23 September 2023

The Soweto priest God gifted to lead a mountain kingdom

Dr Vicentia Kgabe became Bishop of Lesotho in 2021. Picture: supplied.

Jenan Taylor

17 May 2023

The Right Reverend Vicentia Kgabe, Bishop of the Diocese of Lesotho, has no time for those focused on creating age, gender, sex, race or class roadblocks. She says the Anglican Communion has more serious matters to solve.

When Dr Kgabe was consecrated Bishop of Lesotho in December 2021, she made history as the third Anglican woman bishop to be installed in southern Africa and the sixth on the entire continent.

Months later Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby invited her to preach at the opening of the 15th Lambeth Conference.

Her widely acclaimed sermon has been frequently referred to since then. Dr Kgabe has also spoken at several other gatherings and churches overseas in the last year, and this June she will visit Melbourne for the Diocesan Ministry conference.

But her outlook is rooted in the very challenges Lesotho faces.

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The Kingdom of Lesotho is an independent nation perched among glorious mountain terrain in the middle of South Africa. It is half the size of Tasmania but, at 2.2 million people, has four times its population.

Poverty is widespread, and HIV AIDS and tuberculosis have ravaged the country, leaving a wave of homeless orphans, few schools and a fragile medical system.

Immersed in energising the church to take practical action to help the community, Dr Kgabe said she has come to realise that God had long gifted her to meet the tests.

Dr Kgabe was born in Johannesburg in 1976, a dangerous time for black South Africans, and particularly school children.

Opposition to the brutal South African apartheid regime led to a bloody put down by the police and military, and the deaths of several black high school students, among others.

After a few years, Dr Kgabe’s parents felt unable to bear the on-going violence and sought to flee to Lesotho.

Loathe to risk exposing their daughter to a place they’d never been before however, they left her in the care of her grandmother in the expansive Johannesburg municipality of Soweto.

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For the next 11 years, Dr Kgabe attended school, made friends, developed teenage crushes, and through her grandmother, came to love the Church.

“It was not an option at all,” Dr Kgabe said. “My grandmother made it clear that anyone living under her roof would attend church every Sunday, whether they felt like going or not.”

Dr Kgabe said she went on to help out with altar service, got involved with the youth groups and learned about leadership.

She loved it so much that at just 16 years old, she decided that priesthood was her goal.

After graduating high school, Dr Kgabe eventually went on to study at the country’s only residential seminary The College of Transfiguration.

She chalked up postings in several churches around Johannesburg, became an ordained priest and went on to pursue a PhD.

Dr Kgabe was appointed principal at the same seminary where she had been an undergraduate, the youngest person to land the role, and worried about people thinking she might be too inexperienced.

But she drew on her memories as a former student there to discern what could be changed for the better.

One of the programs under her leadership was designed to give students with opposing views on the church’s approach to gender and sexuality the chance to have constructive rather than inflammatory conversations.

Reflecting on that time, Dr Kgabe said she came to see that heading the theology college prepared her for her current ministry.

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There also seemed to be a pattern in where God placed her, and she could trace it all the way back to her youth.

Among the ruinous impulses of the apartheid government was a policy to divide black South African communities along language lines.

Dr Kgabe’s grandmother wasn’t prepared to let her travel far just to get to a school where they spoke her language, so Dr Kgabe ended up at a nearby Sesotho-speaking school and came to know a language of the very nation where she would one day lead the church.

Realising that God has always been in her story made her all the more determined to use the gifts He gave her to serve Lesotho.

She believes that if more people in the Church used their talents in service to the community, they may possibly help find a way to deal with the problem of people leaving it.

“We can’t say to people who are hungry we will pray for you. That’s not enough. How do we feed those people? How do we clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. It is the gospel’s imperatives that we are called to do. That’s where having a prophetic voice and ministry of presence is required of us,” she said.

But Dr Kgabe believes those challenges are not unique to Africa, and that more needed to be done throughout the Communion using the key components of Christianity.  

There would always be other hurdles that the Church would face and disagreements, including about resistance to change, women in leadership, issues of race, social standing, Dr Kgabe said.

“It’s an entertaining conversation for those who have time for it to say “women don’t belong in the church”. But I don’t have time for that. The world needs us to really be debating about serious things that bring hope in life,” she said.

Travelling soon to Australia, Dr Kgabe is keen to build on partnerships and collaborations pertinent to furthering ways that the Church might solve its problems.

But she also intends to be a tourist. “It’d be boring to get to Australia and just work and then fly back,” she said.

Bishop Vicentia Kgabe is among the keynote speakers at the Diocesan Ministry Conference in June.

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