Author: Rev. Dr. Mark R. Holland, Executive Director, Mainstream UMC
On behalf of Mainstream UMC, I have been in the Philippines to learn, to share, to advocate, and to grow our mission together. General Conference is fast approaching and the United Methodists in the Philippines are working hard to prepare. This past week I attended and spoke to the Philippines Annual Conference Cavite (pronounced ka-vee-tay) in the city of Tagaytay about an hour and a half from Manila (or three hours depending on the time of day). This city sits on the rim of the beautiful Taal volcano that had a not-so-beautiful eruption on January 12, 2020. More than 376,000 people were evacuated, most have returned. This tourist destination has been hit hard by ash and now by tourists staying away.
A few facts for perspective: The Philippines total land area is roughly equivalent to the state of Arizona, but it is spread over more than 7,100 islands (literally) and if overlaid on the US it would stretch from the Canadian border of Montana to the Mexican border of New Mexico. The US land area is 33 times larger, but the Philippines has a population of 104 million, about 1/3 the population of the US. Further, the metropolitan area of Manila, the capital city, has about 13 million people and is twice as densely populated as New York City. The median family income is about $5,000 compared to nearly $60,000 in the US. The Philippines is the largest (maybe only) country in Southeast Asia with a population that is majority Christian. Tagalog and English are the official languages, but there are more than 200 languages spoken among a dizzying array of native and immigrant cultures. The clock is 14 hours ahead of Central Time. And, traffic is nuts-o.
On Tuesday, we visited the Cavite Annual Conference session, the first of 12 for Bishop Ciriaco Francisco. He has a three-day annual conference literally every week from now until April 26. The setting was a charming United Methodist Camp with the session held on an open-air veranda with a backdrop of birds and roosters singing. The first day included the episcopal address (his last as he is retiring), the laity address, and the young people’s address. All the official business was conducted in English, but there are a lot of clarifying comments in the native language of Tagalog (pronounced ta-ga-la). And, anecdotally, everything that everyone thought was funny was said in Tagalog. I would laugh along awkwardly just to try and fit in. The proceedings were very formal with role call, the setting of the bar of the conference, establishing the printed agenda, etc. The Bishop even wielded an impressive looking gavel to signal the completion of each action.
Strategically, the Cavite Annual Conference session is very important. The Book of Discipline in ¶ 507.6 allows annual conferences to submit legislation up to 45 days before the start of General Conference. For this year, that deadline is March 20, 2020. Legislation from individuals was due last September. Both the “Christmas Covenant” and the “Protocol of reconciliation and grace through separation” have been generated since September. Without an annual conference adopting them, individuals would have to make a motion to bring them directly to the floor of the General Conference and distribute them. This is almost never successful, particularly for such complex and highly charged items.
Cavite is the first annual conference since these two pieces of legislation have been completed. If Cavite were to pass these items, the Christmas Covenant and the Protocol would come to General Conference in advance and give them a legitimate chance of success. Also, should Cavite pass them, it positions this annual conference and the Philippine Central Conference in a leadership role moving the whole church forward. If Cavite votes no, it makes it harder for a successive Filipino annual conference to take action in opposition to them. This is a big deal.
The first day of the Cavite annual conference, Tuesday, February 11, Tony Magno, their Lay delegate to General Conference, moved to adopt the legislation for the Christmas Covenant. This is a regional conference plan that compliments and expands upon the Connectional Table Plan. The Christmas Covenant originated in the Philippines but has signatures from Africa and Europe. It is the only plan that is primarily the product of the central conferences. The thirty-page document was distributed and there were several presentations about it.
Karen Prudente, an alternate lay delegate from the New York Annual Conference, gave a thorough introductory presentation about the plan. Cavite is her family’s home community and she speaks with a strong voice through her Filipino-American heritage. The Executive Secretary of the Connectional Table, Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai was present and gave a presentation supporting regionalism generally and the Christmas Covenant specifically. I was permitted to speak on behalf of Mainstream UMC and shared how important regional conferences are to the United States. My travel companions, Rev. Rachel Baughman and Rev. Rob Spencer of UMC Next and Mission Together, respectively, also contributed their support.
After some discussion and a few questions, the conference voted overwhelmingly to approve it. The vote was unanimous in that only hands in favor went up. From my observation there were some abstentions. It is hard to tell if there was any disagreement. In the United States, those who dissent are often vocal about it and want their opinion entered into the record. There was no evidence of disagreement and almost everyone present voted in favor. The Christmas Covenant now moves on to General Conference.
The next day after lunch on Wednesday, February 12, a motion was made by the lay leader of their conference to adopt the legislation for the “Protocol of reconciliation and grace through separation.” Interestingly, all three Bishops for the Philippines were present for this. The three Bishops were jointly hosting a meeting in the same area with all the General Conference delegates. (I will cover this meeting in my next post.) They chose the same site to accommodate Bishop Francisco’s annual conference schedule so he could be a part of both. For the presentation on the Protocol, Bishop Rudy Juan and Bishop Pete Torio both sat at the head table with Bishop Francisco. It certainly looked to this observer as a show of unity for the highly charged document.
The show of unity was important because these three Bishops have already issued a joint statement calling for unity and decrying any calls for the dissolution of the United Methodist Church. Bishop Juan, as the dean of the Filipino Bishops, served on the Protocol negotiating team. He gave a presentation to the Cavite Annual Conference supporting the Protocol and he was clear that it does not dissolve the UMC. The Protocol simply creates an easier path for those who are already leaving. The Bishops invited me to speak to the Protocol on behalf of Mainstream UMC and they also invited Rev. Rachel Baughman to speak on behalf of UMC Next. Both of our groups are among the co-signers of the agreement. After some discussion, the vote was taken, and the Protocol legislation was approved and sent on to General Conference.
The Cavite Annual Conference and the Philippine Central Conference have just stepped forward in leadership for the global United Methodist Church. The challenge of getting the Christmas Covenant and the Protocol legislation before the General Conference has been accomplished. It is also an important show of support for both regionalism and the Protocol from a central conference. Now we must work with all the delegates to get the legislation across the finish line in May.
Please visit our Facebook page to see pictures from our trip (pictures are hard with this server). You can find us at www.Facebook.com/MainstreamUMC. While you are there, be sure to “like” and “follow” our page.
Please consider a donation to support Mainstream UMC’s advocacy, www.MainstreamUMC.com/donate
Here is my first article about the Philippines: https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/mainstream-umc-in-the-philippines-part-1/
Here is more information about the Christmas Covenant. The legislation will not be released until it is formally submitted to the General Conference secretary: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/delegates-offer-proposal-for-church-unity
Here is an article about the Philippine Bishops statement of unity: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/filipino-bishops-back-church-unity
Here is a link to the Protocol Legislation. There is a lot more info about the Protocol on the website: https://www.gracethroughseparation.com/legislation