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Group focuses on crisis at Cuba's evangelical seminary

Oct. 24, 2005

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

The Rev. Reinerio Arce (left) discusses issues facing the seminary as delegation members Alissa Bertsch and Bishop Gaspar J. Domingos of West Angola listen.

By Linda Green*

HAVANA (UMNS) — Differences in polity and theology among three denominations are causing division at an ecumenical seminary that trains clergy and laypeople in Cuba.

A nine-member delegation under the auspices of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns visited the Methodist Church in Cuba Oct. 7-12 to strengthen relations with the church and its people.

During the trip, the delegation learned about the role of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in training theological leaders in Cuba, and the group investigated a schism that has developed at the school since July. The seminary receives support from the United Methodist Church through the Advance for Christ and His Church, a second-mile giving program.

The delegation held a listening session with seminary and Methodist Church leaders to see what role the ecumenical agency could play in resolving the conflict and restoring unity at the 60-year-old school, which is a highly regarded theological center in Cuba.

Causes of the rift

The delegation determined that part of the problem has resulted from the Methodist shift to relying more on lay people to lead a growing number of house churches. This represents a change in emphasis from the predominantly ordained clergy leadership, and it is different from the polity of the seminary's partners.

The three churches — Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal — established the ecumenical evangelical seminary in 1946 on property provided by the Methodist Woman's Society of Christian Service in Matanzas. Students from Latin America and many denominations have been a part of the seminary since its inception.

According to Cuba, a publication of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, the seminary is seen as a provider of theological education comparable to that of seminaries in the United States, but in recent years it has "tended to be liberal and supportive of the Liberation Theology developed in Latin America," a perspective that has "been the source of criticism by many Cuban pastors."

Cuban Methodist leaders said the seminary has become too liberal and secular to meet the needs of the Methodist Church.

In July, the Methodist Church voted to end its covenant with the seminary's other founding bodies because of differences in polity and theology, and the decision was made to start a separate Methodist seminary in a local church in Matanzas.

"The basic problem is that the Presbyterians and Episcopalians and the leadership of the seminary do not respect the Methodist Church," said Cuban Methodist Bishop Ricardo Pereira. "They want to have Methodists at the seminary who are of a different voice than what the Methodist Church and the annual conference has established."

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

The Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cuba was established in 1946 by the Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.
The seminary has a "professor who claims to be Methodist," Pereira said, and "the seminary uses this person to contradict the Methodists that we as (the) church send to the seminary, especially when delegations from abroad come to visit." The bishop said the seminary's action set off "a precedent of immeasurable consequences for the future."

The professor in question, who was at first a student and is now a faculty member, "is not a member of any Methodist Church in Cuba and has no interest in becoming a member either," the bishop said. The professor has also questioned the leadership and guidelines approved by the annual conference, according to the bishop.

Pereira told the United Methodist delegation that the seminary's actions "are something that for the Methodist Church is unacceptable."

The Methodist Church is also claiming the seminary's leadership and board of directors violated the bylaws when a meeting about the issue was conducted without Methodist presence. "The bylaws indicate that meetings cannot be held if all three churches are not present, but they hold meetings among themselves without the Methodist Church being present," Pereria said.

'In crisis'

Much back and forth has occurred with the denominations and the seminary leadership regarding the professor and complaints about the seminary. The Rev. Reinerio Arce, president of the seminary, told the delegation that "we are in crisis" and attributed it to different perceptions, lack of communication and authority. The problem, he said, is the inability to maintain the unity of the three groups in leading the seminary.

"It is not a matter of who is right and who is wrong," Arce said. "My perception is that (the) orientation of the Presbyterian Church and Episcopal Church in terms of theological approaches, in terms of liturgies, in term of understanding the mission of the church is different from the orientation and position of the Methodist Church," he said.

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

"The church needs the seminary and the seminary needs the church," the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman says.
Arce said the seminary's Presbyterian and Episcopal leaders sought to resolve the conflict through the board of directors, but the Methodist Church wanted to open the conflict up to mediators from the outside. Arce told the delegation that the Methodist Church wanted him to fire the professor. "If a professor disrespects any church, it should be discussed in the board, and if there is proof, then I will then fire the professor," he said. He added that "free thinking is something that must be maintained."

On July 19, Pereira clarified the Methodist position and outlined the church's complaints. He also told the United Methodist delegation that the Methodist Church "will not let our church be disrespected and will not let seminary leaders take the right to have ?pseudo' Methodists in the seminary representing interests alien to the Methodist Church in Cuba."

Church needs seminary

Without renouncing its rights to the seminary, the Methodist Church decided to break the covenant it had with the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in leading the seminary. Methodist leaders say they are developing a separate seminary to train future leaders for the church in Cuba.

That action may be against the rules because the evangelical seminary is registered as an association and does not belong to any of the three churches. It is independent from them, and in order for the seminary to be dissolved, all three churches must agree.

After hearing myriad points of view on the seminary issue, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman of Washington, boiled the problems down to an "absence of effective communication."

"I hope that by the grace of God that it will be resolved in a positive way," he said. "The church needs the seminary and the seminary needs the church."

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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