Mark Harris and the idea of a church of a nation

Last Wednesday, Canon Mark Harris made some comments at Trinity University of Asia, the ECP-founded educational institution on Cathedral Heights, where he said that it was about time that the Episcopal Church in the Philippines become a “church of the nation.”

Having been utterly grateful that I have been able to meet Fr. Mark in person, at last, I think I have learned from what he said and what we discussed over lunch on Tuesday. I do have to react to his comments in turn, because they are now forming the basis of the discourse emerging from the Episcopal Church here.

1. Fr. Mark has managed to say aloud what many of us have wanted to say for years. Regardless of our differences on, say, the Anglican Communion, we all agree that the ECP must grow. It may well be that it will grow in circumstances Bishop Brent never imagined, but with the same ecumenical ethos the good Bishop always wanted Episcopalians and indeed all Christians to have. It is about time that the ECP stop being a purely tribal church, he puts it. I wholeheartedly agree.

2. At the same time, I think the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, the silent witness to all this, would not really be surprised that they are no longer being seen as the best chance of being a “church of the nation.” Aglipay and his colleagues were hoping that the IFI would assume such a role. But I was reminded by some seminarians that from the start, this task would have been a difficult one. Only a minority of the then-Roman Catholic clergy in 1902 joined the new movement, and the Roman Catholics were able to get back the land that the Aglipayans “stole” from them, thanks to one of the more controversial moves of the American regime.

I believe that the Episcopal Church, being an American creation, is perceived by Canon Mark Harris as a safer pair of hands. Their activism has not been as loud as that of the IFI’s, whom I suspect has been infiltrated by the worst forms of Leftist activism in my country. His comments do suggest that the approach taken by the ECP is less confrontational; when they do criticize the American colonial and neo-colonial project, they do so in a less polemical atmosphere. I suspect that it is because the ECP does have a significant (politically) right-wing presence within itself that moderation has had to become the order of the day. But in any case, the IFI should now know that it could no longer be seen, at least by one of the ECP’s overseas partners, to fully represent the nation. Its claim is increasingly tenuous, and the only way out is…

3. …to pursue organic union. The ECP and IFI have had a concordat of full communion since 1997, and the whole point was to unite eventually. It has virtually died because of two things: one, the ECP has been building its own (Northerners only) enclaves where there is an IFI presence, and two, there has been, in some aspects, a great deal of mistrust between the leadership of the two churches. But Fr. Mark’s speech for me suggests that the process of organic union must not decelerate but rather speed up. I think there should be more to be done now to get the process going. What steps would I suggest?

– First, the IFI and ECP should henceforth pursue more local cooperation whenever possible. IFI and ECP churches in the same place should be ethnicity-free zones, where members of both churches are members of the other. Ideally, the local clergy could team up and preside at each other’s liturgies or preach on occasion. One ECP diocese, Santiago, has had one such program, and similar initiatives should be pursued nationally.

– Second, the ECP must recognize that in finding anyone to fill a position which is supposedly reserved for an Episcopalian, anyone from the IFI is automatically part of the pool from which they must search. The deanship of St. Andrew’s is one such position I can see that could be filled under this principle; a good number of IFI priests are both pastorally and academically qualified for this, I was told.

– Third, the two churches should work together in all aspects, outside the ambit of the National Council of Churches. Moderates and right-wingers within the IFI should be encouraged to speak up to counter the rhetoric that tends to dominate the IFI discourse, and at the same time, left-wingers within the ECP should be given room to speak as well. Moreover, the ECP and IFI should learn from each other how to build both membership and finances, something the former has had to struggle with for years.

The two churches can between them claim more than a century of colonial and anti-colonial struggles between them, and the process that began in 1948 with the conferral of apostolic succession upon three IFI bishops should continue.

4. Finally, it is clear that only with full inclusion could the ECP grow to relative strength with the IFI, to make a consolidation less awkward. I hope that the next leadership of the ECP, both nationally and locally, would be able to ensure this would happen. I think they should, for instance, look beyond the negative personality traits of one prominent ECP rector in Metro Manila and see that his church is now, for better or for worse, the most diverse in the Episcopal Church, with almost all the ECP’s ethnic groups represented in it. What did he do? He made some very difficult choices, but those were choices that would help restore this parish to something that would be at the heart of the work of its diocese.

That, for the moment, is all I have to say. Thank you, Canon Mark Harris.

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