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Obituary: The Rt Revd Ellinah Wamukoya

23 April 2021

The Very Revd Ken Gray

The Archbishop of Cape Town writes:

BISHOP Ellinah Ntfombi Wamukoya, the first woman Anglican bishop in Africa, died on 19 January, aged 69, after being admitted to hospital and receiving oxygen therapy for Covid-19.

After a career as a civil servant, she was ordained priest in 2005 after a long involvement with the diocese of Swaziland, in the Southern African nation now called eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). She served as an Anglican chaplain to the University of eSwatini and was elected bishop in 2012.

Before her ordination, she had been the Town Clerk of Manzini, eSwatini’s commercial hub, having earlier served as the City Planner. She held a Master’s degree in town and regional planning.

As Bishop of Swaziland, she became widely known for her advocacy of the integrity of creation. In 2016, she was named by the BBC as one of the world’s 100 most inspirational and influential women. This month, Archbishop Justin Welby conferred upon her, posthumously, the Langton Award for Community Service, for outstanding leadership in the area of sustainable development and creation care in the diocese of Swaziland.

In Chapter 4 of St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, we learn of the treasure protected in clay jars, the treasure being the power of Jesus and his mission to be the light coming into a world of darkness. Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya was an outstanding witness to that light, not only in her diocese, but in the Province of Southern Africa and around the world.

To all of us in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, but especially to those of us who sat with her in the Synod of Bishops, Ellinah was special: a leader, a pastor, a theologian, and an activist. She was gentle, she was kind, but she also courageously spoke her mind. She loved fairness and was forceful in her advocacy — she was no pushover — but she combined her firmness with warmth and tenderness.

At Bishop Ellinah’s ordination, she committed herself to discerning the truth, to seeking actively that truth which the Church holds out as a mirror to the world, offering it spiritual depth, the transformation of the heart, and vivid glimpses of the God who is the author of all truth. As priest and as bishop, Ellinah was a teacher of truth, and she understood the words of the spiritual writer who said: “The language of truth is always unadorned and simple.” This is what made her preaching and the witness of her life so unforgettable, so attractive to so many, and so rich in its public witness.

Bishop Ellinah’s great blessing in the world of public witness was her passionate commitment to issues of environmental justice. Across the Anglican Communion, the loss of one who so powerfully promoted the integrity of all creation, so crucial to our planet’s survival, is especially mourned. As news of her death spread, advocacy workers and activists wrote eloquently about her passion for environmental justice.

Her leadership on the environment also testified to her generosity of spirit, because one cannot be immersed in issues of environmental justice without being committed to gender justice, to economic justice, to racial justice, and to overturning the other injustices that dehumanise people. In her heart and in bringing her public actions into alignment with her inner convictions, she heard over and over again the words of the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.”

For Bishop Ellinah, all of this was woven into a rich prayer life, a constant seeking of the face of God, a determined strengthening of her inner self. For her, God was not an abstract intellectual proposition or a mystical escape, but an encounter based on a living presence.

Her diocese was blessed to have her as a mother and to experience in her ministry the same tenderness, the same measures of love, and the same graciousness as her children and grandchildren knew. What we in the wider Province of Southern Africa will miss especially is her love, her commitment to truth, and her passion for justice. She drew us into her mother’s heart, and, because we were schooled in her heart, we learned so much more about God, fathomed more deeply the depths of love, and understood the mercy of an embracing, caring God.

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