A letter from Dennis Smith in Argentina (Regional liaison for Brazil and Southern Cone)
Learning how to disagree is an important part of being partners in God’s mission. Learning how to disagree in today’s world on such divisive issues as sexuality and ordination standards is, shall we say—complicated.
A few weeks ago, at the meeting of its General Assembly, the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) voted to continue its 30-year mission partnership with Presbyterian World Mission (PWM) despite their public stance against ordination of homosexuals and same-sex marriage.
The IPIB was created in 1903 when it split with the Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPB). The issues leading to the split included opposition to the power wielded by U.S. missionaries in the IPB and to the membership of many IPB leaders in the Masonic Lodge. Over 80 years the IPIB built a thriving, mission-minded faith community—now numbering 100,000 members—without PC(USA) funding or mission workers.
In 1983, due to the prayer-filled, Spirit-led leadership of key mission visionaries in both Brazil and the U.S., the IPIB and PWM forged a mission partnership that has been mutually accountable and mutually beneficial. PWM has supported IPIB mission workers sent by both churches to minister in the U.S., Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela. The IPIB has received PWM mission workers to teach in their seminaries and to train Brazilian church leaders. PC(USA) presbyteries and churches have supported financially and sent groups to accompany pioneering IPIB evangelistic initiatives in Brazil’s poor, arid Northeast and the Amazon jungle.
Like in the U.S., for many Brazilian church members homosexuality is a troubling and divisive issue. Some see it as a sign of moral decadence, others as the emerging civil rights frontier. Like in the U.S., the issue tends to be far more troubling for older adults than for youth. Like other PC(USA) mission partners, IPIB leadership has taken a public stand against the ordination of homosexual persons and same-sex marriage.
The PC(USA) General Assembly voted in 2010 to remove a constitutional requirement that all ministers, elders and deacons live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” This controversial decision was ratified by the necessary number of PC(USA) presbyteries in May 2011, returning to local churches and presbyteries their historic right to determine who was suitable for office. The decision also had the effect of opening ordained offices in the PC(USA) to persons living in same-sex relationships.
The IPIB General Assembly promptly voted to name a Task Force to review criteria for all their mission partnerships. Some sectors of the IPIB called for a break with the PC(USA). The IPIB Task Force produced a thoughtful, well-reasoned 10-page report on mission in partnership grounded in references from both Old and New Testaments, Calvin and Luther, Barth and Tillich. The report did not back away from the IPIB’s public positions on ordination standards and same-sex marriage.
As PWM’s regional liaison for Brazil and the Southern Cone, it was my job to provide the Task Force with information and analysis about PC(USA) mission initiatives throughout the world. In their typical independent style, the Task Force never asked to meet with me or other PC(USA) representatives, but received requested information graciously.
The report recommended continuing all 11 IPIB international mission partnerships. Other partners are the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, Presbyterian Church of Colombia, Presbyterian Church of Korea, United Presbyterian Church of Brazil, Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, Waldensian Evangelical Church of Río de la Plata, Independent Presbyterian Church of Bolivia, Reformed Churches of Argentina, Evangelical Reformed Church of Angola, and Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
At the recent meeting of the General Assembly, as regional liaison it fell to me to read to the delegates a letter of greeting signed by the PC(USA) Moderator Neil Presa, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, Presbyterian Mission Agency Executive Director Linda Valentine, and Presbyterian World Mission Director Hunter Farrell. In addition to thanking God for lives transformed by God’s grace through common service and for lessons learned over three decades as we have walked together, a key paragraph stated:
We have understood that our General Assemblies may take different positions on ordination standards; we have respected and will continue to respect your criteria on who is qualified to serve in mission service in our joint mission initiatives.
In two hours of debate after the commission presented its report, one delegate asked what the IPIB would do if the PC(USA) was represented by a homosexual person at a public event sponsored by the IPIB. IPIB Moderator Rev. Aureo Rodrigues Oliveira responded that, as Moderator, he does not know the sexual orientation of all the people with whom he shares a platform. The questioner followed up asking what would the IPIB do if the PC(USA) representative was a publicly self-identified homosexual. The Moderator replied that the IPIB had already taken a public position on the issue and he trusted that the PC(USA) would continue to respect the IPIB’s position.
Rev. Assir Pereira, a former IPIB moderator, supported the report, noting that the PC(USA) had demonstrated great respect for the IPIB in an earlier generation before the IPIB voted to ordain women as ministers. Rev. Assir emphasized that the maturity of the discussions that led to the creation of the IPIB-PC(USA) partnership in 1983, and the PC(USA)’s ongoing respect for IPIB autonomy, led to the very fruitful ministry of Rev. Dr. Sherron George as a mission worker, now honorably retired, at the IPIB seminary in Londrina.
Commission member Rev. Clayton Leal da Silva emphasized that the IPIB has always been an independent denomination and would continue to uphold that tradition. Furthermore, he noted, in 30 years of mission partnership the PC(USA) has always sought respectful consultation and has not interfered in IPIB’s internal affairs.
Another opponent to the report suggested that for the IPIB to relate with those with whom they disagree would undermine the legitimacy of their public witness in Brazil. In response, Task Force member and former IPIB moderator Rev. Leontino Farias dos Santos suggested that partnerships have little value if they are only among the like-minded. The richness and challenge of partnerships among churches is precisely to experience difference, confident that God’s Spirit leads us, through the other, to a broader understanding of how and where God is at work in the world.
Before the vote Rev. Aureo, the IPIB Moderator, gave thanks to God for the missionary legacy of the PC(USA). He called on all delegates to pray for Presbyterian mission efforts around the world, and to give thanks to God for the many generations of PC(USA) mission workers who had given their lives in service to the gospel and the Brazilian people. He asked delegates to remember especially the many retired mission workers who are suffering because of their disagreement with the change in ordination standards recently approved by the PC(USA) General Assembly.
The Assembly approved the Task Force report and its recommendations by a vote of 125 to 44. The vote included the stipulation that partnership activities with local churches and presbyteries in Brazil, including liturgies, joint service projects, study materials, etc., will be approved by the local IPIB governing body, with notice given to the Executive Committee. The accord also specifies that all mission workers received by the IPIB must be in compliance with Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXIV, I: “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time.”
Now we continue our journey together in service to God’s mission, continuing to grow, continuing to learn from one another. A Presbytery of Mississippi mission delegation recently enjoyed a two-week visit to 11 IPIB churches in Ceará, accompanied by PC(USA) mission worker Marta Carriker; East Iowa Presbytery will be sending a delegation in August. The Brazil Mission Network circulates a quarterly bulletin by e-mail that keeps us up-to-date on active Presbyterian mission partnerships in Brazil. Would you like to join the Network or share with us the latest news from your Brazil partnership? Let me know; I’ll be happy to add your name to the list!
Partnerships never cease to be messy, but, as Rev. Leontino stated so wisely, the richness and challenge of partnerships among churches is to experience difference, confident that God’s Spirit leads us, through the other, to a broader understanding of how and where God is at work in the world.
Your support for our ministry made it possible for me to participate in this process. We are a global church, by the grace of God, and our global network of regional liaisons makes it possible for us to be in regular, direct contact with our mission partners. Thank you for your prayers! Thank you for your continued financial support!
A special welcome if you are just learning about our ministry. We invite you to prayerfully consider joining us in God’s mission in Brazil and the Southern Cone through your prayers, your correspondence, your continued learning, and your financial commitment.
Under the Mercy,
Thank you Dennis for this insightful, well articulated resume of some of the contentious issues facing you and the Brazilian Church today! The wise and helpful dialogue which you describe are great examples of creative encounters among those of differing opinions. Clear evidence of the Spirit at work! Blessings on you all!