Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Michael Ramsey

"(B)y entering into our house, you are entering your own house, we are happy to open our door and heart to you." - Pope Paul VI to Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A piece of Anglican patrimony in the Philippines: The English language

The Philippines is the 3rd largest English speaking nation in the world. English is remains the official language together with the Tagalog-based national language, Filipino. More than half (55.7%)  of the 90 million Filipinos can speak it. A vast majority are functional in its use as a second  language.

Western visitors to these sun kissed tropical isles in Asia would wonder how English became widespread. The answer lies in the American interlude of Philippine history. When the Americans defeated the Filipino republican forces in the Philippine-American war (1899-1902), they took over the country. One of the first important American policies was to establish a universal public education system with English as a medium of instruction. With an acute shortage of teachers, the American insular government brought in 600 teachers called Thomasites who had the task of teaching English, citizenship, the trades and training Filipino teachers. Many of the teachers were progressives and idealists, and not a few were Protestant Episcopalians.

And here is where the Episcopal story enters my family. My grandparents were taught English by Episcopalian Thomasites. They did not come from wealthy means and the American public school represented a way out of poverty. They learned English with the English that even today can identify "Piskies" coming from New England.

My grandparents came from Northern Philippines and this is where the Protestant Episcopal Church had its missionary focus. To this day it has become stereotypical for many Filipinos that people of the Ilocano, Ibanag, Itawes, Cordillera cultures can speak proper English. And not just any English, but the English that the Episcopalian teachers taught. This is so true of Sagada, which is the only Episcopal/Anglican town in the Philippines.

When my father passed away, at the funeral, the Ilocanos expressed their condolences and they did that not in their regional language or the national language but in English. English is part of their regional identity.

This is still apparent today 110 years after the first American teachers landed. In Tuguegarao's Roman Catholic Cathedral (a Spanish colonial foundation), the Mass is often celebrated in English. The homily is in English and the vast majority of Ibanag and Itawes people can understand. In the Basilica of Our Lady of Piat (a major pilgrimage site for Filipinos), the Mass is celebrated in English. The homilies are in English. The songs to the Holy Virgin are in English. But the icon of our Lady of Piat is definitely Asian and northern Filipino and is so unlike the Virgin at Walsingham, England. And yet what is sung in Walsingham is the same sung in Piat!

English was taught not just by reading Shakespeare and the English Lit Canon but by having selections from the King James Version (definitely Anglican) of the Bible, poems by Robert Southwell, the Canterbury Tales, and other medieval and early Renaissance English works which included the Prayer Book. When I was young, we still used Camilo Osias "the Philippine Readers" and these had biblical selections! This were the same books my grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts learned their English with. But the nationalist sentiments of the 1970s did away with these readers. Reading at the books children use today, they have lost much continuity with the past. The bible selections are no longer there as the world became more secular. You cannot now imagine an English lit book for public schools having selections from the Bible! People would crow, what about the Muslims? But they forget that even the American colonial "Philippine Readers" had a selection from the Koran!

If some Filipinos long to hear the Catholic prayers in "Anglican style" maybe this is due to a need to recover continuity. Even the people who love the Latin Mass would be aghast to see the English translation of the Mass in post-modern English. They would have it in "Anglican style"!

And that is why  some eagerly await the new ICEL translation of the Mass!

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