Monday, October 14, 2019

UMC Schism and the Philippines

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Given how focused US United Methodists are on the possibility of a split in the UMC in the United States, it may come as a surprise to many that the UMC has already experienced splits in other countries in the last 15 years. In 2018, both Nigeria and Burundi reconciled previous schisms within the UMC, and those are just the reconciled schisms.

These splits have been unrelated to the current US debate on sexuality. Nonetheless, they do provide some perspective on just how Amero-centric is our fear that the UMC might split. It already has, and for the most part, nobody outside the country in which a schism happened has noticed. It is a sign of American privilege in the UMC that we expect a US split to be of central importance to the rest of the church. Certainly, an American split would have financial ramifications for the rest of the church, but that just reinforces the point about how Amero-centric the UMC is.

I would like to share the story of one particular recent split – the Ang Iglesia ng Metodista sa Pilipinas (AIMP) schism in the Philippines. This story is important for understanding current Filipino attitudes toward the UMC, which as I have suggested before, may be pivotal in determining the outcome(s) of GC2020. It also hints at how ugly church splits can get, though certainly a split in the US would play out differently than in the Philippines because of different legal and cultural systems.

Much of the information presented here comes from Chapter 4 of Scotty McLaughlin’s 2015 PhD dissertation at the University of Michigan, “The Boundary Indefinite: Schism and the Ethics of Christian Strategy in the Philippines,” corroborated with other sources, including articles by Linda Bloom ([1] and [2]).

In November 2008, Rev. Lito C. Tangonan was elected bishop in the Philippines Central Conference and assigned to the Manila Episcopal Area. Tangonan was serving as a district superintendent prior to his election and was an outspoken proponent of autonomy for the UMC in the Philippines and critic of the global structure of the UMC.

Within a year after Tangonan became bishop, charges of misconduct were brought against him. While denominational records kept the details of the charge confidential, it became known, at least in the Philippines, that he was accused of sexually assaulting a female assistant. Tangonan denied the charges, referring to them as a “smear campaign.”

In December 2009, the Philippines College of Bishops placed Tangonan on paid leave as his case was considered, a decision whose legitimacy was affirmed by the Judicial Council in April 2010. Retired Bishop Daniel Arichea was assigned to replace Tangonan as interim bishop, starting in January 2010.

However, rather than accept his suspension and Arichea’s replacement of him, Tangonan continued to try to exercise the functions of bishop. While barred from the episcopal office building, he called annual conference meetings in areas where he had strong support. This resulted in several competing annual conference meetings, wherein one was held by Tangonan, and one was held by Bishop Arichea. The Judicial Council ruled against Tangonan and for Bishop Arichea five times (once in 2010, three times in 2011, and once in 2012) in determining which annual conference meeting had been the validly constituted one.

In the midst of this dispute, the executive council of the Council of Bishops added their own suspension of Tangonan in July 2011 after he did not attend a meeting with Bishop Goodpaster in Georgia that was aimed at resolving the conflict. Instead, Tangonan released a public letter to Goodpaster, calling his suspension “illegal,” refuting the right of the Philippines College of Bishops or the UMC Council of Bishops to oversee him, and referring to himself as “the legitimate elected bishop.”

Around this time, Pangonan, working with supporters, began to lay the groundwork for leaving the UMC and forming an autonomous denomination with himself as the head. Tangonan officially resigned from the UMC later in 2011. Paperwork to register the new denomination – the Ang Iglesia ng Metodista sa Pilipinas – as a corporate entity was filed on Dec. 7, 2011. Tangonan was then elected as bishop of the new denomination.

Approximately 130 churches and 2000 members left with Tangonan, according to the AIMP’s own reporting, though some of those churches have been returned to the UMC and control of others remains disputed. These numbers represent about 7% of churches and 1.5% of Filipino UMC members at the time. However, the defections were not spread evenly across the Philippines, with the majority in the West Middle Philippines, Middle Philippines, Philippines – Cavite, and Palawan Annual Conferences.

Because Tangonan and his followers did not use formal UMC procedures to leave the UMC and because they sought to take local church properties with them, conflict soon ensued between the UMC and AIMP over control of property, including both church buildings and parsonages. Some of that conflict was legal – there were a couple of lawsuits between Tangonan’s camp and the pro-UMC camp over whose was the legitimate meeting of the West Middle Philippines Annual Conference. Despite the UMC Judicial Council ruling on the subject, Filipino courts decided in Tangonan’s favor in a process that some pro-UMC people believed was influenced by corruption.

But conflict extended beyond the legal to the physical. In some instances, the different camps attempted to lock their opponents out of church buildings. Pastors refused to vacate parsonages. In some cases, there was even physical violence between the two different camps. It was not pretty.

There is not much online about the AIMP from the last six or seven years, so it is unclear to me where that group stands currently. The UMC was successful in reclaiming some properties and probably some members after the initial schism.

But it is clear that, whatever the status of the AIMP, this experience of schism has affected those who have remained in the UMC, both theologically and politically. I will talk about the theological effects in a subsequent piece. Politically, the Tangonan split had two effects:

First, it reduced the long-standing drive for Filipino autonomy from the UMC. In part, it did this by siphoning off those pastors and churches that were most pro-autonomy and anti-UMC. In part, it did this because those remaining in the UMC felt less free in taking pro-autonomy stances, since they did not want to be associated with Tangonan’s party. And in part, it did this by showing some of the value of the larger UMC structures: the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council consistently sided with the pro-UMC group in the Philippines in ways that served to increase the legitimacy of the actions taken by those in the Philippines UMC opposed to Tangonan.

Second, the experience of the Tangonan split showed United Methodists in the Philippines just how messy a church split could become, not just legally but also interpersonally, as some resorted to violence to try to resolve issues of control of church property. I presume this is not an experience Filipino United Methodists would like to repeat.

These two political lessons from the Tangonan split are important for understanding the Philippines’ current stance within the current global UMC debates about structure and sexuality. It makes sense that the Philippines bishops and other Filipino leaders would advocate for the continued unity of the church, since one of the effects of the Tangonan split was to make the remaining Filipino United Methodists more pro-global UMC.

It also makes sense that Filipinos would want to avoid messy church splits over the issue of sexuality. While most Filipinos are traditionalists on issues of sexuality, there is a sizable progressive minority. The Filipinos’ proposal to grant more regional autonomy within the global UMC preserves some of the international structures important to the Filipinos (the Council of Bishops and Judicial Council), allows them more leeway in addressing their own disagreements about sexuality in a less conflict-driven manner than Americans, and helps ensure that any splitting that does happen will be confined to an American region that is a bit more separated from and therefore less likely to influence the Philippines.

While it is easy to read the statement of the African bishops and that of the Filipino bishops as saying essentially the same thing – they want continued unity of the global UMC – it is important to understand that the two groups are saying what they are saying for different reasons with different points of reference in mind.

Thus, the interests and strategies of Filipino delegates as a whole will be different from those of African delegates as a whole at General Conference 2020. Understanding those interests and strategies will be key for any Americans who want to successfully work with the Filipinos in crafting the future of the church.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. History often affects how we approach the present. And because we don't share a history we can come to the same conclusions for different reasons.