• United Methodist leaders in the Philippines are urging a special session to elect new bishops.
• Such a move faces potential hurdles under church law.
• Bishops in the Philippines serve four-year terms. Two of the three current bishops are set to retire.
A year after extending its bishops’ terms, the Philippines Central Conference Coordinating Council is pushing for a special session to elect new bishops — with or without the General Conference in 2022.
However, United Methodist leaders in the Philippines acknowledge that such a plan potentially faces hurdles under the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book.
In the meantime, the coordinating council at a recent meeting acknowledged the need to extend the incumbent bishops’ terms again.
Salvador Malana III, lay delegate from Northern Philippines and chair of the Philippines Central Conference episcopacy committee, said each bishop’s term would be in effect until after a successor has been duly elected and assumed office.
“The collective sense of the Committee on Episcopacy was not only to ensure that the literal expression and the spirit of the Book of Discipline be given effect but also to guarantee that no leadership vacuum is created,” Malana said.
United Methodist central conferences are seven church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines that — like the five jurisdictions in the U.S. — have responsibility for electing bishops.
Ordinarily, the Philippines Central Conference holds elections for all of its bishops every four years. However, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed both the 2020 General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking body that sets the budget for bishops — and the subsequent central and jurisdictional conferences.
The coming General Conference is now scheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis. Ongoing challenges with vaccine access and travel visas mean the international legislative assembly could be postponed again.
Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco, who oversees the Manila area, was set to retire in 2020 under the mandatory age limit, while Bishop Rodolfo A. Juan of the Davao area had announced his plans to retire voluntarily after serving three terms.
Bishop Pedro M. Torio Jr. of the Baguio area had not yet announced his plans after serving two terms. He has been on medical leave for the past few months but will return to his role.
Malana said the decision to move forward with a special session is contingent on a favorable legal opinion from the Council of Bishops.
The main question: Does the Book of Discipline in any way allow a central conference to hold bishop elections before General Conference?
Malana also said he wondered whether the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, would need to weigh in.
“There are legal questions that need to be settled,” he said. “But then again, I personally hope that we find a clear pathway to this and steer clear of the legal hurdles. It will definitely benefit the Filipino Methodists if their bishops are elected soon.”
The Philippines Central Conference Coordinating Council acts on behalf of the central conference in between the conference’s quadrennial sessions. However, its decision last year to extend bishops’ terms sparked controversy, with some questioning whether the coordinating council had overstepped its authority under church law.
The Rev. Egmedio B. Equila Jr., clergy delegate from South Nueva Ecija Philippines, was among those raising concerns.
“I am very positive, this special session to elect new bishops is the only way forward for us in the Philippines,” he said this year. “There are so many programs and ministries that need to be given attention to by the newly elected bishops.”
In 2018, United Methodists ratified an amendment to the denomination’s constitution that requires central conferences to elect bishops at a regular, not an extra, session of the central conference “except where an unexpected vacancy must be filled.”
The. Rev. Menre R. Mendillo, clergy delegate from the Philippines Annual Conference and president of the central conference’s Judicial Court, said he thinks a special session is in line with the Discipline.
Specifically, he pointed to Paragraph 407 in the Discipline that allows a central conference college of bishops to call a special session to fill a vacancy in the office of bishops between General Conference gatherings — if the vacancy occurs within 24 months of that bishop taking office.
Since the bishops’ current terms are expired, Mendillo argues that the college of bishops has the authority to fill the resulting vacancies. A college of bishops consists of the active and retired bishops in that central conference.
He said that the delegates who would vote would need to be those elected to the 2016 Philippines Central Conference.
“Since 2020 General Conference has yet to be convened, all matters related to it have no effect. That includes the delegates elected to 2020 General Conference,” Mendillo said.
Bishop Juan said he sees a great possibility for a special session to push through in November 2022.
“We thoroughly discussed this in our college and approved it,” he said.
“We see the great need and urgency for episcopal elections to happen. This will infuse new blood in the Philippines Central Conference UMC leadership, giving a chance to capable elders to lead our church.”
Bishop Francisco offered a note of caution.
“We will seek the legal opinion of the Council of Bishops on special session even without the General Conference,” Francisco said. “If there is no legal impediment, then we will pursue the holding of special session to elect bishops.”
The bishop urged everyone: “Let us continue our honest, open conversation on issues affecting our church and let the table of conversation be a safe space to everyone finding ways to continue our unity in Christ. Let us celebrate our differences and continue being one in faith, mission and service.”
Bishop Torio declined to answer questions or release any statement, since he is still on medical leave.
The Rev. Rey Hernandez, clergy delegate and district superintendent from Rizal Philippines, said that it is imperative to elect at the time when the church cannot do anything but to elect.
Jennifer Ferrariza-Meneses, executive secretary of the Philippines Board of Women’s Work, said she also supported the move for a special session.
“For the women and youth, we continue to support actions made by our coordinating council leaders that will strengthen, deepen and widen our work and ministry amidst the challenges and changes of this pandemic,” she said.
The Rev. Mariesol Villalon of Southwest Philippines said there should be a mandate from the people about who should lead — especially with the denomination on the brink of an expected split.
She added that the mission to the suffering world is very crucial during these trying times. “The issue of separation should be secondary in the UMC’s priority,” she said. “Let us join hands in helping the poorest who suffer most today. Let us follow Christ first and serve the people as Christ taught us.”
The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, the denomination’s mission agency, helps in providing funds for central conference sessions.
Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, Asia liaison officer of Global Ministries, said she thinks if a special session is granted, “this would enable the Philippines Central Conference to have new leaders that can set anew the pace of program and mission of the church here.”
Malana reminded everyone that as the pandemic persists, the struggle is not just to defeat the virus but also to ensure a sense of connection and belonging.
“In the face of the difficulties brought about by the pandemic, we are reminded of what truly binds us as a community,” he said. “We are being told to ascend to positions of Christian influence, to respond in genuine humility, and help bring out from each of us the desire to keep community intact and ever meaningful.”
Mangiduyos is a communicator in the Philippines.
News media contact: Julie Dwyer at [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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