An Introduction to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Church)

An Introduction to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente
(Philippine Independent Church)

by Rev. Fr. Apolonio Ranche

Most   members of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) take pride in the notion that their Church is nationalist and the “only one” that can  teach patriotism or love of country of the Filipinos. They romantically picture their church as the “remaining tangible result of the Philipine Revolution”. Such description could have been the source of the erroneousbut widespread idea  that it was founded by Gregorio Aglipay during the Revolution against Spain. The Visitation – Secularization – Filipinization controversies in the church during the Spanish colonial period found its successful culmination or crowning succes in the establishment of the IFI..

Though there is truth in that description, there is a lot more that was glossed over. The account of its founding is not in its proper historical context and thereby diluting the primary mission of the Church. A fuller presentation on the founding of the IFI can be outlined in the following paragraphs.

The end of the Filipino-American war as officially proclaimed by then US President Theodore Roosevelt on July 4, 1902 did not mean the end of Filipino resistance or in a more positive manner, the Filipino desire for liberty. The laws passed by the Philippine Commission (which was the legislative body in the colony until the establishment of the Philippine Assembly in 1907) could be seen as evidence of continuing Filipino aspiration for liberty. Three of these were the Sedition Law (1901) which forbade advocacy of independence even by peaceful means; the Brigandage Act (1902) which classified all armed resistance as pure banditry; and the Reconcentration Act (1903) which gave legal justification for hamletting to deny support for the guerilla’s from the populace. A later one was the flag Law (1907) which prohibited the display of the flag (the one used in the proclamation of Independence on June 12, 1898) and the playing of the Philippine National Anthem (Marcha Nacional Filipina). The Filipinos’ expressions of their desire for liberty were varied and these laws could be seen as a responses to these expressions.

In the urban centers most particularly Manila and Cebu, journalists like Aurelio Tolentino, Juan Matapang Cruz, Juan Abad, Vicente Sotto and many others continued to write in symbolisms, some of which were so blatant that a number of their writings were judged as seditious. Many of the then known bandits were actually revolutionaries continuing the struggle for liberty like Macario Sakay and the lieutenants of Vibora (the Viper which was Artemio Ricarte). Even millenarian movements joined the fray or even if they did not, they were suspected as such and therefore suffered persecutions. In this period of continuing resistance when the (institutional and missionary) churches were cooperating (explicitly or otherwise) with the American colonial government, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente was founded.

It was Sunday, August 3, 1902 when in a meeting of the General Council of the Union Obrera Democratica (UOD), its head, Isabelo de los Reyes, Sr. (popularly known as don Belong), proclaimed the establishment/founding of the IFI. To give shape to this proposed Church, he nominated prominent lay and clerical persons to compose two councils to operate in one level: Executive for the Lay people and the Doctrinal for the Clergy. Those for the Doctrinal Council were also nominated to become bishops of envisioned dioceses with Gregorio Aglipay asthe  Obisbo Maximo (Supreme Bishop). He even nominated the Civil Governor, William Howard Taft and Emilio Aguinaldo as Honorary Presidents . In the following two weeks, many disclaimers were published. Except for Aguinaldo, all the lay people rejected their nominations. Most took pains to deny any involvement in the mevement. The most telling blow came from Gregorio Aglipay whose circular to the Filipino clergy dated August 16 was published on August 20 called them for a meeting assurance that there was yet no schism. A newspaper, the Manila American published the following day a derisive article picturing the IFI as a “Church that died before it was born.”

Nevertheless, one year afterwards, the IFI was belived to have one and a half million members which was roughly one fourth or 25% of the population. The start of the swelling membership was given an account by the La Iglesia Filipina Independiente: Revista Catolica (LIFIRC) in one of the earliest issues on October, 1903 in  two articles – one on the founding and  another a list the First Adherents. The first explained that while the prominent persons nominated to fill the two governing councils declined or denied any involvement, the people including Protestants, on the other hand, joined or pledged allegiance to the new church.
The second listed the following groupsas the First Adherents(Primeras Adhesiones): sixty Navotas Residents with Saturnina Bunda first on the list; numerous Tondo residents; officers and members of the UOD; some clergymen; 3 seminarians and several individuals. Further research proved that many groups joined the church. Even millenarian groups like the Sagrada Familia in the Ilocos provinces joined the IFI in the first year of its existence. For the administration of the new church, a new Executive Council composed of officers of the UOD was created and which came out with circulars and the First Fundamental Epistle

These developments and others affecting his personal life could have been the reasons why Aglipay eventually joined the Church and headed the signatories of the Temporary Constitution and the Second Fundamental Epistle on October 1, 1902. Also onthis day, the eminent priest, Pedro Brillantes who accepted the position of Bishop of Ilicos Norte occupied Baccara Church and proclaimed the place as his Cathedral See. In his action, he had the support of all except one priest in the province. that was not surprising since most of these priests-hereos were with Aglipay in the famous Kullabeng Assembly of may 8, 1902. In that gathering attended by Aglipay and his wartime comrades, it was agreed by all who attended that they will seperate from the Vatican and establish a Filipino Church and residents of the place also renewed their resolve to found a new town with the site as the center.

These evidences show that many people were involved in the eventual birth and early existence of the IFI. These people more than anybody else should be considered rightfully as the founders of this nationalist church. Such was in accordance to the thinking of the First Obisbo Maximo. On the celebration of the 30th year of the IFI, in an interview with the correspondent of Herald Week Magazine he repeated what he has written in a letter to the Papal Nuncio When asked about the founding of the IFI by saying:

The Filipino people is my witness that I am not the author of the Filipino Independent Church, neither did I intervene in  its preparation. I was slepping in Ezpeleta Street when I was awakened and told that in a meeting at the Centro de Bella Artes in Manila, August 3, 1902, the Filipino people proclaimed the new church… The Philippine Independent Church was founded by the people of our country, It was a product of their desire for liberty – religiously, politically and socially. I was only one of the instruments of its expression.

That the Filipino people founded the IFI as a product of their desire for liberty was explained in accordance to the will of God in the Fundamental Epistles and Doctrinas y Reglas Constitucionales (DRC). The DRC’s provision on Catholicity is very revealing:   Our Church is Catholic or Universal for it considers all men equally children of God and it bears the designation “Philippine independent” to identify this association of free men who, within the said universality, admit servility to no one. (Part One, chapter Two, Section IX)

Such belief would be the theme of the early songs and prayers of the IFI. The standard prayer book was the Oficio Divino from 1906-1961. In the songs and prayers, the theology can be aptly considered as not very consistent, sometimes Unitarian, sometimes Trinitarian. Relations with the Unitarians which started in the late twenties could have been the reason why the leadership gradually turned Unitarian. Rank and file clergy and membership seemed to have rejected such doctrinal direction. It became however the bone of contention after the death of Aglipay. The struggle for leadership between Santiago Fonancier and Isabelo de los Reyes, Jr. after the Japanese Occupation proved costly and sapped the strength of the Church. The majority of members followed or supported Isabelo de los Reyes, Jr. who eventually won the court struggle in 1955.

Even earlier than that he has entered into relations with the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA). Such relations led to the clarification of the theology of the IFI which was laid down in two documents: Declaration of Faith and Articles of Religion; and The Constitution and Canons, 1947.

One lasting product of such relations was the training for the priesthood in the IFI at St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary (SATS) which started in the  year when SATS operated in its new site at Cathedral Heights, Quezon City. The adoption of the new Filipino Missal and Filipino Ritual of 1961 was the last step of the preparation for the Concordate of Full Agreement between the the Churches which was signed on the 22nd of September of that same year.

The assurance of the IFI’s place in the mainstream of  Christianity was another lasting product of such relations. A Joint Council was put up to give flesh to such Concordate and joint programs were implemented. The Joint Council was eventually phased out in 1978-1979 and programs were pursued independently. One very significant criticism towards the Joint Council and the training of clergy at SATS was the Anglipayanization of the IFI. The IFI was being made to ignore if not to forget its nationalist heritage.

St. Andrew’s listened to such criticism and so made changes (though slower than desired) in its curriculum. Presently, in the IFI, there is now a significant portion of its membership which is spearheading the movement to recapture its nationalist heritage. Such movement has documentary evidences: the Statement on Church Mission, 1976; the Constitution and Canons 1977; Statement and Development, 1987; and the two SCB Pastoral Letters, 1988 and 1989. All these are the guiding documents for the IFI in its quest to recapture its nationalist heritage.

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