Kenyan Catholic rebel priest to wed

Kitale, Kenya - A lavish wedding ceremony is being prepared for a priest who has rebelled against the Catholic Church in western Kenya.

Father Godfrey Shiundu, who joined a more accommodating Catholic splinter church called the Reformed Catholic Church (RCC) four years ago, is marrying his long-time girlfriend in Kitale on Sunday.

The RCC is a US-based Catholic breakaway group that allows its clergy to marry and openly accepts polygamy, making it an accommodating alternative for some African cultures.

Announcing his forthcoming nuptials, Father Shiundu said he is going to slaughter 10 bulls for some 1,000 guests he expects at the celebrations.

RCC Archbishop Karly Raymond Rodig is flying in from Germany to marry the couple at a church set up by Father Shiundu only a kilometre from Kitale's main Catholic cathedral.

The bishop of the Immaculate Heart Cathedral is not impressed by what he calls this "new sect".

"It has no connection with our church and I forbid Catholics from attending this church," Bishop Maurice Crowley says.

Some estimates put the rival RCC congregation in western Kenya at several thousand in more than 10 parishes.

Father Shiundu says its popularity is growing and he and his two colleagues have started recruiting members from their former churches.

He says it is the RCC's stance on celibacy that will be its main attraction.

Four years ago, Father Shiundu was suspended from the mainstream church over allegations that he had got a nun pregnant.

He denies this vehemently: "Soon after those allegations were made against me I told the bishop to let me, the nun and the baby undergo a DNA test to prove the truth."

Mixed reaction

At a service at Kitale's St Lawrence Reform Catholic Church, there is little to differentiate it from an ordinary Catholic mass.

The vestments of the serving priests are identical to those worn across the road at Bishop Crowley's cathedral; in fact, the readings are the same and so are the songs.

During mass, they even acknowledge the authority of the pope.

In Kitale there has been a mixed reaction to the rival church.

"I was shocked by Father Shiundu, but I can assure him that his church won't rival ours since most of the people in his church belong to one tribe and are a bunch of polygamists," Victoria Bii a member of Bishop Crowley's congregation told me.

One of Father Shiundu's followers, who declined to give his name, says the good thing about the RCC is that it respects polygamists which a recent meeting of bishops in the mainstream church has failed to resolve.

As observers debate whether this breakaway group will survive, its believers see Father Shiundu's wedding as a chance to display their new loyalty.