As It Installs New Prime Bishop, Philippine Church Reflects on Growing Role in National Life

Episcopal News Service. January 15, 1993 [93005]

With the installation of a new prime bishop on January 6, the Philippine Episcopal Church (PEC) reflected on the first two years of its autonomy after nearly a century as a missionary extension of the Episcopal Church in the USA.

"We are writing a history from scratch," the PEC's first prime bishop, the Most. Rev. Richard Abellon, said when the church became independent in May 1990. At that time he stressed that autonomy would make it easier for the Filipino church to identify with the struggles of the people and the "search for national integrity and sovereignty."

If anything, that struggle has intensified in recent years, amplified by political and economic turmoil in the Philippines. After his investiture as new prime bishop, Narciso Ticobay prayed with particular intensity during the Eucharistic prayer for "peace in our time."

Moving toward strength

Although church leaders are very open in discussing the advantages and disadvantages that autonomy is bringing, they see "a new seriousness about the responsibility to take care of ourselves -- a greater understanding of our mission, looking at mission with a Filipino lens," according to Danny Ocampo, the PEC's development officer. He said that "parishes are moving toward strength and we have grown more in the last few years than the previous 90 years as a missionary church." Ticobay said that the PEC is facing nothing less than "the transformation of our people."

Ocampo and others admitted that the burden of self-reliance is "very big" and that it is difficult for a church with only 150,000 members to sustain the structures and institutions it inherited. The church faces the dilemma of "trying to do mission as we see it" with resources already heavily committed, according to PEC leaders. And there is some lingering frustration with promises made by the Episcopal Church in the USA and not kept, especially regarding a pension program and capital funding.

According to Ocampo, the 10-year trial period leading to autonomy did not adequately move the PEC towards self-support. "We are looking for ways to use our resources wisely," added Bishop Robert Longid of the Diocese of the Northern Philippines. Some of the PEC's institutions, such as St. Luke's Hospital and Trinity College -- part of the church's Cathedral Heights compound in Manila -- are becoming more independent. And it is possible that some of the valuable land in the compound can be developed to provide additional resources for mission.

Church seeks peacemaking role

"Our congregations are accepting new levels of responsibility for developing missions -- that is why we are growing," Longid said in pointing to significant growth in the northern Philippines. "Much of our thinking was American, and our Christianity was like the coconut, brown on the outside but white on the inside," Longid added. "We had to come up with our own understanding as Filipinos because many of our people still saw themselves as part of the American church." That attitude became especially apparent, he observed, during the national debate on the future of American military bases in the Philippines.

During the debate on the future of the bases, the PEC tried to emphasize that "we were eager to see the United States demilitarize, to begin spending more on social help than weapons," Abellon said. He even suggested that the cooperative relationship between the PEC and the Episcopal Church could be a model for a new relationship between the two nations, based on honesty and mutual respect.

PEC leaders point to the close cooperation between the two churches in supporting a peace process to bring together the Filipino government and the rebels as a shining example of the new relationship.

"One of the landmarks of our autonomy is our advocacy program, our presence in a national peacemaking role," said the Rev. Rex Reyes, canon missioner at the cathedral in Manila and a member of the communications staff of the PEC. Partly because of the church's experience in strife-torn areas, "the deep commitment to the role of the church as a peacemaker is at the top of our mission agenda," he added.

Reyes and other church leaders said that the Episcopal Church's supportive role for the PEC's involvement in the peace process has deepened the relationship. Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning has pressed for fresh thinking regarding solutions to the armed conflict. In direct conversations with former Secretary of State James Baker and other officials in the U.S. State Department, he has argued against U.S. support of the Philippine government's "total war" strategy dealing with the rebels.

That cooperation is crucial because leaders like Ocampo said that they believe that "there can be peace in the Philippines -- if the United States wants it." Ocampo argued that the peace issue is an international one and that "the role of the United States is crucial."

The two churches also share a deep concern for other justice issues. The Rev. Brian Grieves, peace and justice officer for the Episcopal Church in the USA, has joined PEC colleagues in confronting the Dole Corporation over its labor policies at its facilities in Mindinao.

New degree of integrity

"Autonomy has endowed our church with a new degree of integrity in national life," Ocampo added. For the first time, Filipino politicians are seeking to include the church's perspective and have asked for copies of its statements on major issues such as the presence of American military bases.

"We look at the peace process from both a theological and a pastoral point of view," Longid observed. "That way the church can go to both the government and the rebels to advocate peace -- and we can express the hopes of the people."

"Our people are beginning to realize that, as an autonomous church, we can speak for their rights -- we are recognizing their needs and problems," added Ticobay. "People are getting excited about their direct involvement in decision-making."

These are both exciting and frightening days for the church in the Philippines. Yet there is a new energy and confidence that the Filipinos can break the old patterns of dependence. "We have been wearing hand-me-down clothes for a long time," said Dr. Andrew Tauli, director of a hospital in Sagada. "Now it is time for our own clothes, even if we must begin with beggar's rags."

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