‘A religion, not a family corporation’

“All should know that the Iglesia is not a family corporation. It is a religion that follows the teachings of God found in the Bible.” As unexpected as it came, this declaration, issued by the top leadership of the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC) a few days ago, is perhaps the most modern statement ever to come out of the Philippines’ largest homegrown Christian religious organization.

Known for its tight internal discipline and the formidable clout it wields in Philippine politics, the church founded by Felix Y. Manalo celebrated its centenary last year, basking in the stability and rapid expansion it attained during the 46-year leadership of the founder’s son, Eraño “Ka Erdy” Manalo. So strong has been its association with the Manalo family name that the church is sometimes referred to by outsiders as the “House of Manalo.”

In the press conference urgently called by the INC last Thursday, Bienvenido “Ka Bien” Santiago, who goes by the title “general evangelist” in the Iglesia hierarchy, said in Filipino: “Brother Eduardo Manalo and the general leadership cannot allow meddling by anyone.” Eduardo, grandson of the founder, assumed the position of executive minister of the INC when his father, Ka Erdy, died in 2009.

Speaking for the hierarchy, Santiago was clearly referring to the late INC executive minister’s widow, Cristina or “Ka Tenny,” as she is better known in INC circles, and her two children, Angel and Lottie, who were being expelled from the church for allegedly sowing discord in the organization. “Although it is painful for Brother Eduardo Manalo, the general leadership decided to expel those who are causing division in the Iglesia,” Santiago said. Eduardo is the eldest son of Ka Erdy and Ka Tenny.

The telenovela-like sequence of events that prompted this action remains vague at this point, but one can get a glimpse of the seriousness of this rift from the desperate pleas for help that Felix Nathaniel “Angel” Manalo, a former church minister and younger brother of the current executive minister, and his mother recently posted on YouTube. They claimed that their lives and those of INC officials who support them are in danger. They appealed to members of the INC to protect the “missing” church officials sympathetic to them who, they suspect, have been abducted.

In an impromptu appearance at the gate of their house just behind the Iglesia Central late yesterday, Angel spoke to the media about wrong priorities, corruption, and misuse of funds committed by members of the church’s council who surround his brother. He gave as an example the construction at great cost of the gigantic multipurpose venue known as the “Philippine Arena.” This huge project, he said, had caused the diversion of funds originally meant for the construction of INC chapels. He made it clear he was not challenging the leadership of his older brother, who, he said, seems to be getting unsound advice from unaccountable persons seeking full control of the collective affairs of the church’s 2.3 million members.

What lends these events the dramatic arc they have assumed in the past few days is the fact that thousands of INC members from all over the country and from abroad are expected to come together tomorrow, July 27, to mark the end of the yearlong centennial celebration. The event could well signal the advent of a deep schism within the organization, or the modernization of a remarkably successful church.

Perhaps it was just a matter of time before the Iglesia Ni Cristo would come face to face with the challenges of modernity. Since its inception a hundred years ago, its top leader has been drawn from the same family. While this lends to the organization the aura of unbroken leadership, it also inescapably assigns a privileged status to the members of the founder’s family. This can be an advantage where affinity to the organization is strongly determined by tradition rather than by clear doctrine. But, as church membership expands, institutionalization becomes imperative. The INC will increasingly find it necessary to differentiate itself from the Manalo family. This is what we are seeing today.

Ka Bien’s pointed statement to the media says it all: “The Iglesia is not a family corporation.” This loaded statement seems to allude to members of the founding family enjoying sinecures in some of the INC’s business enterprises. Whether or not this sharp allusion has any basis, what it abundantly reveals is a dispute not about the doctrine but over material things.

This is the same point I raised in a previous column, “The INC at 100” (Opinion, 7/27/14), in which I puzzled over the religious reasoning behind the Iglesia’s decision to build “the world’s largest indoor multipurpose venue.” Now we know that the construction of the Philippine Arena had nothing to do with religion. It was a purely business proposition that probably got approved in the glow of the church’s centennial preparations.

It is not, of course, the first time a religious organization, lured by visions of a steady source of funds to support its core activities, strayed from its basic purpose. A religious organization’s business venture can become so profitable that it may at some point eclipse the primary mission that inspired it, or be a source of conflict. But, a church could also end up pouring all the precious tithes it collects from its members to pay for a badly conceived venture that has little to do with its basic purposes.

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