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Words on gays cost bishop post at Dartmouth

Dartmouth College has rescinded the appointment of a prominent African bishop as dean of a campus institution that focuses on furthering the moral and spiritual work of the school because of controversy over his views on homosexuality.

The extraordinary move by Dartmouth’s new president, Philip J. Hanlon, to retract the college’s offer won praise from those who raised concerns about how the appointment would affect gay students on a campus that has sometimes struggled with intolerance.

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But it left Bishop James Tengatenga of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi without a job and far out on a limb on gay issues in a country that still criminalizes homosexuality.

Hanlon, who met last week with Tengatenga on Dartmouth’s campus in Hanover, N.H., said in a statement Wednesday that after much reflection and consultation with senior leaders at the college, he decided that Tengatenga’s past statements compromised his ability to lead the William J. Tucker Foundation.

“The foundation and Dartmouth’s commitment to inclusion are too important to be mired in discord over this appointment,” Hanlon said.

Tengatenga, who also serves as chairman of what is effectively the board of directors of the 85 million member worldwide Anglican Communion, had already resigned his diocesan post and expressed public support for gay marriage after receiving the Dartmouth post.

He declined to comment in an e-mail Wednesday, saying he had not yet received a letter from the college withdrawing the offer.

His appointment had sparked a campus controversy as word spread that he had sharply criticized the election of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, and that he had asserted in 2011 that the Anglican dioceses in Malawi remained “totally against homosexuality.”

Tengatenga released a statement saying that his views on gay rights had evolved over time and that he now supports marriage equality and considers discrimination of any kind sinful.

But it was not enough to reassure a campus where an undercurrent of hostility to students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender — widely known by the acronym LGBT — has raised concerns. Last spring, classes were canceled after a group of students who protested Dartmouth’s handling of homophobia, racism, and sexual assault at a campus event received rape and death threats.

“This is not a small title; it’s not a small office,” said Jordan Terry, president of the Dartmouth chapter of the NAACP, which sent a letter signed by student groups, faculty, and staff raising concerns about the appointment. “The administration has claimed that this particular dean is the moral spokesman for Dartmouth.”

Opponents of the appointment praised the withdrawal of the offer.

“It’s a major decision around a group on campus, LGBT people and their allies, who feel marginalized and who feel the school, for all the good it does, doesn’t do enough,” said Michael Bronski, a senior lecturer in women’s and gender studies who said about 60 percent of his gay male undergraduates have been called derisive names or harassed at fraternity parties.

“The decision of Phil Hanlon and the administration to ultimately not go through with it is both remarkable within the context of higher education and I think pretty bold,” said S. Caroline Kerr of Cambridge, president of Dartmouth’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender alumni association.

But Tengatenga’s allies expressed frustration and dismay.

“You are asking the impossible of someone coming out of that African situation,” said the Rev. Nicholas Henderson, a parish priest in West London, an editor of Anglicanism.org, and a vice president of Modern Church, the oldest theological society in the Anglican communion. “Just rescinding that [appointment] is to show a lamentable lack of understanding of circumstances that are outside the confines of privileged North America.”

Tengatenga’s supporters painted him as a courageous moral leader who has worked tirelessly on behalf of the marginalized, who has stood up to repressive governments at great personal risk, and who has worked behind the scenes as a peacemaker on gay issues, both in Malawi and within the Anglican Communion.

But some critics said he had not done enough.

“Nobody would actually hire anybody who spoke out privately against apartheid in South Africa but not on the record,” Bronski said.

Andrew Longhi, a junior, wrote in a Huffington Post column that Tengatenga’s statement to the Dartmouth community was vague. It did not, for example, repudiate his past opposition to Robinson’s election.

The cleric’s supporters say this kind of criticism is unfair.

The Rev. Kapya John Kaoma, who has conducted extensive research on religion and sexuality in Malawi and other African countries for Political Research Associates, said Tengatenga is widely considered a friend to gay activists there. In 2010, Tengatenga organized bishops from Southern Africa to put out a statement countering an assertion by other African bishops encouraging governments to criminalize homosexuality, Kaoma said.

In 2005, Henderson was elected bishop of a diocese in Malawi, but a majority of prelates in the Church of the Province of Central Africa voted against confirming him after conservatives attacked Henderson for his affiliation with Modern Church, which promotes liberal theology, and his support for the gay and lesbian communities.

Tengatenga, Henderson said, was among the minority of bishops who supported his election.

“This is a big blow, because it leaves African activists on the ground wondering if they can work with Westerners,” Kaoma said. “All human rights defenders in Africa are working under very, very hard conditions, and the violence against them is always there. What they have done is exposed Bishop Tengatenga and then dumped him back into Malawi.”

Bishop Ian Douglas of the Diocese of Connecticut, who has known Tengatenga for years and serves with him on the Anglican Consultative Council, a worldwide representative elected body, said that Tengatenga played a crucial role in keeping the Anglican Communion from splitting apart in the last decade, following Robinson’s election and controversies over other issues.

“It’s an incredible lost opportunity — I would go so far as to say a travesty to justice with respect to James and a compromise of what academic institutions are supposed to stand for with respect to trying to seek a higher truth through academic freedom and genuine conversation,” Douglas said.

Hanlon was on vacation and unavailable for an interview. But Lindsay Whaley, associate provost at Dartmouth, acknowledged that the withdrawal of the appointment put Tengatenga “in an awkward and challenging position” and that the college was discussing with Tengatenga how it could help him “in transitioning to different options.”

Whaley declined to elaborate on what options were under discussion.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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