Writing a Common Statement of Hope for Christian Unity in the Philippines

"As part of celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in the Philippines, I was involved in crafting the common statement from the different Christian churches of the Philippines. The quincentenary was deemed an opportune moment by the different church leaders to strengthen the ecumenical effort towards unity in faith."

Writing a Common Statement of Hope for Christian Unity in the Philippines

Dodong

 by Fr. Cireneo Matulac, SSC

As part of celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in the Philippines, I was involved in crafting the common statement from the different Christian churches of the Philippines. The quincentenary was deemed an opportune moment by the different church leaders to strengthen the ecumenical effort towards unity in faith.

 

Beginnings

The group responsible for the common statement was recently formed through the effort of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) Episcopal Commission on Ecumenical Affairs to gather the different churches and engage in dialogue. This is, however, not the only ecumenical forum where the CBCP is engaged. They also have a presence within the Ecumenical Bishops Forum, as well as in other different levels of relations between other Christian churches. I suppose all these efforts are ways to take seriously the task of Christian Unity as a fundamental identity of the Church that was articulated in the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio and reiterated in other church documents on ecumenism that were written after it.

The response from the different churches was short of miraculous. During the initial meeting in October 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the leaders of different churches demonstrated great enthusiasm, noting that it was time to take seriously the work of ecumenical dialogue between the churches, with the first step being the creation of a working group consisting of representatives from the different churches who would put on their thinking hats to discuss the activities that the various church communities could get involved. Eventually, the working group was called Ecumenical Initiative Forum (EIF) of which I am a member.

With the pandemic came a hiatus on regularly meeting in person because of the risks brought by physical gatherings. Everyone learned how to minister within their church communities, especially in providing for people’s material and spiritual needs. Learning to navigate in this new situation of continually changing levels of community quarantine, people have turned to internet to meet, study and celebrate liturgies. Eventually, the EIF met again online and agreed to work on common activities in time to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in the Philippines. Three tasks were immediate: issuing an Iglesia Filipina Independiente or the Philippine Independent Church (IFI)-Roman Catholic (RC) Joint Statement and a Common Statement of Different Churches of the Philippines, as well as celebrating an ecumenical liturgy on the occasion of quincentenary.

The common statement was supposed to be released around Easter, during the ecumenical liturgical celebration of the quincentennial Christian presence in the Philippines. However, the recent surge of COVID-19 in the country has delayed this ecumenical liturgy and there is no definite date set until now. Supposedly, during this liturgy, another statement will be presented that was forged by the IFI-Roman Catholic Church. A lot of effort, online meetings and planning were put into this activity.

 

Drafting the Common Statement

I experienced the sincerity of theologians from the different Christian churches in drafting the statement. I suppose it was coming from the fact that they were not only representing their church’s theological tradition, but they also had the support of their church leaders and community. This did not make the drafting of the statement any easier. On the other hand, it was a long and sometimes contentious process. I think establishing principles in writing the common statement at the beginning of the process helped tremendously. The principles agreed to by everyone involved in drafting the common statement include that the statement must be non-polemical. It should also be celebratory, honest, and relevant.

One of the most contentious themes on content of the common statement is the appeal to history of Christianity in the Philippines, including questions on how the early missionaries contributed to atrocities and violence against the natives of the Philippines during the colonial occupation. Those who came to the Philippines with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi learned from the initial experience of missionaries who arrived during Magellan’s expedition, as well as the conquest of the Americas about the violence perpetrated on the people by colonialists. So much so that many of the missionaries devoted time and effort to evangelize the local inhabitants, defending their rights and even becoming outright anti-colonialist. But, because the missionaries were still agents of the King together with the colonialists, they were themselves still complicit to the colonial system. In fact, even during the US control of the Philippines, the ideology fueling the territorial take-over was the idea of “manifest destiny” phrased in terms of religious justification: to save the Filipinos from Spanish religious superstition. This explains the influx of the protestant missionaries during the American era. Douglas J. Elwood in his article, “Varieties of Christianity in the Philippines,” published in 1969, records 350 separate churches outside of Catholicism.

Seventy years ago in the Philippines, it was important to stress division in order to break up the monolithic “unity” which characterized Hispanic Catholicism. Today, however, there is an obvious need to stress Christian unity if small minority of Protestants, now divided into 350 separate entities, is to become a creative minority.

Missionaries in the colonial era had accomplished great things, but they also colluded with colonial government in perpetuating the subjugation of peoples. The struggle of the drafters of the common statement was how to hold this duality together without whitewashing historical realities.

The section on historical overview was written in the broadest sense possible and is the context for the next paragraphs that followed it. Only after acknowledging the missionaries’ collusion with the colonial system that people of faith ask for forgiveness for the past and present transgressions. This makes the commitment of advocating for the kingdom of God more real and human. The statement recognizes that the main agent of transforming the world is God through Jesus and the works of the Holy Spirit. The people of God participate in the historical transformation of building the Kingdom of God.

 

Reception by the Church Leaders and Representatives

            Members of the working group included representatives from the different groups of churches including the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC), IFI and the Roman Catholics. When members of the working group still had regular in person meetings, one of the difficulties we encountered was mobilizing our own member churches. Still, it was in working together on these tasks of national significance that people came to know one another. Even when people were only meeting online, there were profound moments of sharing about each other, discovering the tradition and history of other Churches, along with laughter and humor.

I am concerned that, despite the candid and amicable work at crafting the statement, the results would still be perceived as just another exercise at ecumenism similar to previous attempts that did not flourish within our church communities. For Catholics, this is in stark contrast to the post Vatican II Roman Catholic Church making strides at the very high-level on multilateral and bilateral dialogue with other churches.

However, the feeling of the people involved in this endeavor is quite different. We have slowly come to a greater appreciation of how much commonality we have in our faith and theological understanding of church that differences and diversities do not necessarily mean conflict nor a stumbling block to Christian unity, but rather, richness and unique gifts. This realization created an abundance of hope among the members to work diligently together towards Christian unity.