Filipinos debate, approve extension of bishops' terms

After heated debate, the Philippines Central Conference’s coordinating council voted to extend the episcopal leadership of the country’s three incumbent bishops through the end of 2021.

Extending the bishops’ terms sparked controversy over the authority of the Philippines Central Conference as an independent body and on whether the action violates church law. The coordinating council acts on behalf of the conference in between its quadrennial sessions. This year’s Philippines Central Conference was delayed along with General Conference due to the global pandemic.

The debate at the council’s special virtual meeting Nov. 26-27 emanated from a question and call from three United Methodists to the Committee on Episcopacy to uphold rules on the term limits of its episcopal leaders.

In the Philippines, bishops are elected every four years. They can be re-elected as long as they have not reached the age of 66. 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. Pedro M. Torio Jr. of the Baguio area had not yet announced his plans after serving two terms.

In early November, the Council of Bishops recommended that the five U.S. jurisdictional conferences — now scheduled for next year — postpone any elections of new bishops until 2024. The council also urged a slowdown in plans to add five more bishops in Africa, but made no recommendations regarding episcopal leadership in the Philippines.

In a letter, the trio challenging the extension stated that the Council of Bishops cannot override the rules of the Philippines Central Conference. “It is a matter of respect in responding to its contextual situation,” the letter said.

“The spirit of the PCC rules regarding term limits emanates from democratic norms of leadership accountability and mandate. Every quadrennium, PCC bishops seek a fresh mandate to continue holding office until such time that they are able to retire or reach the age of mandatory retirement. The bishops deserve that mandate and our constituencies deserve to have their voices heard in an episcopal election.”

The Rev. Egmedio B. Equila Jr., clergy delegate from South Nueva Ecija Philippines, was one of the three who signed the letter.

He said the coordinating council has no right to extend the term of any bishop.

“The law provides an answer in case of any emergency like this pandemic crisis,” he said, citing the provision from the Philippines Central Conference Discipline Paragraph 49. “There is a legal remedy in any emergencies that result in a vacancy in the office of bishop, that is, for the Council of Bishops to assign a bishop to fill such vacancy.”  

He said violating the church’s law is not good for its future.

“(The) U.S. has its own jurisdictional laws; we have Philippines Central Conference laws that we should abide by and respect,” he said. 

The letter also noted the denomination’s financial uncertainty and warnings that without changes, the Episcopal Fund that supports the bishops’ work would run out of money in four years.

“The PCC can contribute meaningfully to this effort by reactivating three retired bishops to serve in interim capacity. Reactivating retired bishops results in substantial savings that are valuable at this critical time,” the letter said.

When retired bishops serve in interim roles, the Episcopal Fund pays the difference between the retired bishop’s pension amount and a bishop’s current salary level.

However, some argued appointing retired bishops wasn’t in the best interest of the church or the bishops themselves.

The Rev. Mariesol Villalon, clergy delegate from Southwest Philippines, said she supports extending the terms of the current bishops. “I fully agree that we need to abide by the law of the church, but the unprecedented crisis has hampered us to do conference sessions. The law shall serve the people not the other way around,” she said.

“I do not support the hardline position to end the term on Dec. 31, 2020, and be replaced by the retired bishops who are now old and in their 80s and 90s. (They are) not allowed to go out due to COVID policy restrictions.”

Villalon said that the pandemic and the destructive typhoons that hit the country recently are sufficient reasons to support the extension. 

She said the focus should be on assisting Filipinos who are “reeling” from these disasters and added the incumbent bishops are “actively engaged in alleviating the pains and sufferings of people.”

Chair of the Committee on Episcopacy, Salvador Malana III, delivered the committee’s report at the coordinating council meeting. The council comprises one clergy and one lay delegate elected from each annual conference along with the Philippines Central Conference officers and College of Bishops as ex-officio members.

Malana, from Northern Philippines, said the decision to extend the terms was made to guarantee that there would be no leadership vacuum created. The committee consulted with the Philippines College of Bishops and the Council of Bishops through Bishop Kenneth Carter, former Council of Bishops president and leader of the Florida Conference, on the retirements of Bishops Francisco and Juan, according to the report.

The retirements “were seen in the context of the extraordinary (and unprecedented) situation where no General Conference and central conferences would be held this year,” the report said.

Eighteen other bishops from various jurisdictional and central conferences also have postponed stepping down at least through 2021.

Francisco said that he is excited and prepared to retire but expressed his gratefulness for the extension. 

“As a servant of God called to serve and lead the church, I am willing to continue serving and leading the church with diligence and deep commitment,” he said.

“Modesty aside, in this time of pandemic, the decision of the (council) is good for the church so that we can continue our advocacy and initiative to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ,” he said.

Juan agreed that the council’s action would push forward the church’s mission.  

“In the midst of excitement and anticipation towards retirement, I obey God's will in my life and ministry. Another year of active episcopal servant-leadership allows more time for me to accomplish more for his glory,” he said. 

Torio said he believes that everything is in the power and wisdom of God.

“The episcopacy, like other opportunities for ministry (Ephesians 4:7, 11-13) is God's gift to the church. May the Holy Spirit of God teach us to be thankful as we trust and obey his will … We carry out the tasks entrusted to us until our time will come,” he said.  

The Rev. Jonathan Ulanday from East Mindanao Philippines, who also signed the opposition letter along with layperson Olive Beltran, said the ruling left more questions than answers.

He said the power of the delegates to legislate and mandate cannot be taken over by the coordinating council. “The action of the (council) is ripe for a judicial review,” he said, adding that it should be resolved with prudence.

Malana said he does not believe the Committee on Episcopacy’s recommendation infringes on church law but recognizes that the issue is constitutional, unprecedented and could come within the jurisdiction of the church’s judicial bodies, either by the Judicial Court of the Philippines Central Conference or the denomination’s top court.  

He said that the collective sense of the committee was that the decision was legal and practical, especially given the pandemic crisis. 

“But due to the complex nature of the constitutional and legal question, the COE cannot conclude that it is entirely correct in its views. It would welcome a judicial determination by the appropriate judicial body so that the issue is finally put to rest and to form part of church law,” he said.

Mangiduyos is a communicator from the Philippines. News media contact: Vicki Brown, news editor, [email protected] or 615-742-5470. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.


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