The Diocese of Recife in Brazil celebrated the start of a new chapter in its complicated life with the installation on October 11 of its fourth bishop, the Rt. Rev. Sebastiao Armando Gameleira Soares. The newly elected primate of Brazil, the Most Rev. Mauricio Andrade, presided over the investiture, which was held in the auditorium of a university in the city and attended by 400 people, including ecumenical guests and leaders of the liberation theology movement in Brazil.
Soares, a theologian and professor of Biblical studies who has been bishop of the Diocese of Pelotas in southern Brazil since February 2000, was elected as bishop of Recife to replace Robinson Cavalcanti, who was deposed on June 10, 2005. The election took place at the General Synod of the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil (IEAB) in July 2006, at which other significant actions were taken -- including the election of a new primate, the nomination of a new provincial secretary, the approval of the Missionary District of the Amazon becoming a diocese, and the election of the Rev. Saulo Mauricio de Barros as Amazonia's first bishop.
The ordination and consecration of Barros, and the inauguration of the new diocese, took place in the city of Belém on October 14 with hundreds of participants. In five short years, the missionary district of the Amazon has moved to full diocesan status, thanks to the untiring efforts of seven clergy and the laity serving four parishes and three missionary points.
Among the participants in the Recife investiture was Bishop Mark Sisk of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, a member of the Bilateral Committee for the IEAB and the Episcopal Church. As he offered greetings on behalf of Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, Sisk alluded to the significance of the event in terms of the wider Anglican Communion.
"This is a historic moment in the life of the Anglican Communion, the Church of Brazil, and this diocese," he said. "This is a wonderful and hope-filled time of rebuilding, restoration and solidarity. This is a time for a new spirit. This is a time to renew the message of love and hope which is at the heart of the Gospel. This is a time when the Church in Brazil is giving to the world a witness of clarity, courage and faithfulness. This is a witness which we all need to hear. You are providing a model of leadership that we all need to follow. God bless you."
The Diocese of Recife, which encompasses a vast region in northeastern Brazil that comprises nine states and is 2000 kilometers from one end to the other, has experienced turmoil and schism over the past several years. Founded only 30 years ago as an outreach effort of the Diocese of Rio de Janeiro, it grew rapidly and gained a reputation for having a number of megachurches with charismatic, evangelistic leadership.
In the last few years, the diocese has experienced two schisms and is now on its third cathedral. The dean of the "first" cathedral, Santissima Trinidad, a church founded in the 19th century by English tradesmen, was the Rev. Paulo Garcia, one of the first clergy to serve in the diocese. He built a congregation reputed to be 5,000 members strong. But in 2002, he left the IEAB (though not the church building), taking almost everyone with him. The 110 people who stayed faithful to the IEAB had to begin meeting in another place.
In 2003, after the election and consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, Cavalcanti asked the House of Bishops in Brazil to express its opposition to the Episcopal Church's actions. The House of Bishops refused, and Cavalcanti began to pull away from the IEAB. He unilaterally canceled the companion diocese relationship with the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania and participated in irregular actions within the United States, including confirmations in Ohio in March 2004 without the diocesan bishop's permission.
During the next two years, various attempts were made by the Brazilian church to bring Cavalcanti back into communion with his brother bishops. At least three meetings were held with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, or his representatives. Meanwhile, the church leadership had to persuade the government that it was the rightful legal entity. Finally, in June 2005, Cavalcanti was deposed on the grounds that he broke communion with the IEAB -- an action that meant the church could move ahead with appointing a series of interim bishops and, this year, electing a new one.
But the cost was great. When Cavalcanti left, he took 32 clergy and their congregations with him. He claims most of the church properties, which unfortunately were not registered in the name of the diocese, and refuses to relinquish many of the diocese's important documents.
The Diocese of Recife is left with 14 priests and 8 deacons, a church which is serving as the cathedral (the third), three missions, several "preaching points" and various outreach ministries. The number of communicants is estimated at fewer than 1000. In addition to the diocesan losses, the province faces significant debts due to the high costs of dealing with the schism, such as legal expenses and extraordinary meetings of the House of Bishops and Executive Council.
Despite the sobering picture, spirits are high in the Diocese of Recife and in the IEAB.
On October 12, the day after his investiture, Soares conducted an "Assembly of the People of God and Reunion of Clergy" at a Roman Catholic retreat center in Recife.
Soares was born in the State of Alagoas, within the Diocese of Recife, and worked as a lay theologian in the Roman Catholic Church for many years. He was ordained to the diaconate and priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1997 by the Rt. Rev. Clovis Erly Rodrigues, the second bishop of Recife. Soares's ministry has always been connected with serving the homeless, landless, and other minorities. A longtime leader of the Ecumenical Center for Biblical Studies in Sao Leopoldo, an institution devoted to promoting the study of the Bible in Christian communities, he is highly regarded by the liberation theology movement in Brazil.
He listened intently to his people as they described in detail the current reality of each parish, mission, or preaching point. Clergy and laity, male and female, young and old, painted a picture that revealed itself as a major missionary challenge. Not starting from scratch, exactly -- but working with worshiping communities of 15 or 30 or at most 60 people, meeting in homes or hotels or university chapels, struggling with no financial resources and the geographical isolation magnified by "the crisis."
But the mood was upbeat, earnest, and liberated. They understood their work, and the context in which they were doing it. Their new bishop praised them as heroes, and encouraged them by noting that they represented 20 communities of the faithful.
What the future holds is impossible to tell. But for now, a certain confidence and pride is evident in the Diocese of Recife -- and certainly in the primate, who comes from Recife and is proud to say so. The Brazilians hope that their friends in the Episcopal Church -- the "mother" church that sent missionaries from 1890 onwards, and that became a "sister" church with the achievement of the IEAB's autonomy in 1965 -- will reach out to renew relationships in this time of healing, restoration, and growth.
The American members of the Bilateral Committee -- Sisk, the Rev. Canon Kate Cullinane of Indianapolis, and the Rev. Donnel O'Flynn of Central New York -- were joined in witnessing these exciting events in Brazil by Martha B. Alexander, representing the Standing Commission on World Mission, and Canon Juan Marquez, partnership officer for Latin America and the Caribbean.
"In spite of many difficulties and serious mission challenges, the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil continues to be an inspiration for mission and ministry, which offers a sustained missionary zeal and model of growth and expansion which should continue to be not only accompanied by us, but strongly supported by our church," Marquez said.