I spent much of the second half of 2012 in the Philippines. Commuting from my base at a family property south of Manila, I would pass by a significantly large church that runs its own school for pre-school and elementary-aged children. It used to belong to the United Methodist Church and was the biggest one in its Conference. Not anymore, as the new signage shows.
About two years ago, a significant number of United Methodists in the Philippines left the denomination and formed a new one. They call the new denomination, Ang Iglesya Metodista ng Pilipinas (AIMP), or in English, The Methodist Church of the Philippines. Many left the UMC as individuals but some left as whole congregations, staying in the same property, like the sanctuary, for worship and other regular local church activities. Such properties are now the subject of litigation over ownership. I have heard reports that certain individuals have donated generously to the new denomination, which has recently established, based on the same reports, its own seminary headed by a former professor at a partly-owned United Methodist seminary.
It is of course not surprising for people to leave a denomination in the same way that others join it. That a group within a denomination decides to break away and form a new one is also not unusual. It happens many times. For those who care it is the reasons for breaking away that interests them. In the case of the Philippines Central Conference the trigger was the perceived unjust handling of a case against one of the bishops. That bishop was charged with sexual immorality and was expelled after a controversial process. Many of those that supported that bishop believed he was innocent. Many of those who are ambivalent about his guilt nevertheless felt that the process was rigged, regardless of whether or not they like the bishop personally. Those that broke away simply felt that the present structure is not serving the church at present. It is not a coincidence that most of those that bolted the church also advocated autonomy for the church. To them the way the case was handled was the last straw. They feel that the current structure makes endemic the kind of episcopal politics through which they had just gone.
It will help us understand how things ended up this way if we have a basic background of the history of the Philippines, and the current social context which is the product of that history. Philippine social, economic, and political institutions and culture have two major characteristics: colonial and feudal. Colonial because on the whole Philippine society is oriented towards following the basic direction of the United States, a former colonizer that nevertheless wields considerable clout to this day. Feudal because of the inculcation of the patron-client, or patronage, system, among other things, that was fostered under Spanish rule and which the succeeding American colonizers found useful in implementing colonial goals.
For those who don’t know it yet, the Philippines was directly occupied and colonized by three foreign powers (Spain, 1565-1898; United States 1898-1946; Japan 1941-1945). Of these, it is the United States that has kept the greatest and most pervasive influence up to the present, so that any aspirant to the highest post in the Philippines has to earn the nod of the incumbent US President. The economic interests of the Philippine elite are closely intertwined with many US companies. Just about all of them, too, have investments and properties in the United States. The most powerful politicians directly come from the ranks of the elite, while those who are not are nevertheless bankrolled by a faction of the elite and beholden to it. Many of them are educated in the US and/or perhaps Europe and Japan. Considering the close relationship of the Philippine elite to US interests, it is logical for their politicians to court US approval, especially when seeking the highest post of the land.
The colonial aspect manifests in the way the economy and politics are oriented but, for the purposes of this article, we shall focus mainly on the realm of consciousness, or culture, which is the realm where the colonial aspect is most enduring in the first place. Colonial education enabled the perpetuation of inferior attitudes and behavior towards the colonizer, especially the dominant White culture, so that by extension, anything Caucasian is superior in all spheres. In fact, the last government agency turned over to Filipinos under direct colonial rule was that charged with education. By the time the Philippines was granted formal independence in 1946, the colonial system of education was well entrenched and its effect is still being felt strongly today. One must precisely reflect critically on the word ‘granted.’ It implies an orderly transition, not a discontinuity, of a colonial presence from a direct one to one that is more subtle. So, when a colonizer ‘grants’ independence to a colony it simply means it dictated the basic terms of that ‘independence.’ The ‘former’ colonizer still gets what it wants from the ‘former’ colony but with the appearance of the latter as a thoroughly independent nation. It may not be precise to say that the Philippines is still a colony of the United States. The term neo-colony may be more appropriate.
One of the more enduring negative aspects of colonial consciousness is the patronage system, which is of course a colonial legacy itself. It was fostered under Spanish rule and was so effective in implementing colonial policies that it also suited the goals of the new American colonizers. In this system one seeks the favor of powerful patrons, either to respond to a need or for social, economic or political advancement. After receiving the favor one becomes beholden to the patron and become associated with the interests of that patron. Aside from economic and political mechanisms, religious justification also ensured its viability. It’s a long story, but the Catholic Church in the Philippines from the 16th through the 19th century was a Spanish church, a result of the agreement between the Spanish crown and the Vatican. Colonial Filipinos did not see any non-Spanish priest because it was the Spanish monarch that made the appointment. But the bottom line here is that the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines during those times was insulated from developments within Roman Catholicism as a whole, and hence remained medieval in orientation all throughout Spanish rule. There was no separation of church and state and the church definitely encouraged the patronage system. Though recent official positions of the dominant Roman Catholic Church no longer encourages the patronage system, neither does it actively campaign against it. Thus, it still reigns to this day.
In Philippine elections, at least half of the votes are patronage votes, votes dictated by patrons, which of course are the wealthy elite. Even those not directly bound by this system nevertheless have acquired that value as a result of centuries of inculcation and reinforcement. People look to either the elite or the wealthy foreigner as their superiors in every way. Incidentally, it is not surprising for first generation immigrant Filipinos to side with White racism when they come to the US. This attitude is the direct result of being nurtured in this patron-client system and culture and it infects most Filipinos, even many among the highly educated.
The Philippine case may provide some sort of a template with which to analyze the situation of the Central Conferences in Africa, which have also gone through European colonialism and arguably have neo-colonial characteristics to this day.
At any rate, given the strongly colonial and feudal elements of Philippine society and culture we may want to reflect on a number of questions and situate them within the context of such a society given its characteristics. For instance, in this kind of society and culture, what do we expect from the kind of structure and polity in which bishops of the Philippines Central Conference receive remuneration that’s half (1:2) of their US counterparts but where the exchange rate of the dollar to the local currency is 1:40? How is that translated in practice when one aspires to the episcopacy? What can one expect of the episcopal elections during the Central Conference meeting? When the patronage system is deeply ingrained, what then do we make of the bishop’s power to appoint clergy, especially in a context in which some local churches are rich while many are impoverished? And what about projects that seek funding from church agencies that require the bishop’s endorsement?
The structure itself may not be inherently flawed but the context in which it operates may subject it to a kind of abuse that the available accountability mechanisms via the polity to check it may not work, since such mechanisms can be co-opted by the patronage system itself.
Many of those that left the church in view of the controversy surrounding the expelled bishop think precisely like this. The intervention of the Council of Bishops was seen as counterproductive and for good reason. Whoever the Council of Bishops may send does not necessarily know what’s going on and the lack of cross-cultural sensitivity could make the situation worse, which is what, in fact, many of those who left believed.
Many United Methodists in the Philippines complain that much of the energy of the church is wasted on episcopal politics. This is actually a sentiment even of many of those that have decided to stay within the denomination. There is of course a significant segment within the church that is part of a greater movement within the Philippines that seek basic changes in Philippine society, and particularly aiming at removing its colonial and feudal features. In terms of the denomination, this is translated into a desire for autonomy for the Philippines Central Conference.
How should United Methodists in the United States look at such a development?
Haniel is a home missioner and Cross Culture Common Witness Coordinator for MFSA. Born and raised in the Philippines, Haniel earned a BA from Philippine Christian University and an MA in international development from the University of Sussex, UK. His other involvements in the church include memberships in the boards of the Virginia Conference Board of Church and Society, the National Association of Filipino-American United Methodists (NAFAUM), and the General Board of Church and Society.