Recalling the Unitarian Bishop Gregorio Aglipay

Recalling the Unitarian Bishop Gregorio Aglipay September 5, 2021




In the Episcopal Church today, the 5th of September is marked as a feast day for Bishop Gregorio Aglipay.

I’ve always loved that they have a feast day for a Filipino revolutionary, dissident Roman Catholic priest, Independent Catholic bishop, and Unitarian. As those who know me might suspect, he’s just a favorite spiritual figure for me.

Aglipay was born in 1860. He was orphaned early. When he was fourteen and working in the tobacco fields he was arrested for not meeting his daily quota. Stung by the injustice he started to seek an education. He read law. With this as a foundation he entered University. After graduating he entered seminary and in 1890 he ordained as a Catholic priest.

He was also a fervent Filipino patriot, quickly rising as one of the leaders of the revolution. During this time of armed struggle he was excommunicated.

When the war ended he was elected the first bishop of a new independent Catholic Church.

All the original clergy of the new church had been Roman Catholic priests. Following his election as their supreme bishop in 1903, the clergy laid hands on Aglipay and invoked the holy spirit to make him their bishop. Not acceptable by traditional Catholic theology concerned with the “historic Episcopate,” and its tactile succession, this didn’t matter to the living church who saw the devotion of this man and the movement he inspired, and which touched the hearts of so many Filipinos and inspired a spiritual revolution as well as a political one…

The church Aglipay led, while remaining Catholic in form, was deeply influenced by Aglipay’s progressivism, his revolutionary politics, and, while never officially, his unitarian theology. And it remained so for several decades following his death.

His personal spiritual path led him to reject the divinity of Jesus and with that the doctrine of the trinity. During his life there were cordial relations with the American Unitarian Association, and in 1931 the Unitarian seminary Meadville Lombard awarded him an honorary doctorate.

According to one online source his developed theology asserted “God is a universal and intelligent force, the principle of all life and movement. Satisfaction of human needs is achieved through work rather than prayer. All reward and punishment for virtuous or evil behavior occur in this life. The origin of the universe is explained as development and not creation because matter has no beginning.”

There were tensions within the church from the beginning between Aglipay’s liberals and more traditional members. Eventually there would be a schism and after the bishop’s death in 1940 the courts awarded the name and assets to the trinitarian faction. In 1961 the Philippine Independent Church joined world wide Anglicanism when its bishops were all re-consecrated within the Anglican version of apostolic succession.

Today the Philippine Independent Church counting about two million members is the second largest denomination in the Philippines. The unitarian identified within the denomination broke into several factions, and today I cannot find any online reference to an existing body. (If you’re aware of any institutional successors, I’d be grateful if you let me know.)

Anyway, as I said at the beginning I delight in the fact the American jurisdiction of the Anglican communion has chosen to name a Unitarian revolutionary to their calendar of saints.

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