A letter from Bob and Keiko Butterfield in Portugal
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
A great wave of ecumenical enthusiasm is sweeping both Presbyterians and Methodists in Portugal. Dialogue between the two has a long history. It began way back in 1962 and led first to the publication of a journal called Evangelical Portugal, started in 1965 and still going strong. It also produced the Evangelical Seminary of Theology (now defunct for financial reasons), the Portuguese Council of Christian Churches, which is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary on October 5, and the Ecumenical Center of Reconciliation, still very much in use. In 2007 the Evangelical Methodist Church of Portugal and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal agreed to jointly study the possibility of closer working arrangements. That agreement has in turn led to a Covenant of Unity, which has just been published and will be discussed in all the congregations of both church bodies and then voted on in their annual assemblies.
So ecumenical dialogue and cooperation are certainly not new among Protestants here, but what is new is that these two churches are now filled with a desire that until now has been lacking in their discussions. It’s the desire to come out of their minority-church mind-set and find the courage to do two things that in the past they never even dreamed of: (1) They seriously want to reform first themselves and then the majority church in Portugal and (2) they want to have a positive, even transformational influence on public life. When you consider how small these two church bodies are—no more than about 5,000 members between the two, compared with a Roman Catholic population of roughly 8.5 million—this new attitude is simply astounding.
It may be difficult for folks living in modern America to fully grasp the following reality, but the fact is that many of the same abuses and distortions against which Luther and Calvin had to fight so hard in the 16th century still dominate in Portugal’s Roman Catholic Church and therefore in Portugal generally. In terms of many aspects of faith and practice, Portugal’s Roman Catholic Church is still very much in the Counter Reformation. For example, it is commonly believed in Portugal that you have to do something to win God’s blessing, that you have to suffer or make some kind of sacrifice in compensation for which God will grant your petition. There’s quite a range of such sacrifices, but the one considered most effective is a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Fatima. So on the 13th of every month and especially in May and October, millions of poor Portuguese (60 percent of the population is poor) go by bus or even on foot to Fatima and crawl on their hands and knees across an asphalt courtyard the length of two football fields in order to deposit their petition—and their gold jewelry—in the sanctuary of Fatima. Keiko and I have witnessed this spectacle, and the sincerity of the pilgrims is real and quite touching. Yet it’s also very sad to see people suffering to obtain the grace that a loving God so freely grants. Has their own church not told them about the God who helps people purely out of love, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who justifies and saves us by grace alone, through no merit of our own? Recently in the media some brave parish priests have openly criticized Fatima for taking money desperately needed here and sending it to Rome. So apparently Keiko and I, along with our Protestant colleagues, are not the only critics of Fatima. Would people still be going to Fatima if they knew what it’s like to live with God in a relationship of confidence and obedience? But instead of telling people the truth about the God revealed in Jesus Christ, their church (with the exception of a few brave priests) not only permits these basically non-Christian beliefs and practices but also actively encourages them. A few Catholic intellectuals are also critical of such things, but they have no impact on the people in the pews.
Maybe now you can see what I mean when I say that it’s astounding for two small Protestant church bodies to set their sights on reforming this large but retrograde majority church. It’s no less daunting a task than the one Luther faced—and he had the support of the German princes. The same can be said of the Protestant goal of making a positive, even transformational impact on Portuguese society. The majority church obviously likes things the way they are and historically has repeatedly acted to thwart any attempt at social transformation. But it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could positively transform this society without the support and cooperation of Portugal’s Roman Catholic Church, and certainly the Protestant churches are not going to get that support and cooperation unless they stubbornly and aggressively pursue it. In the Bible study I did for the meeting of Methodist and Presbyterian pastors on September 17, I gave them strong encouragement by explaining that the metanoia (radical change) Jesus called for was a metanoia not just of the heart but also of institutions.
Both Methodists and Presbyterians in Portugal will continue to need your strong support if they are going to carry on the great work they are called to do.
Yours in Christ’s service,
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 194
The 2012 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 270