Few women leaders in Cuban church

Published May 1, 2002

Revs. Griselda Delgado del Carpio, left, and Nerva Cot Aquilera are the only two women ordained by the Episcopal Church of Cuba.


ALTHOUGH women parishioners in the Episcopal Church of Cuba form a clear majority, the church will remain a male-dominated institution until there is a sea-change in attitude.

There are, at present, few women priests and no women’s voices in the church’s decision-making bodies.

That is the opinion of the only two women Anglican priests in Cuba. Ordained together in 1986, they remain unique in that there were no further female ordinations after that initial flurry – if you can call two a flurry.

The ordinations of Rev. Nerva Cot Aquilera, a 64-year-old who looks 10 years younger, and Rev. Griselda Delgado del Carpio, who managed to win over an arch-conservative rural parish, have not been repeated in 16 years.

The two, who say they feel isolated at times and lament that there haven’t been any new women ordained, point out that only now are there three female students in the seminary who are considering ordination.

The reasons for this are rooted in culture and tradition, in spite of the Cuban revolution’s modern overlay in doctrine and belief.

“Women see ordained ministry as not easy for them to follow,” said Mrs. Delgado in an interview. “A pastor gets support from his wife. The woman might get support, but she still has to do two things – the house and the vocation.”

Both women say there is a double standard for female ordinands. “Typically we wait four years to be ordained, the men wait six months,” said Mrs. Delgado.

Female priests in Cuba, as well as female parishioners, are battling a culturally inbred tradition of male supremacy, both at home and in the church. This makes the greater numbers of women in the pews almost irrelevant when it comes to decision-making, say the two women priests.

“There is a lack of sisterhood among the women,” says Mrs. Cot, who is married to the dean of the Cathedral in Havana. “As long as women are not aware they will give the power to the men.” She pointed to a day of voting at the 93rd synod, where although the majority of lay delegates were women, they were still not nominating other women to sit on key decision-making bodies within the church.

Her proposed solution would be a series of workshops to help women take more of a lead, and to point out their historical contributions to the life of the church.

“Some of our women wish to study theology but feel insecure and scared regarding their future in the church.”

She also wants the bishop to promote women more actively than she feels he has in the past, and wants a “diocesan strategy” to encourage women serving in the church – not only as lay readers but also as potential priests.

“At the last synod, the bishop did not act inclusively,” Mrs. Cot said. The church hierarchy, she added, is guilty of recognizing the gifts of women clergy -“they are always recognizing our gifts,” she said with frustration, “and never giving us a chance to be decision-makers.

“In all of these years they have never thought of us as archdeacons or chairs of the standing committee or any other leading decision-making role.” (The standing committee, in the Cuban church, is considered the seat of power after the bishop.)

Mrs. Delgado said the two women often feel they are “wearing out the bishop. It is only the two of us demanding things for the women.”

Mrs. Cot speaks out often, she said. She has a small parish near the cathedral in Havana and is now going to another church further away. She also works as part of a ministry team with her husband and sometimes leads cathedral services when he goes away.

There is a pattern of discrimination even in church appointments, both women said. (Mrs. Delgado is also married to an Anglican priest.) “When one of our husbands is appointed to a church, he gets the big church and the woman gets the small church.”

Mrs. Delgado works in two rural communities, while her husband has the main church in Cardenas. One of her churches, St. John the Evangelist, has a congregation of 50 people and is about 20 kilometers from Cardenas. The other, St. Mary the Virgin, has a congregation of 70 and is 30 kilometers away – short distances to a Canadian mind, but given the state of Cuban transport and the rarity of cars, these distances could be compared for the average Cuban to making if from Toronto to Montreal, standing in the back of a dump truck.

The second congregation, which she described as “more rural and very traditional” found it difficult to accept her ministry at first, “but I worked gradually to gain their acceptance,” she said. “The other congregation accepted me from the beginning.” Pastoral care is the biggest part of her work, she said. “Last week we had a small party with the teenagers at the church, and as the party ended, I got a call to go to someone who was dying.”

“It’s very beautiful to bring a message of strength and comfort but you cannot show that you are tired,” she said.

Mrs. Delgado alternates her churches each Sunday and uses lay readers to lead services in her stead, a common practice in Cuba, which is short of clergy despite growing church attendance.

Both women feel workshops are having an impact in educating Cuban men and women on the importance of a stronger women’s voice within the church. The effort, Mrs. Delgado said, is working at a grassroots level.

Added Mrs. Cot, “I told the bishop that the women wanted to begin a process of transformation within the church, and it would change the whole church from head to toe.”

At one synod a new inclusive liturgy was used, then abandoned. “People weren’t ready for it,” whispered a male parishioner who was listening in on the interview.

Mrs. Cot said she is now preparing a second workshop on developing leadership within the church to help women participate better and with a greater sense of security.

The culture beyond the civil service is still one of deeply ingrained machismo with small pockets of a modernity, usually found closer to Havana.

“I cook more than my wife does,” one cathedral employee said proudly, yet in other parts of Cuba, if women aren’t out in the work force as professionals they are home preparing food , literally all day, every day.

There are no microwaves, freezers, blenders or toasters.


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