By Matthew Townsend
If next year’s General Convention approves reintegrating the Episcopal Church of Cuba with the Episcopal Church in the United States, American Episcopalians will discover a church at once foreign and familiar. The Cuban church is historically Episcopal; it began as a mission of the Episcopal Church. That relationship ended with the U.S. embargo of Cuba in 1960 and subsequent deterioration of the countries’ relationship.
The churches parted ways in 1966, and the Metropolitan Council of Cuba was set up to govern the extra-provincial church. The council now consists of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Archbishop Fred Hiltz of Canada, and Archbishop John Holder of the West Indies.
Exchange between the countries rekindled after the Obama administration’s decision to lessen travel restrictions, allowing for Americans — including Episcopalians — to visit the island after decades of absence. Relations between the churches started to mend as well, and the Cuban church voted in 2015 to rejoin the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Task Force on the Episcopal Church in Cuba, established by the 2015 General Convention to explore the question, intends to recommend reintegration, the Rev. Luis León told TLC in June. León, the task force chairman, said the Metropolitan Council has not been able to provide the kind of support the Cuban church needs. Thus, it has been far-off, isolated.
León said a focus of the task force’s work has been to help the Diocese of Cuba become less isolated from the Anglican Communion. He said the church’s existence in Cuba is “very financially difficult,” with incredibly low pay for priests who are cut off from some of Cuba’s state support. With reintegration, consistent support from the Episcopal Church would improve this situation, he said.
The task force met again Sept. 20-22 and reviewed criteria that would be included in a suggested resolution on reintegration, according to published meeting minutes. If a resolution is then produced by committee, it will await General Convention’s decision next year. As that date approaches — and as the potential merger between the two churches clears more hurdles along the way — members of the Episcopal Church may increasingly ask themselves: what is the church in Cuba like?
“The Episcopal Church of Cuba is alive and in constant movement,” the Rt. Rev. Griselda Delgado del Carpio told TLC by email in Spanish. Delgado, who was appointed Bishop of Cuba in 2010, describes the church in Cuba as a growing entity, a church that is forming new leaders and working to spread the gospel on the island. Among the church’s recent accomplishments: seven ordained to the diaconate in recent years, five ordained to the priesthood, and nine people studying for ordination. Delgado said the diocese has also been focusing on building lay ministry, with 26 new laypeople trained in recent years. laypeople have also received theological formation, which serves as a pipeline for ordained ministry.
Delgado said churches have grown most when they have “managed to strengthen their ordained ministry.”
“This new state of affairs requires capacious, competent, prepared, agile, creative, entrepreneurial, and intelligent leadership — work that the diocese has facilitated through all its departments and commissions,” the Rev. Marianela de la Paz Cot and her father, the Rev. Juan Ramón de la Paz, told TLC by email in Spanish. Both serve as Episcopal priests in Cuba; he has been the diocesan historian for 40 years. They said this work was being done through a lay formation program called New Ministries, project management courses for community developers, and Christian formation within parishes and communities.
The church is faring well where it is tied to community and culture, they said. “In Cuba the church that is growing
is embodied in Cuban culture.” To the de la Pazes, this means the church must proclaim the gospel-based vision of Christ and operate in dialogue with people in their contexts. “The Jesus Movement is our present inspiration.”
This contextual work, Delgado added, can be seen in churches that serve families and emphasize spiritual work and education; that develop participatory and entrepreneurial leadership; and that engage in ecological community projects and care for creation.
Delgado and the de la Pazes both cited developments in programs for youth and adolescents, with nationwide camps that “are true spaces of biblical-theological formation.” These gatherings help youth practice spiritual growth, environmental stewardship, and relationships, Delgado said.
Where the Cuban church could show more progress, according to the de la Pazes, is in new forms of evangelizing, including use of social media.
A greater challenge, perhaps, is the seismic change that Cuba is experiencing under what the priests called the new state of affairs. While change is slow to reach Cuba, the influx of outsiders and altered economic conditions have brought change. Tourists are coming, and with them comes money, relationships, and new ideas.
“The Cuban government has declared the updating of its economic model, and several changes have occurred in different areas,” Delgado said. “The new always brings uncertainty about the future of various aspects of social and economic life in the country. Non-state and non-cooperative work has been introduced, leading to the expansion of the private sector such as restaurants, hostels, transport, and others.”
While certain aspects of Cuban life, such as free education and healthcare, remain in place, the bishop explained that foreign cooperation and investment have become legal. “This dynamic is new to the life of the average Cuban.”
This increase in cooperation extends to the church. Relations between the Cuban and American churches have grown tighter as American visitors have returned to the island.
“What we’ve found is that there has been more interest from the Episcopal Church, from individuals, parishes, and dioceses wanting to go to Cuba,” the Rev. Glenda McQueen, Latin American and Caribbean officer for the Episcopal Church, told TLC by phone. Some visitors, she said, include people born in Cuba who left and wish to visit the island with their families. Others include interested church members. Her office has fielded calls from people around the church seeking contacts in Cuba or an invitation from Bishop Delgado.
“At that level there’s been quite an increase in interest,” she said. “At times, I worry they may be saturated.” McQueen said the church is trying to manage this demand.
While collaboration between the churches has increased, it is not new. The de la Pazes said the Cuban church has been working with the Diocese of Florida since 1983, built on the foundation of the two dioceses’ long-term friendship. Multiple dioceses have participated in this fellowship. “The basic premise of these relations has been the respect and recognition of our dignity as the Episcopal Church of Cuba,” Delgado wrote. “We have felt that this interchange has enriched both parties, giving us beautiful testimonies of this experience in our memory.”
Delgado said those bridges rebuilt in the 1980s have led to more recent exchanges. “Over the decades these relations have been increasing,” she said. “This work has contributed, albeit silently, to the bridges both people have that are now solidifying. It’s important and necessary that the relations between both countries are normal, of mutual respect and understanding.”
Recent upticks in tension between the Trump administration and the Cuban government have not gone unnoticed by the Episcopal Church of Cuba, and they challenge the normalized relations that Delgado said are important for the future. She said the new policy, which allows continued educational and missional trips to Cuba but limits tourism, has generated doubts about the changes that have come to Cuba.
She also said the continuing embargo continues to be a great source of pain for Cubans. “The Cuban people have experienced the terrible difficulties that the unjust blockade entails,” she said. “We advocate, in view of the differences that exist between both contexts, for normalization of relations in all areas of life between the two counties. Cubans are peaceful people. We pray, asking the Triune God to prevail in understanding, respect, and solidarity between the nations in such a way that benefits all people of the region.”
This spirit, McQueen said, is part of what creates so much interest in the Cuban church. People want to “see how this church has survived and continued to do ministry, and how it looks to the future with hope.
“People are curious about that, and they’re interested.”
This is the third in a three-part series about the Episcopal Church of Cuba.