As church bells rang and sky rockets exploded in the sky, leaders of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) signed a Covenant of Partnership that could lead to full union "in God's own time."

The covenant, signed November 28, is a 400-word document binding the UCCP, itself a union of churches from the Reformed tradition, and the IFI, a Filipino church that separated from Rome but which has retained Catholic practice and tradition.

The church leaders declared in the document that despite differences in doctrine, polity and religious practices, both churches are "integral parts of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Jesus Christ." The document adds that the two denominations draw strength and inspiration from a common Scripture and common creeds. Recognizing common beliefs and hopeful in Jesus' prayer "that they may be one," the churches also agreed to undertake joint theological and doctrinal studies, service programs, and theological education.

Tomas A. Millamena, Obispo Maximo (leading bishop) of the IFI, and Bishop Elmer M. Bolocon, general secretary of the UCCP, signed the covenant. Among the witnesses who also signed were NCCP leaders, mission partners, and representatives of workers' organizations, the urban poor and student groups.

Bishop Erme Camba, as the chair of the UCCP Communion on Church Union and Unity, oversaw the negotiations for the covenant. He said that formal talks had started three years ago in an ecumenical fellowship of bishops.

The two churches have a history of co-operation, especially in actions against the Marcos dictatorship more than 20 years ago. "We wanted to put it in writing," Bishop Camba said. "Although there are certain agreements regarding baptism, issues regarding the Eucharist and apostolic succession need to be discussed. But that does not deter us from coming together," Bishop Camba added.

He stressed that the phrase "in God's own time" was important because the theological understanding and the practice of the Eucharist and the ministry in the two churches were completely different and "seem irreconcilable."

But he expressed optimism that work for peace, justice and integrity of creation between the two denominations would proceed in a higher gear.

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