The Cuban church’s desire to rejoin the Episcopal Church is at loggerheads with canon law in Austin, challenging Episcopalians to keep one eye on the Spirit and one eye on the rules.
By Matthew Townsend
The journey to reunification of the Episcopal Church of Cuba (La Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba) and the Episcopal Church may seem a long one — at least in Austin. You have to leave the convention center, cross the street and the Capital MetroRail tracks to the Downtown Hilton, and take a towering escalator to a floor full of bustling meeting rooms. Then you ride another towering escalator to a quieter floor, pass by several meeting rooms down a long, wide hallway, round a corner, and make your way down a narrow passage to Ballroom K — the farthest Hilton room being used by the 79th General Convention. Kind volunteers in orange T-shirts will help you find your way.
The people trying to discern the fate of the Cuban church — members of the Episcopal Church in Cuba Committee — meet in a place that is both right across the street but also hard to reach, much like Cuba. Thus far, their task has not been straightforward, and the path has been far less certain and much more difficult than observers predicted.
Many on the committee have experience with Cuba and have made the journey across the Straits of Florida. For example, I met the Rev. Cynthia Taylor on a 2017 educational cruise to Cuba. Taylor, a priest and a journalist, was writing for The Augusta Chronicle about the trip. I was onboard to write for TLC, courtesy of Celstyal Cruises and Educational Opportunities.
“Churches in America feel oppressed if soccer practice is held on Sunday morning,” Taylor wrote in the Chronicle on June 9, 2017. “Cubans have much to teach us about following Jesus when doing so makes life difficult rather than just inconvenient.” Taylor presided over a spontaneous Eucharist aboard ship; we prayed for the island as it peeked above the horizon.
It is hard to learn much about Cuba in a weeklong trip. What I saw I tried to catalogue for TLC’s readers: a place where people cut the grass by hand, where tourism is an essential component to survival, where dual currencies and livelihoods divide people, where sugar is cheap and meat is precious, where the church is present but recovering from years of oppression. The refrain: Cuba is complicated and hard, and so is life for the Cuban church. Beyond inconvenient, indeed.
The trip seemed very timely, given the creation of the Task Force on the Episcopal Church in Cuba and the group’s charge: to discern if, how, and when the Episcopal Church of Cuba should be reabsorbed as a diocese in the Episcopal Church, and to draft resolutions to that effect. Cuba had been a member diocese until 1966, until Cold War political tensions tore the bodies apart. Since then, the Cuban church has existed as an extra-provincial diocese, overseen by a metropolitan council that consists of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Archbishop Fred Hiltz of Canada, and Archbishop John Holder of the West Indies. Ties were not cut, but the relationship certainly changed.
Connecting with the Cuban church in that week proved even more difficult. A tour operator was kind enough to drive me by Holy Trinity Cathedral in Havana, but I was hesitant to charge in unannounced: here I am, an American journalist here to write about religion in Cuba and post it on the Internet for everyone to see. So, I took some photos and filled in the blanks afterward. It took weeks to complete correspondence with Bishop Griselda Delgado del Carpio and other clergy in Cuba, required to produce an article about the Cuban church. In the interim, I spoke with members of the task force to flesh out additional details, all with the goal of helping the wider church learn more about Cuba ahead of potential reunification.
The energy of those with whom I spoke made reunification during the 79th General Convention seem un hecho consumado — a done deal. Bishops and deputies are indeed walking around with buttons that say Cuba Sí — a yes for a people that are accustomed to hearing no.
But for those following events in Austin — and those familiar with General Convention, in general — know there is no such thing as a “done deal” when the will of 1,000 voting Episcopalians, the Constitution, the Canons, and the politics of the moment meet.
¿Cuba Sí o Cuba No?
Chaired by Rebecca Snow and New Jersey Bishop William “Chip” Stokes, General Convention’s Episcopal Church in Cuba Committee job is to review the resolutions produced by the task force and chart a legislative course. On July 4 — technically before the convention officially started —the group received confirmation of a wrinkle from Sally Johnson, chancellor to the president of the House of Deputies, and committee member Canon Paul Ambos, both canon lawyers. While the Episcopal Church of Cuba had completed its obligations to rejoin the Episcopal Church in 2018, it turns out that the larger church had no canonical mechanisms for admitting an extra-provincial diocese from the Anglican Communion. It turns out that previous integrations — Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, and Venezuela, for example — have not been quite kosher.
And canonical changes require approval from two General Conventions.
This surprise has immersed the committee into a sea of unexpected work as it tries to navigate between the urgent needs of the Cuban church and the limitations and safeguards of Episcopal Church governance. On July 5, the group considered a resolution that would create a covenanted relationship between the churches while the canons were changed. This idea was tabled. Then on July 6, the committee considered resolutions that would acknowledge the hard work of the Cuban church and lay groundwork to admit the church as a diocese in 2021. This led to emotional conversations during and after the meeting — and these resolutions were again set aside.
As the committee, canon lawyers, and provincial observers have pondered solutions, some have wondered if the church’s hesitation to admit Cuba this year reflects the continued existence of colonial and imperial structures within the church. It has also served to distress Cuban visitors to General Convention. Delgado, who is originally from Bolivia but has spent more than half her life in Cuba, is certainly among those trying to keep up with the situation. TLC has, at times, asked her for comment — though the tug from what appears to be ceaseless conversation about changes and potential compromises has pulled her away on each occasion. She says yes, but she simply has not had time.
Ana Arellano, a member of the Friends of the Episcopal Church of Cuba who came from Connecticut to observe the proceedings, testified on July 7 to this effect. Born in Cuba but raised in the United States from the age of five, she had never been to General Convention before.
“All my life I have been hearing Cuba, no. Which is, No, you can’t go back to Cuba. No, there will be no trade with Cuba. No, there will be no relations with Cuba. No, no, no. When I saw our special button, Cuba Sí, I was very inspired,” she said. “All of you on the committee have worked very hard. There was one idea coming in, but there’s been a lot of changes in how to look at this.
“I want to say I’m not concerned about the issue of colonialism,” she said. “I think the word is imperialism. There’s a variety of different kinds of American imperialism. What I worry is about is that rules can become a form of imperialism. I hope that, somehow, we can be The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”
The Rev. Juan Quevedo-Bosch, a Cuban-born priest from the Diocese of Long Island who has served as researcher for the metropolitan council, told the committee on July 7 that he wondered why Cuba needed to be the example of proper canonical process.
“I find I’m confused about why we cannot have a Costa Rican or the Puerto Rico process applied to Cuba and bring in Cuba now,” he said. “Why does [Cuba] need to be the correct route? I understand the irregularities offered to Puerto Rico. Why do we need to be correct in the case of Cuba, when Cuba has been out for 50 years, all by itself with no resources?”
Quevedo-Bosch said a window of opportunity exists right now, but “nobody can really say when that window of opportunity will be closed … if we have to wait for two General Conventions.”
That window Quevedo-Bosch refers to is the warming of relations experienced since the Obama administration and within Cuba’s current political climate, in which religion is tolerated like never before. Like all climates, though, the weather could change on both sides of the Florida Straits — making reunification a more difficult task.
Also of concern has been the dire need to help fund Cuban clergy in retirement, as Cuban priests sacrifice many of their public benefits when they undertake work for the church. Sacerdotal life in Cuba can lead to destitution.
Larger Than the Rules
As the urgency of reunification collided with the preeminence of canon law, a challenge in heeding Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s call to become a Jesus Movement becomes clear: while the Episcopal Church increasingly wears the loose garment of a movement — Spirit-led reconciliation, ebullient revivals, and evangelism that actually names Jesus — it also remains clad in the armor of existing structures, among them its Constitution and Canons.
This conflict became apparent in the committee on July 7 — both within and among its individual members.
“I have been struggling overnight about this resolution,” said the Rev. Lee Crawford of Vermont, committee vice chairwoman. “There are times in ministry when one responds in the pastoral or prophetic and not in the canonical,” she said. “One of the points that stands out from Juan’s testimony this morning is the geopolitical situation that we live in, the window of opportunity that Cuba has with the new president, the window of opportunity that we can’t guarantee will be around in three years.
“We don’t know where we’re going to be in three years with our current situation. I have struggled with the question that a couple people have asked me: why are we making Cuba the example? Why are we making Cuba that church that we get the canons right? … And I have struggled in the past 24 hours with my apparent white privilege, my racism, my blindness, and with the question — why are we making Cuba the example?”
Crawford asked if the committee could find a way to be prophetic, knowing the canonical problems lie in the way. “I come this morning deeply, deeply divided.”
Likewise, Bishop Scott Hayashi of Utah agreed. “I struggle, too,” he said. “Is there a larger thing than the rules which govern us? Is there a time to step beyond them, understanding completely what a move like that is — a violation of those things which govern and help us structure our church and keep us together. But is there a time, is there a time when we have to be larger than those rules?”
“Are there times when, even knowing all of the rules, that we have to do something larger because the voice of God or Christ is calling us to? And I think this is that time.”
Bishop Andrew Dietsche of New York concurred with the struggle, but raised caution about a governing body disregarding its rules. “We are a legislative body. If we decide the [canons] don’t matter, then why are we here?” he asked. “Those canons provide the shape of the life of the church that make prophetic action possible. When we define prophetic action as setting the canons of the church aside, I can’t go there.
“What I will say is that over these last days, I have felt personally that I have expended an extraordinary amount of effort trying to convince myself that the direction we’re on is the right direction. And I’ve spent an extraordinary amount effort trying to convince my beloved sister, Griselda, of the same thing.”
Dietsche said Ambos — a heavy-hitting member of the committee since the canonical problems came to light — had indicated a solution that brings Cuba in now but also fixes the canons should be possible.
Ambos said he was in favor of combining resolutions to acknowledge the work of the Cuban church, regret for past actions of the Episcopal Church, and the need for unification with an “admirable part of the Jesus Movement.” However, he warned, the committee would need to overcome opposition from Johnson as chancellor to the president of the House of Deputies, the Resolution Review Committee, and Dispatch of Business.
“They may say, You can’t do that. On the other hand, [the canons] said to the Episcopal Church, You can’t ordain women. I think we may be having another moment like this. And I think the resolution should have in its text the recognition of that’s the way the church is operating, that’s the way the church should operate.”
Canon Noreen Duncan, who serves on Executive Council and has visited Cuba in that capacity, spoke in favor of finding a quick, clear solution. Addressing the bishops, she shared her perspective as a member of the group that governs when General Convention is not in session.
“We don’t believe that the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church are the same as the Bible,” she said. “We speak of the Constitution and Canons as if they were immutable, as if they were not organic. We have changed them all the time. We have amended canons and the Constitution. This can be done, and I believe this can be done at this General Convention.”
Duncan acknowledged the concerns about ignoring the canons. “I understand the position that were we to ignore parts of the Constitution and Canons that we would be going down a slippery slope. I think that’s the language that Sally Johnson used. But we’ve gone down that road before, as Paul alluded, when we brought women into the church as leaders of the church. So these can be changed. They can be rewritten, changed, amended. That, to me, is probably one of the most important things that the General Convention can do.”
‘Another Way to Look at It’
Duncan added that the committee should also consider the need that the Episcopal Church has for growing parishes and ministries — which she said are more common among Spanish-speaking ministries in her New Jersey diocese.
“When I went to church in Cuba, the cathedral was crowded. Maybe that’s another way to look at it as we speak of the Jesus Movement — whom do we bring into the Episcopal Church?”
Stokes agreed. After sending the committee to recess to develop a new solution, he told TLC that concern for the Cuban church and priests are motivating the committee, but so are the gifts of the Cuban church. “As the testimony here has indicated, it is important for us as a church to recognize that the Cuban church brings a lot to the table. In terms of their understanding of evangelism, they are a church that is not working in Christendom. And so are we, but we haven’t caught on yet,” he said. “We have something to learn from them, because they’ve been in, actually, a hostile environment.”
While the concerns about colonialism are out there, Stokes said, an opportunity exists to expand the church. “The question that’s being asked is does this seem to be a reverse of the direction which we had thought we were going, and especially the Province IX churches … of encouraging churches to be indigenous and to be regional?” he said. “The expansiveness of the Episcopal Church, right now, I think ends up educating us all. We become more international. I think that’s really the focus, to underscore that there’s a mutuality in all of this that we ought to recognize and learn from. That’s part of this conversation, for sure.
“We are called to live into Jesus’ words, ‘That we all may be one.’ The oneness of the church, it seems to me, is the primary biblical and theological mandate. How do we do that in this particular issue and in this context. I think the Spirit is also saying we are the inheritors of this wonderful, rich tradition that is the Episcopal Church and its particular way of doing things. So how can we live into that and not be confined bureaucratically, but use our structures and substance in ways that are responsible and responsive to the Spirit, while also being an ordered church that lives into its inheritance?”
On the morning of July 8, a new resolution appeared on General Convention’s Virtual Binder that may aim at resolving this tension: the unambiguous A238 — Admit Episcopal Diocese of Cuba as a Diocese of The Episcopal Church.
The first resolve? That “the 79th General Convention, accepting with joy the request of the sisters and brothers of La Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba, and welcoming the prospect of restoring the relationship between The Episcopal Church and La Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba, admit it to The Episcopal Church and recognize it as a Diocese in union with General Convention, to be effective as set forth in this resolution.”
It also acknowledges that “while Article V, Section 1 of the Constitution does not expressly provide for creation of a new Diocese from an existing Anglican Communion Diocese, neither does it expressly limit or forbid General Convention from doing so.”
The resolution charges Executive Council with admitting the Diocese of Cuba upon receipt of routine documentation, with reception of the Bishop of Cuba and the diocese’s addition to Province II to follow. The resolution would admit Delgado to the House of Bishops immediately, however, and it maintains clauses to provide pension funding to Cuban clergy. It also borrows from previous resolutions a $400,000 budgetary request for ministry funding and $50,000 for a three-year interim body to help with the church’s transition.
“La Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba has, through its own synods, expressed a clear desire to reunify with The Episcopal Church,” the explanation says. “Today, it is the right thing to do.”
How this draft will perform in the committee and, potentially, on the legislative floors remains to be seen. As Stokes told the committee, there is a lot of positive energy for Cuba — people want to admit the church as a diocese. Cuba Sí buttons are everywhere. But things change very quickly at General Convention.
The committee’s struggle to find a path between the canons and the Sprit has been noticed by the witnesses who have come before it. In July 7 testimony Delgado acknowledged how intense the previous days had been for the committee and for Cuban Episcopalians. “I thank you for all of your hard work,” she said through a translator. “I thank you all for your hard work, for your resilience, for your solidarity with Cuba.”
She said the work to share the Jesus Movement with the Cuban people would continue. “We are certain that it was God’s Spirit that has led us throughout this whole 50 years,” she said. “How else would we be here? Otherwise, I think we would have closed our churches. We have to be a people of faith, and we really believe that God’s Spirit is what has kept us alive and has kept that candle lit.”