Controversy delays vote for new bishop

By on April 1, 2002

A lay delegate to the Episcopal Church of Cuba’s 93rd synod casts a ballot, as seminary students observe.

Havana

The bishop of Cuba has postponed an electoral synod to choose a successor in light of deep division in the Cuban church.

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Bishop Jorge Perera Hurtado was himself appointed in 1994 after an electoral synod failed to agree on a new bishop for the Episcopal Church of Cuba. After presiding over two days of bitter debate at a February synod he called for a one-year “cooling off” period before an electoral synod. He is determined, he added, that the next bishop of Cuba will be elected and not appointed as he was. An oversight body called the Metropolitan Council (consisting of the primates of Canada and the West Indies and one bishop) appointed Bishop Perera.

If the church fails again to elect a bishop, he said, “It does not speak well of the Cuban church.” Bishop Perera, maintaining a steadfast impartiality, has refused to show any preference between the two previous candidates, and refuses to vote at electoral synods.

In 1994, Bishop Perera initially turned down a request to put his name forward as a candidate He later accepted only after much soul-searching, he said. He has now postponed his retirement until the church elects a co-adjutor bishop.

Last year, history repeated itself and an electoral synod was left sharply divided between two candidates for co-adjutor bishop. This marked the fourth time in 12 years that an electoral synod in Cuba had not been able to elect its own bishop.

At last year’s election, the laity voted overwhelmingly in favour of Rev. Ulises Aguero Prendes, a soft-spoken cleric from Santiago de Cuba. Clergy, however, preferred the more outspoken vicar-general Oden Marichal Rodriguez, seen by some as a powerhouse because he is also a member of the Cuban parliament.

For some the debate is over the marked difference between the two men – critics of Mr. Marichal say he is overly ambitious and too close to the country’s government. For this same reason – perception of power – others want to see him elected as bishop. Mr. Aguero’s supporters, who don’t want the government meddling in church affairs, view him as having the ideal bishop’s profile – he keeps a distance from Cuban politics and has a distinctly pastoral and dignified approach to issues.

The election was deadlocked and called off.

Bishop Perera said the diocesan nominating committee would visit every one of 35 parishes in Cuba while it researches a profile for a new bishop. When the profile is ready, it will be presented to a synod for approval.

“It’s normal,” he said, “The Anglican Communion does this. The church in Cuba is growing and we must elect our own bishop.”

As well as 35 parishes, the Cuban Episcopal church has 11 unorganized missions, 35 organized missions, and 33 “prayer stations” throughout the country. There is a strong emphasis on lay leadership because there are not enough ordained clergy to meet the demands.

Bishop Perera added that if he were to resign right now, the Metropolitan Council would have to name an acting bishop.

In his opening address to the Cuban synod, Archbishop Michael Peers, the Canadian primate and head of the Metropolitan Council, attempted to describe the principles behind electing a new bishop.

The choice is similar to the way in which aboriginal Canadians choose their clergy first through the community “and then the community declares the mind of God to the individual and asks them whether they consent to it,” he said.

The deep split already evident during the February synod arose again during a passionate debate over whether a 73-year-old minister, Rev. Herschell Gaskin, should have a vote at synod. The debate over age and interpretation of retirement regulations raged for hours, until Rev. Jose Angel Gutierrez stood shortly before a vote was taken and identified the underlying issue.

“The argument is about the way Gaskin will vote, (for a new bishop), not about his age,” he said. The vote was 37 to 19 in favour of Mr. Gaskin having a vote at the synod and presumably at the next electoral synod. This was seen as a victory for the side favouring the election of Mr. Aguero.

Despite this decision, the next day brought more debate on amendments to church law on when clergy must retire.

Delegates eventually voted to send full copies of the canons to each parish for study along with proposed amendments instead of voting on them.

One observer said that the ballot was a complicating factor at the previous election because delegates had to write in the name of their preferred candidate. There was suspicion that some clergy feared their handwriting might be recognized.

The next ballot is expected to have candidates’ names already printed with a spot where delegates can mark an X to protect anonymity.

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