First woman bishop for Cuban church

Published March 1, 2007

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Canadian primate, and his U.S. Episcopal Church counterpart, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, participated in February in the selection of two new suffragan bishops for the Cuban church; they are part of the three-member Metropolitan Council of Cuba that has overseen Cuban church affairs since 1967.

Canada helped usher in a new era for the Cuban Episcopal church in early February when Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Canadian primate, participated in the selection of two suffragan (assistant) bishops for the island nation – one of them the first female bishop in the Caribbean.

The first female primate (senior bishops) in the worldwide Anglican Communion also took part in the appointment, as Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, made her first visit to Cuba.

Archbishop Hutchison said, in an interview after he returned to Canada, that when he announced the name of Canon Nerva Cot Aguilera to the annual synod, “the response was thunderous applause.” Delegates also enthusiastically greeted the choice of Archdeacon Ulises Aguero Prendes as the second suffragan bishop.

“Gender had nothing to do with the selection (of Bishop-elect Cot). She presented a wonderful mission statement,” said Archbishop Hutchison. “Her passion for mission is very impressive.” He also asked Bishop Miguel Tamayo, who oversees both Uruguay and Cuba, “whether gender was a significant issue in Cuba. He said absolutely not. It was clearly a popular move.”

Bishop Jefferts Schori, in an interview with Associated Press, noted that “Nerva will also be the first woman bishop outside the ‘first world.’ Her appointment is a wonderful reminder that in some nations leadership is primarily about gifts for service and not about gender.”

(To date, only Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. had elected women as bishops.)

Archbishop Hutchison’s visit to Cuba from Jan. 29 to Feb. 5 also included meetings with government officials, the papal nuncio, Canada’s ambassador and representatives of the Cuban Council of Churches. About 10,000 of Cuba’s 11 million people are Anglican.

The choice of the two suffragans was seen as a step toward an election of a diocesan bishop, something the Cuban synod has not been able to accomplish in more than a decade due to splits over political issues. At one recent synod, as reported in the Anglican Journal, factions formed over whether episcopal candidates were, or were not, perceived as being close to the Communist government.

Things may improve in the future, since Bishop Tamayo has “been remarkable in his ability to draw the church together. He has really worked for healing and reconciliation and is an instrument of unity,” said Archbishop Hutchison, who will return to Cuba June 10 for the two new bishops’ consecration.

Archbishop Hutchison and Bishop Jefferts Schori are two of three members of the Metropolitan Council of Cuba, which has overseen the church’s affairs since 1967, when the Cuban church split from the U.S. church due to difficult relations between the two countries’ governments. The third member, Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies, could not attend due to health reasons.

Synod, as one of its first actions, approved Bishop Tamayo’s request that the Metropolitan Council select two suffragans. As synod continued with other business at its meeting at the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue in Cardenas, about 130 km east of Havana, the two primates reviewed potential candidates and chose seven for interviews.

“Before I left (for Cuba), I had a long consultation with (Archbishop) Michael Peers, who knows all the clergy there,” said Archbishop Hutchison. Archbishop Peers, Archbishop Hutchison’s predecessor, chaired the Metropolitan Council and attended synods many times in his 18 years as primate of the Canadian church.

Archbishop Hutchison said he conducted interviews with the help of translators. Bishop Jefferts Schori is fluent in the language. Both primates preached in Spanish. Archbishop Hutchison focused on the church’s responsibility to strive for justice and peace in the image of the servant Jesus. Bishop Jefferts Schori, a former oceanographer, used fishing and sea images as she spoke of a “sea of possibilities” in the church’s work to end human suffering.

It was Bishop Jefferts Schori’s first international visit as a primate and the first time a U.S. presiding bishop personally attended a meeting of the Metropolitan Council. Previously, a diocesan bishop had filled the U.S. position on the council. The Episcopal Church has advocated for a lifting of the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba that has been in effect since 1961.

Accompanying Archbishop Hutchison and his wife, Lois, on the trip to Cuba was his principal secretary, Archdeacon Paul Feheley; the General Secretary of the Canadian church, Archdeacon Michael Pollesel; director of communications and information resources Vianney Carriere and their wives.

In a meeting with Communist Party officials, Archbishop Hutchison and Bishop Jefferts Schori raised the issues of the island’s tight housing market and poor transportation system, both issues of concern for churches. “Canadians have provided a number of school buses in Cuba. It’s amusing to see ‘ecolier’ on the back of them,” said Archbishop Hutchison. Bishop Jefferts Schori, meanwhile, raised the issue of prisoners of conscience, he said, adding, “The Cuban government sees people plotting against the government, where they might be heroes in the U.S.”

The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the Canadian church’s partnerships department and the Canadian social-justice organization Kairos support a number of projects in Cuba, including a seminary in Matanzas.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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