CELEBRATING 30 YEARS OF A VIBRANT AND DYNAMIC AUTONOMOUS CHURCH

Resurrection Episcopal Church, Ormoc City

Last Friday, 1st May 2020, the Episcopal Church in the Philippines celebrated its 30th year as an autonomous and independent Province (national Church) of the Anglican Communion. This was done in silent prayers in keeping with the spirit of the times as the world continues to battle  a dreadful virus that has now claimed the lives of 252,429 persons worldwide. In fact on that day, the ECP effected the deferment of the first phase of a salary adjustment among its employees implemented only in January this year. The suspension of a salary increase that employees have been receiving for four months already seemed to be a sad and almost weird way of celebrating a 30-year milestone. The truth, however, is that it demonstrates the resilience and relatively high-level capacity of the ECP in dealing with institutional challenges and obstacles.

The deferment of the salary adjustment is the result of actual and projected financial losses in national revenues arising from the waiver of commercial rental incomes as well as the temporary closure of directly-managed business operations as a consequence of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) imposed  in most parts of country. In the dioceses, similar losses are also expected in addition to the substantial reduction of pledges and offerings as a result of the cancellation of worship services. It is feared that if the pandemic drags on for a much longer time, then it would not just be a deferment of salary adjustment but it is possible that actual salaries will be reduced and payment deferred simply because of dried up resources.

This financial setback however is nothing new to the ECP. Over the past 30 years, the institution has gone through worse and has actually come out of every challenge very much better than what it previously had been.

Flashback to 1st May 1990. A big celebration was held at the National Cathedral of St. Mary and St. John for the inauguration of the ECP as the 28th Province of the Anglican Communion, signifying its autonomy from its then mother Church – the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. On that day, after nine decades, the ECP achieved the gift of self-governance and the full freedom to pursue the liturgical expression of its peoples’ faith and become truly a Church for Filipinos.

In the midst of the day-long celebration, however, was the most unpleasant fact that 60% of its annual budget continued to be subsidized by the mother Church.  How can a child declare itself to be independent as a mature  adult when more than half of his/her daily subsistence would still be provided by his/her parents? In hindsight, one can say that it was a highly irrational course of action. However, at that time, nobody raised the issue since full financial autonomy was a fantasy that nobody in his /her right mind could ever conceive to become a reality, considering the  sheer enormity of the amount of annual grant (summing up to more than a million dollars), the economic challenges gripping the majority of members and  the still, at that time, pervasive thinking of many Filipinos who look up to America as the source of salvation and consider the church as a rich institution from which material benefits could be derived. What the ECP had was a commitment that at some future time it would be able to address this gray area. However, two years went by and the ECP could not come up with  a viable plan on how to achieve this. Finally, in 1993, it committed to what was then referred to as a 15-Year Stepped Reduction Plan, under which the annual subsidy from the mother Church would be gradually reduced until it reaches zero level at the end of the 15th year or in 2007.

While the 15-year stepped reduction plan was welcomed as a doable phase out of the annual subsidy, it resulted in a painful withdrawal that plunged the Church into a recurrent financial crisis. Autonomy was followed by years of annual budget deficits and so certain program activities had to be shelved, a special retirement program was instituted among the lay catechists and evangelists and offered to other lay employees, and salary rates frozen and its payment delayed for as long as eight months in a number of dioceses.

By 2004, the ECP was only three years away from 2007 when subsidy was supposed to reach the agreed zero level.  In March of 2004, there was a  meeting of the Church leadership to look at where the Church was in terms of its financial position. The subsidy has been greatly reduced from 60% in 1990 to 14% the year before in a remarkable display of hard work and bold decisions. In actual figures, 14% was equivalent to almost P10 million, which was still a huge amount.  2003 incurred the highest budget deficit so far, at P6 million. At that meeting, it was expressed that every unit of the Church has almost exhausted every possible means of income-generation and had  reached the end of the road in terms of local sourcing. Thus, there was a general feeling that there was no way it could fill in what remained of the subsidy. In such situation, nobody in the meeting could resist the temptation to go back to the mother Church to seek extension of three (3) years or until 2010 for the subsidy to be finally concluded. The discussions then focused on what would be the best strategy to be able to convince the mother Church for such extension. But something remarkable happened at that meeting because instead of an extension, the final resolution arrived at was the complete opposite. The ECP would instead advance the end of subsidy by two years – from 2007 to 2004 or that very moment of the meeting. This meant that by 1st January 2005, the ECP would be fully reliant upon its local financial capacities.

Expectedly, the pre-termination was immediately met by strong opposition from the majority of the Church membership. If it had incurred the highest deficit of Php 6 million even with a subsidy of Php 10 million in 2003, what more if such subsidy was completely done away with. Even from a simple mathematical computation, the deficit would balloon to Php 16 million. All conceivable grim scenarios were expressed as to what would happen in 2005. But what subsequently transpired was almost miraculous.

For by end of 2005, all the fears of incurring huge deficits, serious inability to pay salaries in full, suspension of expansion work, etc. turned out to be unfounded. What in fact happened was that, for the first time in more than 15 years, the ECP ended the fiscal year  with a  budget surplus of Php 3 million. Despite millions of pesos in annual subsidy, deficits were incurred every year for more than 15 years but when such subsidy was concluded and done away with, a substantial surplus was realized. Indeed, that was a miracule.

Filipinos have an almost fanatical fondness for the game of basketball. In this game, the most exciting part happens at the last two minutes when miracles are sometimes supposed to happen and when the best that the team can offer is often displayed. For the ECP, the year 2005 was the last two minutes. The excitement had reached feverish proportions as everybody played as a team and delivered beautifully so that at the final sound of the buzzer, it actually won the game!

The ECP finally realized a very simple lesson that had eluded it for more than a hundred years – that it is only when one stops looking at others that he/she begins to fully look into himself/herself and fully appreciate what he/she has and what he/she can do with this. It was asset-based church development (ABCD) in actual practice.

With this momentum, the ECP then went on to craft Vision 2018 and embarked on a 10-year journey to be “a dynamic and vibrant Church of caring, witnessing and mission-oriented parishes”. Since that Vision carried with it the challenge for congregations to become parishes, there was again a widely expressed hesitance, if not outright resistance, among many members and leaders who sincerely believed that it was an un-realistic aspirational focus. At that time, there were only 32 full-fledge parishes established by the ECP since its foundation in this country in 1901 or  within  a period of 106 years.  How then can it be said that in 10 years’ time, it is going to enable all congregations  to attain parish-hood. Indeed, it was unthinkable for many congregations to become self-governing and self-supporting parishes and some senior clergy at that time would emphatically opine that  these congregations can only become parishes at the second coming of the Lord. 

But initial hesitance soon gave way to a collective desire to earnestly work on the vision and by December 2018 the ECP leadership was hugely and pleasantly amazed by how much its people have actually achieved. The number of full-fledge parishes grew to a  total of 101, which was more than three times what it had in 2008 when it started with the Vision. In sum, for the 10-year period from 2008 to 2018, the ECP  accomplished more than twice  what it has accomplished in 106 years.

Beyond financial self-support, however, is the fact that the movement towards parish-hood has given birth to a particularly distinct sense  of vibrancy and dynamism that may not have come about through other non-financial programs.  Some of the manifestation of this are, as follows:

Firstly, the parish-hood thrust has enhanced the development of local leadership. By their election into vestries that manage parishes  in partnership with their respective rectors, lay people have been given tremendous opportunities to exercise local leadership. The institutional challenges of parish-hood demanded a kind of leadership that was unique to such challenges and vestries have initiated and developed these lay persons into this role.  Traditionally, vestries and mission councils were the domain of senior citizens  but the 10 years of Vision 2018 have seen the broadening of the  leadership demographic with the onboarding into the local leadership of young adults who, traditionally, constituted the least active sector. Again, this was because of the demands of parish-hood and young adults ideally fitted into the role owing to their energy, resources and capacity for fresh ideas.

Secondly, the challenge of parish-hood has given rise to various initiatives and creativities in doing mission work. At the National Summit in November 2018 held to assess accomplishments under Vision 2018, reports of various works done and photos of beautiful churches built by no less than the congregations on their own means and resources were presented.  More than 30 church buildings were built on such local means and these were not the make-shift chapels built of temporary materials but solid permanent structures costing more than a million pesos each,  a phenomenon that was quite rare  in the past. Indeed, the period has seen an explosion of dynamism and vibrancy in the entire church and there are many stories of these happening on the ground and that for want of space could not be detailed here.

Thirdly, the parish-hood movement has deepened  peoples’ faith engagements  in ways that are quite unique and exciting. It is said that what accounts for substantial giving in evangelical groups is usually the evangelical charisma of the preacher whose words are accordingly able to touch the hearts of their followers who then are compellingly motivated to give all of what they are. In the case of the ECP’s parish-hood movement, however, it is completely the other way around. There are many members who go to church on Sundays only to congregate outside and enter the church when it’s time for communion. With the active campaign for increased giving in  support of  parish-hood, however, more and more of what used to be  outside congregants are attending the entire service, participating in the worship and actively joining other activities. Space limitations would not allow a narration of examples but these will certainly be part of the historical annals of this institution.

“Rice Christian” used to be a pejorative term referring to somebody who convert or declare himself or herself to be a Christian in order to receive rice or other material benefit from Christian missionaries. The erstwhile signification of the term however is now being completely overturned by the spectacle of Episcopalians holding bags of rice while walking not away from but towards the Church. They are not taking rice from the church but are actually giving rice to the church! This is especially noted in a number of parishes which has set the second Sunday of the month (or other regular schedule) as  rice offering day, presenting a fascinating picture of rice bag-holding individuals converging to the church as the bell tolls.

Finally, the parish-hood efforts of our congregations have led to a more independent and critical thinking among communities in terms of the ECP’s social witness and advocacy. A  confidential survey of behaviors of the electorate in one province showed that incidence of vote-buying were lesser in areas where parish-hood efforts were intentionally pursued,, especially among those who have established socio-economic projects. As people realize that they can be self-governing and self-reliant by their own efforts, their bondage to political patronage considerably eases up while the capacity to be more critical of public policies that affect them is enhanced.

It was also during the past 10 years that the ECP was able to make a breakthrough into non-traditional mission areas and established two congregations with more than 40 community outreaches in the islands of Samar, Leyte and Aklan among people who have never before heard of the Episcopal Church. Unlike traditional mission work patterns, however, these two congregations and outreaches which now comprise the Visayas Mission Area assumed the cost and continues to pay for their clergy salaries and operational budgets and at no cost to the national Church. Moreover, the Php 1.6 million worth Church of the Resurrection in Sabang Bao, Ormoc City whose picture appears below, was built out of the collective efforts of these communities, which declined an expressed offer by St. Luke’s Medical Center to build the same, the first and only time that an SLMC offer to build a church was ever politely declined.

Finally, the ECP transformed its erstwhile community-based development program (CBDP) which was completely funded by external partner grants into the Episcopal Care Foundation which is now 100% external grants-free in its community projects. The Foundation is now managing an Php 80 million fund from its partner communities participating in a continuing spiral of “receiving” and “giving back”  under what is now referred to as The R2G, or The Receivers-to-Givers Practice.

Over the years, the ECP has established and grown capital funds totaling around Php 400 million. It will not withdraw any part of this to cover short-term budgetary shortfalls and it must be noted that almost 50% of these funds were raised at a time when the ECP was experiencing grave financial difficulties, following the late Prime Bishop Ignacio C. Soliba’s philosophy that it is in times of financial crises that capital or endowment funds must be established and grown precisely to address such crises. Since then it is the income of these capital funds that has been accounting for up to 30% of the ECP’s annual revenues.

Indeed, the past 30 years has been an exciting journey of hope and transformation for the ECP. The current financial challenges that the ECP is experiencing as a result of a global pandemic is nothing but a temporary setback that its general membership and leadership, praying, worshipping and acting together, will certainly overcome.

Happy 30th Year, ECP!

(Message by Atty. Floyd Lalwet, ECP Provincial Secretary, for the commemoration of the autonomy of ECP last May 1, 2020. Picture inset is the Resurrection Episcopal Church at Sabang Bao, Ormoc City, Leyte.)

Photo captured by Rev.Alvin Sion

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