By Melissa Williams-Sambrano
When the Rt. Rev. Lloyd Allen began serving as the Episcopal Church’s Bishop of Honduras in 2001, Roman Catholics were a comfortable majority of his fellow citizens. Since then, Pentecostalism has surged, and Protestants now are the country’s largest religious group, 47 percent, according to a 2015 Pew study.
Latinobarómetro Corp., a Chilean polling group, found in 2018 that fewer than 30 percent of Hondurans describe themselves as Catholic, a drop of 61 percent since 1995, when it began tracking the statistic. In six other countries of the region — the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, and Uruguay — fewer than 50 percent of respondents described themselves as Catholic.
“Pretty soon Roman Catholicism will not be the church,” Allen told TLC, adding that he believes Episcopalians and Anglicans in the six provinces across Latin America will thrive if they remain focused amid these demographic shifts.
“I have asked my clergy and laity, ‘Let’s not look at this as competing for the sheepfold. Because this is not a competition.’ We just need to continue sharing the good news, reaching out to the huge number of young people everywhere we go,” Allen said.
Latin America remains the world’s most Catholic region, accounting for 41 percent of Catholics worldwide. Pope Francis is Argentinian, the historic cores of cities are dominated by Baroque cathedrals and basilicas, and Catholic spirituality is infused deeply into Latin American culture.
Brazil still has more Catholics than any other country in the world, though some experts believe it has even more evangelicals and Pentecostals. Courting Protestant support is a key political strategy for its controversial right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, a former Catholic who was rebaptized in 2016 by Everaldo Pereira, a prominent pastor of the Assemblies of God, Latin America’s largest Pentecostal denomination.
Pentecostalism, which traces its origins to the Azusa Street revival of 1906-09, was first brought to the region by American missionaries over a century ago. Its exponential growth largely began in the 1990s, as tens of millions of Roman Catholics, like Bolsonaro, began embracing its ethos of informal, exuberant worship and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially healing and speaking in tongues.
David Speer, the Assemblies of God’s world mission director for the Caribbean and Latin America, sees Pentecostalism’s growth as a clear sign of the Holy Spirit’s work.
“It is really not about drawing members from other churches. It is about preaching the gospel and people becoming saved and filled with the Holy Spirit themselves and having a boldness to witness and a boldness to go out,” he said.
Allen said there was some interest in adding Pentecostal elements to prayer book worship in churches in the western part of his diocese. He also urges his congregations to imitate Pentecostals in their enthusiastic response to people’s spiritual needs.
“Walking with your Bible is not what Episcopalians are known for. When asking congregations to bring their Bibles to church, still in some places I get the old saying, ‘We Episcopalians don’t do that.’ There is a shift because our Pentecostal brothers and sisters are responding to the spiritual needs of the people. [We] continue to evangelize, and we have many evangelism tools which have proven successful for us,” he said.
The Most Rev. Nicholas Drayson, primate of the Anglican Church in South America, said that in the churches he oversees in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay, “the style of churchmanship, worship, and mission has been affected in a positive way by both the Catholic and Pentecostal churches.”
“Huge numbers of churches have sprung up,” he said. “When I was ordained 40 years ago, there were very few non-Catholic churches. There were small ones like the Anglican Church, the Brethren, the Baptist, the Methodist, and so on, whereas today, under the umbrella of Pentecostalism, although very varied, [it] has changed the face of Protestantism in Latin America as a whole.”
Anglicans have a small presence in his region, concentrated mainly among “tribal, Indigenous, Amerindian people,” and church leaders aim at a “middle road,” Drayson told TLC. “We also give round, wholesome teaching and show that we don’t have to go from one extreme or another.”
While relationships among senior church leaders is usually friendly, Drayson said there are often tensions at the grassroots level.
“Sadly in the Indigenous work, the Pentecostal churches have tended to be fairly antagonistic towards the Anglican church, sometimes branding us as Catholic or not lively enough, or whatever their particular reason for opposing us is. Usually, it has to do with empire-building.”
Allen said he shies away from working with Honduran Pentecostals, and said their message and approach are often rooted in false teaching about God rewarding his people with success.
“I have watched the rise of enormous churches and ministries who preach and export to poor nations a prosperity gospel … that mutes the Bible’s teaching on suffering, and reduces the gospel to earthly betterment rooted in human attitudes, not the glory of Calvary. The prosperity gospel reduces the glorious gospel to earthly betterment. The dominant gift is the joy of reconciliation, with God’s eternal joys at his right hand forever through Jesus Christ (Ps. 16:11).
“The prosperity gospel teaches us to distort the ground of our salvation by putting the emphasis on whether we can produce the kind of faith that gets healed and gets rich,” Allen said.
The Rev. Adrian Seunarine, principal of the Presbyterian St. Andrew’s Theological College in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago, says he thinks people gravitate toward Pentecostalism because of its joyful worship and pastoral warmth.
“I’ve done several exit interviews with people who have left the Presbyterian Church, and in asking them, ‘Why did you choose to leave the Presbyterian Church to attend a Pentecostal church?’ the reasons they have given me — top of the list has been a sense of belonging. People in another church reached out to them at various times, when they may have been lonely, they may have been sick, may have been going through something, and people in the Pentecostal church came to see them, invited them to church, and it created such a sense of belonging that they wanted to remain in that church.”
Melissa Williams-Sambrano is an Anglican journalist based in Trinidad and Tobago. She is also a wife and the mother of two boys.