THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN BRAZIL: PIONEER AND PIONEERING IN MISSION
(Homily of The Rev. Canon Dr.Winfred B. Vergara at the Chapel of Christ the Lord, 815 Second Avenue, New York City, June 7,2016)
Today, we celebrate and honor the pioneers of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil. It was on June 1890 when two Episcopal missionaries from Virginia: Lucien Lee Kinsolving and James Watson Morris) came to Brazil. They were followed by three more: William Cabell Brown, John Gaw Meem and Mary Packard.
These five Americans partnered with six Brazilians: Vicente Brande, Américo Vespúcio Cabral, Antônio Machado Fraga, Bonaventura de Souza Oliveira, Júlio de Almeida Coelho, and Carl Henry Clement Sergel. Together, they founded, organized and established Igreja Episcopal Anglicana du Brazil (IEAB).
The partnership in mission bore fruit. In 1899, Kinsolving became its first bishop, and in 1907, the Igreja was declared a missionary district of The Episcopal Church and 58 years later, in 1965, it became an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion.
What lessons can we learn from the missionary enterprise of the Episcopal Anglican Church in Brazil?
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Primate Bishop The Most Rev. Francisco de Assis Da Silva in the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. He had just come down from a meeting with then Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and my colleague, Canon Peter Ng, introduced him to me. We had a wonderful conversation. Among other things, he mentioned he had a couple of priests who have the same surnames as mine, “Vergara.”
Bishop Francisco is a dynamic leader, an energetic evangelist and a great conversationalist. In just 15 minutes or so, I learned much about Brazil and the Episcopal Church there. I learned three things that are distinctive of the Church in Brazil:
1. Commitment to partnership between missionaries and indigenous people
Right from the start, the five missionaries from Virginia Theological Seminary engaged in partnership in mission with the six local Brazilians to organize the church. They were advanced in years with regards to missionary thinking that we don’t bring Christ to the local context for Christ is already there. Our task as missionaries is to affirm and discover Christ from the context in which we find ourselves. Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wrote that “Cultures are whatever is good, whatever is lovely, whatever is worthy of praise… and cultures are fingers of God pointing to Christ.”
Portuguese and Spanish missionaries brought “the cross and the sword” as Christianization and colonization came hand in hand. Other European missionaries brought “both guns and ointment” as ambiguous characters of Western civilization. Missionaries preached Christ garbed in Western culture with very little regard to the cultural dignity of indigenous people of their mission fields.
The Episcopal missionaries distinguished themselves from their English Anglican counterparts in that at the early stage they coalesced with local leaders and celebrated worship services in the lingua franca of the Brazilians post colonialization, Portuguese.
2. Commitment to the Social Gospel
Evangelism and Social Action are the two wings of the Christian enterprise. Christians, following the Great Commission of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19) and Jesus mission statement (Luke 4:18) are to save the lost and defend the oppressed. They are to preach the gospel to the poor and to proclaim the acceptance time of God. Often, this dichotomizes churches into evangelical and social gospel adherents.
Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, with over 200 million members. It is a member of the “BRIC nations” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) whose economies are advancing rapidly. Despite its economic advances, however, the chasm between the rich and poor widens.
Due to the predominance of the “liberal” theologians in the Episcopal Church of Brazil, a preferential option to the plight of the poor and marginalized found resonance among Brazilian Episcopalians. IEAB rejected religious “fanaticism” and advocated that the church should be “an instrument of social change, seeking to engage congregations and communities in debates still considered taboo in Brazilian society,” such as those involving land concentration, domestic violence, sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia.
3. Commitment to Inclusion
The Episcopal Church in Brazil is ahead of its time with regards to the theology of inclusion. It welcomes and embraces people from historically marginalized groups such as LGBT, women, indigenous people and the landless. Enshrined in their canons is a statement "As Christians, we bear the promise of the Holy Spirit, which leads us to the Word made flesh, who welcomes the oppressed, the neglected, the misunderstood and the marginalized".
IEAB ordains women and LGBT. It is vocal social inequality, land concentration, domestic violence, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. Its stance as an Inclusive Church has caused schisms and conflicts with conservative segments of the church and society, a price they have to pray for committed discipleship. Separated Roman Catholics and marginalized Evangelicals and those belonging LGBT community however, have found acceptance in the IEAB.
So back to Bishop Francisco da Silva: He came to us in New York, with an invitation to a celebration of mission in Brazil. In 2015, that celebration was held in Porto Alegre, the birthplace of IEAB. It was not one, not two, but three celebrations: their125th Founding Anniversary; their 50th Year of Autonomy; and their 30th Year Women’s Ordination. What began as a mission station of the U.S based Episcopal Church has expanded into a great Province in the worldwide Anglican Communion and continues to reverberate in missionary fervor even into the remote corners of the Amazons and to every nook and corner of what is now the largest country in South America, BRAZIL!
May God continue to guide and provide for the life and mission of Igreja Episcopal Anglicana du Brazil. Amen.
(Note: The Chapel of Christ the Lord is located at the ground floor of the Episcopal Church Center, 815 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10017. Morning Prayer is at 8:45 AM and Eucharist at 12:10 P.M. and it is open to the public.)