Anglicans in Brazil Seeking a destiny in a secular world

Published June 1, 1999

Archbishop Michael Peers, left, Bishop Glauco Soares de Lima, Primate of Brazil, and Bishop Orlando Santos de Oliviera of the Southern Diocese join in a Sunday service near Porto Alegre.

Porto Alegre, Brazil

HOLD A MIRROR to the face of the church that Dom Glauco Soares de Lima presides over and the reflection you see looks faintly like the face of our own church.

Like the Anglican Church of Canada, the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brazil ministers to a small population scattered over a vast, diverse monolith of a landscape. Like ours, it is a church whose resources will never be enough to cope with all that it wants to do. Like ours, it is a church that struggles with Brazil’s historic legacy with aboriginal peoples. And like ours, it is a church conflicted with different means of finding the best way to fulfil its destiny in a secular, post-Christian world.

At the end of a long week touring parts of Brazil with the two primates, Archbishop Michael Peers of Canada and Bishop de Lima, Primate of Brazil, we settle on a short flight from Porto Alegre to Sao Paula on the way home and I ask Dom Glauco what an article for a Canadian audience should say to do justice to all he has shown us, from the central plateaus surrounding Brasilia, the national capital, to Porto Alegre in the south.

“Say that there is so much more that we could do than we are doing,” he replies after a long moment of reflection. “Say that our great challenge is to let the people know all that we have to offer, and all that we wish to do. People here are not aware enough of what the Anglican church has to offer.”

The humility of his statement belies the church’s energy and zeal. It is a church that already does a great deal, despite truly daunting problems.

Dom Glauco has a vision of his church that is at odds with several of his dioceses and many of his clergy. In Brasilia, for instance, the diocese yearns to forge ahead with a grand plan for raising missions and parish churches throughout the vast diocese.

For Dom Glauco, the first priority for the church ought to be to attract the membership that will become a resource base for building the missions and churches. In this way, Dom Glauco is philosophically at odds with many of the priests and officials who, in theory, work for him.

In eight days, Dom Glauco showed Archbishop Peers and me parts of his vast church. Many times, the pain of leading a growing but struggling church was as evident in his face, as was the pride he feels in the diversity of his flock and its many strengths.

In Brasilia, for instance, we spent an entire morning listening to meticulous details of a diocesan plan that called for the creation of missions and churches and schools and offices – a plan that would be ambitious for the wealthiest and most populous of Canadian parishes.

“Great dreams!” the Brazilian primate whispered to us with a smile when it was all over.

The diocese of Brasilia is rooted in the liberation theology of its clergy and wishes to focus all its scarce resources and boundless energy on working with and for the poor. The priests of the diocese – there are seven of them and only two are full-time – have little time for evangelizing the middle class and yet that is where Dom Glauco’s vision for his church would begin.

He knows, with a pragmatist’s sagacity, that the poor cannot contribute the resources the church needs to work with them. His vision would see the evangelization of the wealthier middle class, then the use of resources they bring to the church to aid and minister to the less advantaged.

Both sides of the divide see the great mission of the church as evangelization. The rift, philosophical and theological, comes with an assessment of how best to go about it and where to begin.

It is a strange church, in many ways. It has a strange history. It has a strange momentum. At about 100 years, it is a young church compared to ours, but it has vitality and a sense of mission that is truly impressive.

It wrestles with momentous problems, not the least of which is the paucity of members in a nation where more than 70 percent of the population is, at least nominally, Roman Catholic. Anglicans, by contrast, number about 90,000 in a nation of 163 million.

Yet, that is also one of the church’s greatest strength, says Dom Glauco. “It is a great advantage to us that we are much like the Roman Catholics,” he says, “but much more democratic.”

In three days in the diocese of Brasilia, we visited church after church and mission after mission where the congregations were tiny. In Annapolis, for instance, a lay minister named Luiz Alberto Barbosa is struggling to re-start a congregation that fell by the wayside after the death of the priest. So far, most of his congregation is made up of relatives and family, yet a late-night service there had all the vitality that a much larger urban congregation in Canada could hope and pray for.

The vastness of the country – Brazil is almost as large as Canada – and the low Anglican membership mean that everything the church does is a compromise. Missions, schools and parishes, here as anywhere else, are tremendously expensive to start up and maintain. In Brazil, several missions and churches we visited cater to a dozen or perhaps two dozen members.

So where does a church like that begin? Where does it place its scarce resources? And who is to say that reaching out to, and drawing in a dozen or two dozen souls, carries too high a price tag? Is a horrendously expensive missionary initiative in the jungles of the Amazon to be more or less of a priority than a similar mission in an urban community in Sao Paulo, a monstrous city with two-thirds the population of Canada?

And yet, if resources are scarce and people too few, the church still manages to dream on a grand scale.

There are seven dioceses in the Igleja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil in a country which, it bears repeating, is roughly the same size as Canada.

Brasilia, a diocese roughly the same size as all of Manitoba, consists of two parishes, 10 missions, five priests – only two of whom are full-time – and six lay leaders. The bishop, Almir dos Santos, a gentle, gracious man, says his priorities are ecumenism and mission. “Without mission, the church in Brazil cannot exist.”

A profile of the diocese describes its vision as “to strengthen work with poor children; establish Anglican mission for native peoples; continue to search for justice and peace. The bishop sees the Anglican Church as having an important role in forming links between denominations and in breaking down barriers, planning and participating in ecumenical services, Bible studies etc.”

The realities of Anglican life in Brasilia make this an ambitious plan beyond all hopes of realization. And yet they have courage even to dream such dreams.

Evangelism itself comes at a price. In the business world an analogous proposition might be speculation on a commodity. Resources, in other words, must be invested with only the hope that they will eventually bear fruit.

Near the village of Viamao, 30 km from Porto Alegre, we visited a small, roadside village of Guariani Indians, the native people whose tragic fate at the hand of Europeans was so vividly portrayed in the movie The Mission.

They eke out a subsistence existence on land given them by the government, and now and again are visited by an Anglican priest who does what he can to minister to their needs, mostly physical. This is strictly outreach and pastoral work. There is little possibility that the 73 people of the village will ever form an Anglican congregation. But should they be ignored because of that?

In Brasilia, after listening to the diocesan plan, Archbishop Peers held up that mirror that reflects both the Canadian and the Brazilian churches.

“If I close my eyes and I imagine the language is English, I could be having this conversation in Canada,” he said.

“We face the same issues. We are large countries with scattered populations. We are diverse countries and in diversity we struggle to maintain connections with common roots and a common heritage. There is no question that your church, as I hear it described this morning, sounds much like ours.

“We are churches on the edge, but it is churches on the edge that do the most creative work.”

There are some countries where a visitor is likely to see only problems and the scale of the challenges. Haiti is such a place where the problems and difficulties seem so complex and insurmountable that they simply cannot ever be fixed.

Many nations in Africa evoke the same sentiment. It takes the eyes and love and heart of a native person to see light at the end of the tunnel. Brazil is such a place too, in a much different way than Haiti.

A visitor sees endless challenges confronting this church. An army of Goliaths pitted against all too few Davids.

But equally as visible is the courage and enthusiasm and boundless energy of those small Davids – lay leaders with faith, nuns with strength and courage, priests with the grand dreams and bishops with inspired vision.

They may be scattered in their visions and poor in resources, but one senses a courage and commitment that beggars the size of the problems.

One leaves Brazil with a sense that many many things may fail the church here, but that something truly wonderful and inspired is in the process of happening.

This and accompanying stories are based on an eight-day visit to the Anglican Church in Brazil by Archbishop Michael Peers, the Canadian Primate, and Vianney Carriere, editor of print resources and of MinistryMatters. They were accompanied by Bishop Glauco Soares de Lima, Bishop of Sao Paulo and Primate of Brazil.


Related Posts

Skip to content