish. Nkesiga was posted to a university as a chaplain, but not in a regular church. Her employment terms differed from those of men doing similar work.

“It was half pay, no pension, no medical, no car.”

Nkesiga shows a photo of herself standing in front of a church clad in the collar, carrying a placard with the words: “Unemployed female priest, two sons, one husband. God bless.”

She, however, says people like Bishop Desmond Tutu were supportive to uplifting women in ministry. She vividly recalls a personal turning point in 1995. Bishop Tutu told her: “Don’t tell your friends, but on Wednesday you are going to celebrate Holy Communion.”

It was a preserve of male priests. With the bishop’s approval, she started preparing.

On the d-day, she recalls: “Fellow priests and the congregation thought I was just preparing to give way to male priests to celebrate the Holy Communion. When I stood to serve, the congregation froze. When I asked the congregation to draw near with faith and receive the Holy Communion, no one came. A few people even walked out.”

She recalls that Bishop Tutu stepped out, knelt in front of her and she served him. It was after Tutu’s act of humility that the rest of the congregation also came. Bishop Tutu remains one of the icons supporting women emancipation in the church.

On what it will take to have a women bishop, Nkesiga says: “It will take a big turn of attitude. The ministry of Christ is a serving ministry; I think it must be God’s moving to take you. But as a far as ability and qualification is concerned, it’s possible because there are women with experience.”

But she is happy that the number of female priests in Uganda has risen to about 200, while some dioceses have rules making some positions mandatory for female priests. At All Saints cathedral, the vicar must be a woman.

Nonetheless, Nkesiga said she is not aware of a female priest in Uganda above the rank of vicar. She says there are women priests with even PhDs, but they are in the academia and the church posts them to head ministries such as Mothers Union and other administrative roles at province level.

Women priests have been lobbying for a change in the status quo through constitutional amendments.

“Even as I speak now, our constitution is being revised and a lot of the changes have been gender-related,” she said.


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