In the last year or so, about 30 Quechua communities have approached the Episcopal Diocese of Central Ecuador and expressed an interest in leaving behind the Catholic Church and becoming Episcopal. As I understand it, they think they’re not getting the sort of pastoral attention they want and the sacramental tradition of the Episcopal Church appeals to them. On the face of it, this is great news for the Episcopalians (especially in light of Pope Benedict’s overtures to Anglicans in the last six months).
These Quechua communities are quite poor. They are high in the mountains and the people who live in them were for a long time labours on the large farms of distant landowners. It’s only in the last few decades that they’ve come to own land for themselves and even then it’s not the best land.
But the problems immediately begin to raise their heads. For one thing, the Catholic diocese in the area isn’t totally thrilled, especially since two Catholic priests are becoming Episcopal priests. For people who care about the unity of the Body of Christ, this isn’t great news.
A large problem is language. The Episcopal prayer book is translated into Spanish but not Quechua. Many of the older people in these communities speak little Spanish. The service that they take part in might be as foreign to them as any Xhosa-language service was to me in South Africa. It’s not like the Episcoplians have a surfeit of Quechua-speaking clergy to translate either.
Clergy is another issue. Neither the Catholics or Episcopalians have a bunch of clergy hanging around who can provide pastoral attention to these villages. One way they’re getting around it is by holding monthly educational sessions in a central location on how people in the villages can take on some of these roles themselves. We attended part of one of these on a Saturday. I was impressed they could get 100 or so people to walk four or five hours to come to a meeting like this.
At a Saturday session on pastoral care – don’t see Episcopalians dressed like this very often!
The work also puts a strain on the clergy. Two clergy for 30 villages isn’t a great ratio. We meet Father Eulogio and Father Luis Alberto. They are both very talented, smart, and hard-working but it is clear that multiple services per day in different communities is taxing.
Father Luis Alberto
Chris Morck with Fathers Eulogio and Luis Alberto
One of the most interesting issues at stake is, of course, power. The Episcopal diocese welcomed these villages with open arms but now at least some people have reason for pause. The diocese has maybe 2000 congregants now. These 30 villages represent maybe 5000 congregants. If and as these new communities join the diocese that could dramatically shift the face of the diocese, making it an indigenous-dominated one and not a mestizo-dominated one. I’m all for democracy in the church but I think this is making some Quito-based Episcopalians think again.
There’s another question at play about how seriously these villages want to be Episcopal, as opposed to just generally Christian. It’s not clear at all that the Episcopal Church can do a better job than the Catholics at providing pastoral attention. If that proves to be the case, then we heard that some villages might consider evolving into their own sort of a-denominational Christian church. They might just be passing through the Episcopal Church on their way to something else.
All of these issues make this a fascinating situation. We were fortunate to observe part of the Saturday afternoon session on pastoral care. In the late afternoon, we drove up to one of the villages (San Francisco de Telon) and joined them for worship. It was a standard Episcopal prayer book liturgy, in Spanish. There were a dozen or so of us gringos and maybe 40 Quechua in their ponchos and felt hats in a small, thatch-roofed church that is nearly 200 years old.
Chris Morck with Father Eulogio preparing the table; Father Luis Alberto leading music.
While we waited for the service to begin, Father Luis Alberto invited me to play guitar with him. I shared a few of my favourites and he taught me a few Quechua tunes. I hadn’t been feeling great because of the altitude and an oncoming cold but this really perked my spirits up.
You know the Bob Marley song “Jammin'” – “We’re jammin’ in the name of the Lord”? That’s what I was thinking about.
When I was planning the trip, I had thought about skipping the first day of classes and avoid having to take the red-eye back to New York but I resolved to make it back for Monday because I really wanted to be in the World Christianity class and I was glad I did. But I couldn’t help but thinking that some of the best education in world Christianity had been in that church on Saturday night.