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Kenyan priest follows in Li Tim-Oi’s footsteps

12 January 2024

The Revd Purity Munyiri says: I’ll be able to shine light

Li Tim-Oi Foundation

The Revd Purity Munyiri

The Revd Purity Munyiri

THE pastoral duties of the Revd Purity Munyiri, a priest in the Anglican Church of Kenya, are much the same as those of her counterparts in the Church of England. Not many priests in England, however, are periodically called to take the funerals of young mothers who have taken their own lives — sometimes after those of their children.

In the communities in which Ms Munyiri ministers, some girls are forced to marry early in their teenage years: the bride price, along with one fewer mouth to feed, can amount to an irresistible offer to a family left in hardship by recent droughts.

But, often, these unions are abusive, and end in abandonment. “Drunkenness and drugs have destroyed a lot of men. Men are just sitting there, drinking all day. If you try to argue, there is fighting, then they leave for another woman,” Ms Munyiri said in an interview last week.

Some of these women — teenagers, although often with multiple children — are forced into prostitution, where they are at high risk of contracting HIV, or spreading it if they caught it from their unfaithful husband.

Other girls see no other option but to take their own life, and, in a few cases, have first killed their children.

In the face of such extreme challenges, where does pastoral work begin? For Ms Munyiri, the answer is to encourage women, telling them that they can “stand on their own two feet” by seeking an education, or starting a business, and building bonds of solidarity through the church community.

Her own life story acts as an inspiration. She married young, and worked in the home, before discerning a call to ministry, and beginning to work as an evangelist in the Kenyan Church.

Li Tim-Oi FoundationThree women training for ordained ministry at Africa International University

Some church leaders were reluctant to put her forward for ordination training, but she was determined, and was ordained priest in 2019 after completing a diploma in theology.

Now, she is studying for a degree in theology, entering her third year at St Paul’s University, Nairobi, and her experiences have shown women in the community that they, too, can pursue an education, and benefit from it.

“They say: ‘Look at Purity, she is transformed!’” Ms Munyiri says, and explains what, she believes, a university education is allowing her to achieve: “I’ll be equipped, I’ll be enlightened . . . now I’ll be someone who can stand before people, and can shine light.”

Speaking to the Church Times last week after a “long day in the field”, making pastoral visits in the rural communities in which she serves, Ms Munyiri observed that this conversation would not have been possible a few years ago: she would not have had the courage, or English skills, to engage in this way.

It has also given her confidence in her community, and the Church, in both of which female leaders are not often respected, she says: “Some men look at you as if you’re not supposed to be there.” But, she observes cheerfully, “there is nothing they can do.”

A school for children with special needs run by the Kenyan diocese of Kianyaga

Grants from the Li Tim-Oi Foundation are enabling Ms Munyiri to study for her degree, as part of its mission to enable women priests and ordinands around the Anglican Communion to attain the required qualifications (Features, 10 May 2007).

In the charity’s most recent newsletter, the director, the Revd Christina Rees, writes: “Purity is just one example of the transformative effect that an educated Christian woman can have, especially when she is placed in a position of leadership. As well as giving these girls hope, Purity also gave them feelings of self-worth and was able to reassure them of God’s love for them.”

The foundation was created in 1994, to commemorate the Revd Dr Florence Li Tim-Oi, who, in 1944, had become the first woman to be ordained priest in the Anglican Communion (News, 31 January 2014).

On 25 January, a public service to mark the 80th anniversary of her ordination will be held in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, at 11 a.m.

The Assistant Curate of St Anne’s, Oldland, the Revd Mark Nam (Podcast, 19 August 2021) and his wife, Kayi Nam, have started a petition calling on the Church of England to recognise the anniversary of Dr Li Tim-Oi’s ordination as a feast day.

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