Cuban Anglicans seek return to ECUSA

May 13, 2002

While former president Jimmy Carter visits Cuba in hopes of improving diplomatic relations between the island nation and the U.S., Anglicans in Cuba are quietly seeking to rejoin the Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA) after a 35-year separation.

The Anglican Church of Canada's Anglican Journal reported in its April 2002 issue that a Cuban diocesan synod voted unanimously in February to seek re-admission to ECUSA as a constituent diocese. But the decision, said staff writer Jane Davidson, was 'hotly debated' and 'fraught with ambiguity' among delegates, some who insisted that the departure of their church from ECUSA in 1967 was 'immoral' and an 'expulsion.'

The ongoing need for a clergy pension fund apparently motivated the Cuban attempt at a reconciliation. Even so, it is seen as a temporary measure until Caribbean Anglican churches achieve a long-term goal: the formation of an autonomous Episcopal Province of the Caribbean, composed of the Anglican/Episcopal churches of Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Origins in US

The American church's involvement in Cuba dates from 1871, when Bishop Francis Whittle of Virginia persuaded ECUSA to send missionaries to Cuba. During Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain from 1868-1878, many involved in the Cuban liberation movement fled to the United States. Some became Episcopalians, and on their return to Cuba established Episcopal congregations.

The oldest Episcopal congregation in Cuba, 'Fieles a Jesus' in Matanzas, was founded in 1883 by the Rev. Pedro Duarte. Duarte's letter to the Queen of Spain protesting his imprisonment for 'unauthorized preaching of the Gospel' was influential in the extension of religious toleration to Cuba. Cuba's first missionary bishop from the U.S., Albion Knight, arrived in 1905. The first Cuban citizen to become bishop was Romualdo González, who served until the first Cuban-born bishop, Jose A. González, was consecrated in 1967.

Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, and the two countries severed full diplomatic relations in 1961. A U.S. blockade was imposed in 1963.

Agreement-or expulsion?

But La Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba (IEC) remained a missionary district of ECUSA until 1967, when it became an independent member of the Anglican Communion. According to the Cuban church's web site, the split came because of the 'deterioration of political relationship' between the USA and Cuba, when 'it became increasingly difficult for ECUSA and IEC to maintain a meaningful relationship.'

That's not how some Cubans apparently remember things. According to the Anglican Journal, at the February synod Cuban bishop Jorge Perera Hurtado referred to 'the unjust decision of the House of Bishops of the U.S. church to expel us from its membership.'

The Rev. Patrick Mauney, director of the Episcopal Church's Office of Anglican and Global Relations, says the IEC's departure from ECUSA wasn't an 'expulsion' at all, but an agreement made 'in consultation with the bishop of Cuba' to give some 'political space' to the Cuban church in its relations with the Castro government. 'All pensions for clergy ordained in the Cuban church at that time have been paid in full,' Mauney said.

Transitional measure

According to the Anglican Journal, the movement to reunite the Cuban church with ECUSA stems from a meeting held in October 2001 at Camp Washington, Connecticut to discuss the formation of an Episcopal Province of the Caribbean. The Episcopal church in Puerto Rico also wants re-admission to ECUSA, but has agreed to decline if the Cuban church is not also welcome.

The IEC currently receives oversight from the Metropolitan Council of Cuba, which consists of the archbishop of the West Indies, the senior bishop in ECUSA's Province IX, and the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, who serves as its president. There are 35 parishes, 11 unorganized missions, 35 organized missions, and 33 'prayer stations' in a church with more than 10,000 members--served by only 25 clergy. The Diocese of Florida has had an active companion partnership with Cuba since 1984.

The current bishop of the IEC, appointed by the Council in 1994, also presides over the Episcopal Province of the Caribbean (Anglican) in Formation.

No barriers

The Anglican Journal report said there are no political barriers to the reconciliation. 'Neither the government (of Cuba) nor the (Communist) party will try to intervene (in the process of rejoining ECUSA),' said the Rev. Oden Marichal Rodriguez, vicar-general of the diocese, a member of the Cuban parliament and a leading candidate for bishop coadjutor in Cuba.

ECUSA has been friendly to the idea of reconciliation between the two countries. The 2000 Denver General Convention passed a resolution (C045) asking Congress and the President to 'restore full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba' while at the same time taking 'issues of human rights, freedom of speech and movement' into consideration along with 'freedom of political prisoners.'

Mauney said Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold is 'delighted' at the prospect of reunion with Cuba and that it would be 'generally welcomed' by General Convention. Such a proposal would come before the Standing Commission on World Mission and the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church before it could be considered at General Convention in 2003.