[Episcopal News Service – Canterbury, England] On the morning of July 31 some 600 bishops, over 85 percent of them men, from across the Anglican Communion processed into the historic Canterbury Cathedral, described by some as the heart of Anglicanism, and when it came time for the sermon, it was the Rt. Rev. Vicentia Refiloe Kgabe who ascended the stairs into the pulpit.
In April, Kgabe received the email from Lambeth Palace inviting her to preach, and she didn’t quite believe it. “I thought there was a wrong email in my inbox. I looked at it and I went on with my work. It was just kind of like, that was a strange email, go and read it again,” she told Episcopal News Service. “And I read it. And I laughed, and I was like, no, there’s no way. Let me say yes and then somebody will realize they made a mistake. And say, ‘no really, it was not meant for you.’”
She did respond, “Yes, I’ll be happy to preach.”
“And immediately, the response came. ‘Thank you very much, Archbishop Justin is happy, we’ll send you the program and such things.’”
When it became clear the invitation was real, “I started crying, because it’s like, you know, the imposter syndrome thing.”
It was the first time in its 155-year history that a woman preached at the opening service of the Lambeth Conference, the mostly one-a-decade gathering of Anglican bishops from across the globe.
The third woman to become a bishop in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, Kgabe was appointed to lead the Diocese of Lesotho in 2021. She was new to the job and thought maybe there were other more experienced bishops better qualified to preach. But then she got to work and after months of reading and gathering material, and working with the conference’s theme, “God’s Church for God’s World,” and the July 31 liturgy’s readings, 1 Kings 17.8-16, 1 Peter 4.7-11, and from the Gospel, John 13.12-17, “the writing took a day.”
In her sermon, she spoke of how the Anglican Communion is “called to practice hospitality and to serve.”
“How do we as the church – the Anglican church, demonstrate hospitality in a world that is going through and experiencing some serious pain and strife?” she asked. “We do this by following the model that has been set for us by our savior, and this model is not self-centered nor inward-looking. It calls us not to be navel-gazing, but it calls us to first seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all the things that we wish for, that we yearn for, that we call for that we hope for will be given to us, but first we seek the kingdom.”
At the close of the service all she wanted to do was drink water and sleep, she said, but sleep didn’t come until later because “the body was just buzzing, I could feel the vibration.”
In the time between the last Lambeth Conference in 2008 and this 15th Lambeth Conference of bishops from across the Anglican Communion, the number of women leading dioceses has increased from 14 to some 97. Kgabe is one of three female bishops in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. There are three more on the African continent, one in South Sudan and two in Kenya.
Kgabe was born in 1976 in Soweto, a township in Johannesburg, South Africa, and apartheid remained in place for most of her childhood. She attended both primary and secondary school in Soweto at a time when students were not permitted to attend schools outside their localities. To her, St. Hilda’s Anglican Church served as “a second home,” a safe place where she and other children and teenagers gathered after school on Wednesdays and Fridays and on the weekends.
“There was so much to do at church. My best friends come from church … That’s how the church was for me in Soweto, and I know for many of my peers, it was a sanctuary; it saved us from so many things. We were altar servers, we were a part of the young girls guild, we were in the youth program, we volunteered for things so we were available, and every Saturday, there was a funeral in our church. We were there to do it all.”
It was after a childhood of spending four days a week at church, that Kgabe as a 16-year-old high school student, began to think about ministry.
“I started doing the thinking in 1992, and I remember, I didn’t have the vocabulary then. I still don’t have it now. I call it kind of wanting to be a priest. I had no role models; women were not yet ordained in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa,” she told ENS.
“As a 16-year-old, I went home, because home was like that, a place where you could speak your mind, and I said to my grandmother, ‘I would like to be a priest.’ That was a shock of her life because the first thing she asked was, ‘Where have you ever seen a woman being a priest?’
“So there was no reference … and then was she’s like, ‘Even in our family, we don’t have anyone who is a priest.’” The next thing her grandmother did, “like any other good Anglican, she went to the priest and said, ‘I have a child in the house and she just came home and started talking about being a priest.’”
At the time, the priest and her parents encouraged her first to finish high school. “For me, it sounded like you’re not taking me seriously. So, I shut it off. I thought, this is not for me, I’m not called to this, maybe I’m overthinking things,” she said.
And then, later that same year the Church of Southern Africa’s Provincial Synod voted to ordain women.
“As you started seeing ordinations happening, one could start having a reference of, OK, this is what it means. And my parents when I shared it with them, my father was concerned. His response was, ‘So you want to be poor for the rest of your life?’ OK, yeah. My mother’s like, ‘Maybe you want to be a nun?’ I was like, no, I’m clear … this is it. But I’ve been told to forget about it. So really, you don’t need to talk about it anymore.”
After high school graduation, Kgabe went on to study computers, and by then she’d developed a love for law. “That’s my first love. I really love law.” But then the call came from the church.
She entered the discernment process, and once it was confirmed, she entered the seminary at Grahamstown College of the Transfiguration. After two years, she returned to parish life and continued to study, eventually becoming rector of the college, where she served for seven years before being appointed bishop of Lesotho, one of 26 dioceses in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.
The Kingdom of Lesotho is a sovereign nation in the Maloti Mountains and is entirely surrounded by South Africa. She’s been well received in Lesotho, which has given her hope.
“When I was elected by the bishops to go to Lesotho, which is a landlocked country, which has never had a woman in a high position of leadership, few women were ordained. And then I went there, and they accepted me, there was a sign of hope.
“Their reception and welcome was a sign of hope.”
And another sign of hope, she said, “Is when you have a king, the most powerful person in the kingdom, the king who tells the nation, ‘I’ve got her back. Don’t mess with her.’ And then, in the tradition of a Lesotho, a new name was given to me, ‘mambatu,’ meaning ‘mother of the nation.’
“That was hope. Because if, you know, we’re in Africa, kings can do things that they want to do. But to have that was a shift, so I had to be able to sit in that moment of grace and receive it.”
Episcopal News Service’s complete Lambeth Conference coverage is here.