Categorized | Religion

On the Episcopal Church

Note: This was written by Kenneth Keng.

I could go into the history of the Episcopal Church of the Philippines, detail its origins and trace its growth throughout the years since it was introduced in the American occupation. I could also scratch at the intermidable morass of interdemoninational politics (including all out open warfare, depending how far back one decides to go) that like as not have helped to define Protestantism and it’s Anglican/Episcopal denomination throughout its existence. Instead I will endeavour to as much as possible leave aside what would amount to paraphrasing Wikipedia articles and instead outline my church and its beliefs by hewing close to my own personal experiences and impressions of it.

The easiest religious body to contrast the Episcopal (in England, the Anglican) church with would be the Catholic church, for reasons of history and form. The Anglican Communion would be the body that Henry VIII ordered split from mainline Catholicism in his reign, birthing a new separate entity that most importantly for Henry did not answer to the Papacy. Depending on who you ask this was either a great victory for religious freedom against the tyranny of Rome or just another monarch following in Emperor Constantine’s footsteps, taking in a pet religion of his own to further secure his power base.

The end result however is a church that celebrates Mass and holds the Sacraments in the same manner as the Catholic church would. To a casual attendee of our Sunday services the form would be mostly familiar, except for the ‘ye olde English’ used in the prayers and the lack of elaborate decoration or ornamentation in the church itself. The priests dress the same, and communion is given after readings, prayers and a hopefully short homily; the liturgical calendar is followed so the year goes through its seasons of Lent and Advent and Easter and Christmas.

That priest however might be a man or a woman, and/or openly gay. These issues were more or less worked out in the latter half of the 20th century, and as it stands today the Archbishop of the American Episcopal Church is a marine biologist by the name of Katharine Schori. She herself has just recently caught equal parts admiration and derision (while causing a number of small schisms) for anointing the church’s first openly gay and partnered male Bishop, Gene Robinson.

A much older and long established tradition is the right of any of our priests to marry and raise children; this is in fact encouraged to avoid certain problems that might arise from sexual repression. As the Episcopal/Anglican Communion had at its inception rejected papal authority, the archbishops are the highest authorities within their national dioceses, most of which are independent of one another. The Archbishop of Canterbury stands as the closest thing we might have to a pope, but all acknowledge his role as that of an honored figurehead and not much more.

In terms of church governance even Archbishops answer to a power structure that devolves authority down onto congregations at every turn. Each church once established elects their own Vestry board which sits with the presiding priest and runs the day to day operations of the church as well as discusses stances on social issues; while archbishops and bishops are raised from the ranks of priests, they govern church matters always in conjunction with and are held accountable to members of the congregations in boards of various levels. Having attended some of these big church conferences, called diocesan conventions, I can tell you that they are raucous, messy and slow, but for the most part the decisions that come out of them are made with transparency and the input of elected representatives from every individual church involved.

Given the independence of the dioceses, the Episcopal Church of the Philippines, while considered radically liberal by the local Catholic church, is considered relatively conservative by Episcopalians from other parts of the world. While everyone is expected to accept practicing homosexuals as full members of the congregation without any ‘hate the sin but not the sinner’ hedging, most older priests would still have reservations if asked to consecrate a marriage between same-sex partners. While they remain a minority, female priests, addressed as ‘padi’, are accorded full authority and respect by church members and are considered nothing unusual. In the Philippines, an Episcopalian priest, male or female, who is married with children is considered the norm. Divorce, while extremely regrettable and always considered a last resort for the sake of the children, is also acceptable by the church.

The Episcopal church also acknowledges the supremacy of the scientific method and empirical evidence in matters corporeal, with many senior church leaders themselves coming from scientific backgrounds. Therefore there are, for example, no perceived conflicts with natural history and the teaching of evolution. The Bible is by no means to be taken literally.

As the ills of overpopulation are readily apparent given the evidence, family planning and articifial contraception is fully embraced by the Episcopal Church in the Philippines; our own church in fact ran a family planning clinic until complaints from the Catholic church down the street led to its closure.

Perhaps ironically for a church created from a political act, the modern Episcopal church espouses the separation of church and state, with secular governance held as the only realistically viable form in a multicultural, multireligious nation.

This open approach is reflected in the makeup of the average Episcopal church. There might be, in one congregation, people with views on either side of the sociopolitical spectrum- while I might be pretty liberal, my mother and most of the older members are definitively not. What I like is that we are encouraged to air these differences, discuss them openly over coffee and donuts then somewhere between it all sit quietly and celebrate mass together.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.