Alienation and Embrace
by Christopher Elwood
Shortly after 7:30 in the evening the service began. Our students, stationed in the rear balcony to facilitate a simultaneous translation into English, had seen their group leaders go off a few moments earlier to meet with members of the church staff. They were surprised to see them reappear, wearing the same white robes as the rest of the church’s pastoral team, processing into the chancel, unexpectedly enlisted as worship leaders.
The Presbyterian Cathedral in downtown Rio de Janeiro is a neo-Gothic structure built in the early twentieth century. It is home to one of Brazil’s largest (and oldest) Presbyterian congregations in the largest of the country’s several Presbyterian denominations, the Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPB). We visited this impressive building on the second day of our visit to Rio, planning to return for worship on Sunday.
The edifice and its many symbols attest to the aspirations of Presbyterians in Brazil—part of a small Protestant minority—to claim a place of influence in this predominantly Catholic culture. With the recent explosion of Neo-Pentecostalism, Catholic dominance is challenged, though certainly not overturned. The mainline Protestant churches that continue to maintain a demographically significant presence tend to be those whose theology leans strongly in a conservative direction. The IPB is one of these. The Presbyterian conservatism of this denomination came to be expressed in recent decades in efforts to remove the IPB from its historic ecumenical alliances, both global Christian and Reformed. The Presbyterian Church (USA) was viewed as tainted by liberalism and rejected as an ecumenical partner, and progressives within the Brazilian church—those few who had survived a conservative backlash against “leftists” during the two decades of military rule (1964-1984)—were forced out.
Several days after this worship experience we would hear moving stories told by a number of those purged by the conservatives in the early years of the military dictatorship—Brazilian Presbyterian leaders with strong ecumenical commitments and a passion for social justice. Many of the exiled pastors and congregations banded together in the 1970s to form the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPU), a small denomination with close ties to the PCUSA. Their testimonies helped us appreciate just how fresh are the memories of unjust, inquisitorial mistreatment on the part of the larger Presbyterian denomination.
Officially, then, the IPB and the PC(USA) are estranged churches, separated by a wide theological gulf. But the symbolism of the worship service on this Sunday evening, albeit impromptu symbolism, testified to hopes for healing a broken relationship. Pastors of the IPB entered the sanctuary together with two pastors of the PC(USA). The opening prayer of adoration was offered by my colleague Cláudio Carvalhaes. Our group was warmly welcomed and our visit to Brazil celebrated. The closing benediction was given by two pastors, standing arm in arm—an American (that would be me) in English and a Brazilian (the senior pastor, Rev. Guilhermino Cunha) in Portuguese.
I confess to a degree of surprise over the invitation to participate and to occupy a place of symbolic importance in this time of worship. But Rev. Guilhermino helped to place this event in context when Cláudio and I, and a number of members of our group, met with him for a church staff devotion the following morning. He spoke to us of his perception that the move of the IPB away from the PC(USA) was a tragedy, his conviction that the historical ties between us—analogous to the relationship of parent and child—were ultimately indissoluble, and his hope that the PC(USA) would receive the message that its presence and witness were not rejected by Brazilian Presbyterians.
At least one pastor from the conservative and less ecumenically open IPB testified to hopes for healing. But one may wonder whether our divisions can be healed given the dynamics of contemporary church politics and the starkly different ecclesiological and missiological ideals of Presbyterian conservatives and progressives. Rev. Cunha’s voice may be regarded as an influential one, given the pulpit he occupies. But can his perspective and his hopes be regarded as representative of the broader feeling within his denomination? And even if his vision might be shared by others, does this vision include an openness to restoring relations with a PC(USA) that might be moving ever more in the direction of greater diversity and inclusion, within a Reformed context?
These are questions I certainly cannot answer. Brazilian Presbyterians remain alienated from one another—through a series of historical schisms and purges—and the tensions we have witnessed, the bitter memories we’ve heard recited, suggest that healing these and other divisions will require either an enormous effort or a great deal of time, and perhaps both of these.