After a whirlwind of controversy surrounding the revocation of his offer to become Tucker Foundation dean, the Right Rev. James Tengatenga started his position as a presidential fellow at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. this month. Last August, Dartmouth rescinded its appointment of Tengatenga, then serving as diocesan bishop of Southern Malawi, due to concerns among students, faculty and staff about his views on homosexuality.
The Very Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, president and dean of the divinity school, said she hopes Tengatenga will take advantage of the institution’s academic resources and discuss social justice issues.
Disapproval of Tengatenga’s selection as Tucker dean stemmed in part from accusations that he had criticized the appointment of the Right Rev. Gene Robinson of N.H. as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. In 2011, he stated that Malawi’s Anglican dioceses were “totally against homosexuality,” according to The Boston Globe.
Tengatenga released a statement expressing his support for LGBTQ equality and same-sex marriage two days after the announcement of his appointment sparked concern, but disapproval did not abate. Dartmouth’s NAACP chapter circulated a petition objecting to the selection, over 30 faculty and staff members signed.
College President Phil Hanlon met with Tengatenga to revoke his appointment on Aug. 14.
Ragsdale said the Episcopal Divinity School selected Tengatenga for the fellowship because it believed the College mistreated him.
“Our understanding was that he was completely slandered at Dartmouth,” Ragsdale said. “The allegations were false and were a great personal cost to him.”
She added that although the Malawi Council of Churches, which Tengatenga once chaired, took an anti-gay stance during his tenure, she thinks his beliefs differed from those of the council and that Tengatenga has been a strong advocate of LGBTQ rights. Her school, she said, supports LGBTQ equality and would not have named Tengatenga as a fellow if it thought he opposed homosexuality.
Religious and spiritual life director Rev. Nancy Vogele, who received a degree from the Episcopal Divinity School, said the institution has always been at the forefront of social justice issues. She added that Tengatenga will have a lot to contribute given his background in pro-democracy work and working with children whose births are unregistered.
Ragsdale said Tengatenga received the fellowship due to his experience organizing social movements in Malawi. His background would give the school a fuller picture of effective methods to institute social change, she said.
Reflecting on the controversy, Tengatenga said he does not want to revisit the memory of his brief appointment at Dartmouth because he feels he was “shut off” from campus.
“You should understand that in many ways, not only professionally but also personally, it was an injustice and humiliation,” he said.
In a previous interview, which Tengatenga said still reflects his views, he said his stance on homosexuality had changed over time and that he has consistently denounced violence against LGBTQ individuals.
At the divinity school, he said he hopes to contribute to the development of new religious leaders in the world and engage the community with the gospel.
Women’s and gender studies professor Michael Bronski, who was a vocal critic of Tengatenga’s appointment last summer, said he opposed Tengatenga’s appointment to the Tucker deanship because Dartmouth is a secular institution. Since the Tucker dean is supposed to uphold the “moral consciousness” of the College, Bronski said he believes the person occupying the position should represent broad campus values.
“There is no doubt that he is highly regarded in African political and religious circles,” he said. “So rather than demonizing Tengatenga, I think we should recognize the key point, which is that he was just a bad fit for Dartmouth.”