By Mark Michael

The Rt. Rev. Brent Harry W. Alawas, Bishop of Northern Philippines, has been elected as the Episcopal Church in the Philippines’ seventh prime bishop and primate by the church’s triennial synod. He will succeed the Most Rev. Joel Pachao, the current primate, when he retires next June as the leader of the province, which has about 125,000 members.

Alawas has served since 2009 as the leader of Episcopalians in the Northwestern part of Luzon, the largest and most populated island of the Philippine archipelago. He was the only candidate for prime bishop, and will assume the role while continuing to serve as diocesan bishop.

The province’s synod gathered April 7 and 8 in a hybrid format, with most delegates gathering at a central venue in each of the church’s seven dioceses, and a videoconferencing service connecting the assemblies to each other.

The synod, which had as its theme “Recovering Our Prophetic Ministry,” also approved a resolution expressing “grave concern” about the Anti-Terrorism Law passed last summer by hardline prime minister Rodrigo Duterte’s government.

“We believe that a vibrant democracy allows for dissent, criticism or opposition of proposed or actual public policies, programs and actions so that as a nation we will all find the best way to move forward in ensuring the peace, justice and prosperity of our people,” the synod declared.

Human rights groups and several other Filipino churches have expressed concerns about the law’s limits on free speech and its removal of due process protections. The country’s Catholic bishops have compared it to Hong Kong’s security law that provoked widespread protests in recent years. 37 civil society groups have filed legal challenges to the law, and its implementation has been suspended while these are considered by the nation’s Supreme Court.

The Episcopal Church in the Philippines is a relatively small denomination in the heavily Catholic country. According to 2010 statistics, 90.1% of the residents of the former Spanish colony are Christians, and, of these, 80.6% are Roman Catholics. Only about 0.1% of Filipinos are members of the Episcopal Church.

However, the Episcopal Church has long enjoyed a close relationship (including full communion since 1960) with the country’s second largest denomination, the Philippine Independent Church, often called the Aglipayan Church, an independent Catholic Church founded in the late nineteenth century by Filipino nationalist leader Gregorio Aglipay, a former Roman Catholic priest, who is honored with a commemoration on a supplemental liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church.

The Philippine Episcopal Church has been an autonomous province since 1990, having been a part of the US-based Episcopal Church since the beginning of Anglican mission in the nation in 1898, when US forces occupied the island during the Spanish-American War.

The Rt. Rev. Charles Henry Brent, who became the first missionary Episcopal bishop there in 1901, focused Episcopal mission efforts on expatriates and foreign residents (especially the Chinese) in Manila, and on relatively remote indigenous groups, who had been relatively unreached by Roman Catholic missionaries during the region’s three and half centuries as a Spanish colony. His mission strategy is similar to the one pursued by Anglican missionaries in former Spanish colonies in Southern South America, where the province also recently elected a new primate.

Brent’s slogan “no altar over against another altar and no planting of churches over against another church” gave the church a distinct focus and an especially strong presence among the Ingorot peoples of Luzon’s mountainous northern region, where new prime bishop Alawas has long served. Because of significant regionalized social inequality, it took much longer for the church to develop an indigenous leadership, and its clergy were largely white Americans for many decades. St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary, which trains clergy for the Episcopal Church in the Philippines and the Philippine Independent Church, was founded in 1932, to provide local training for Filipino clergy and church workers.

Several of the institutions that Brent helped found to serve the then-substantial American expatriate community and Manila’s Chinese population, including a series of elite private schools and St. Luke’s Hospital, remain important national institutions. Trinity University, an Episcopal-affiliated college, is located near the church’s national cathedral, along with its headquarters, St. Andrew’s Seminary, and St. Luke’s Medical Center, in the Quezon City section of Manila known as Cathedral Heights.