Chinese ministry grows, evolves in Vancouver and Toronto

The Rev. James Liu and the Rev. Morning Wang lead Mandarin ministry at St. James Cathedral and St. George on Yonge, respectively, in Toronto. Photo by Matt Gardner
Published May 27, 2019

The two cities chosen to host the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada in 2019 and 2016 are distant in a geographic sense, but similar in their diversity. Demographically speaking, Vancouver and Toronto are two of the most multicultural cities in the world. 

A key component of that diversity is a substantial population of Chinese Canadians and immigrants and visitors from China. According to 2016 census data, an estimated 360,000 of residents in Metro Vancouver spoke Mandarin or Cantonese as their native language, or 15% of the district’s population of 2.4 million. One in five new immigrants to Metro Vancouver since 2006 speak a Chinese language. In Toronto, there are 300,000 residents of Chinese descent who make up nearly 11% of the city’s population. 

The surge in residents of Chinese background has had a major impact on Anglican ministry in these cities. At a time when Indigenous self-determination has raised the importance of hearing the gospel in one’s own language, expanding ministry in Mandarin and Cantonese can be seen as another way that the church is bringing the message of Jesus to people in their own language and in a culturally relevant manner. 

For four years, the Rev. Marion Wong has served as Mandarin minister at St. Matthias and St. Luke Anglican Church in Vancouver. English-speaking congregations, she says, increasingly “have these Chinese people coming in to their churches, so they’re thinking of how to welcome them in and how to make them feel comfortable and stay.” 

For Chinese visitors or immigrants, on the other hand, meeting Canadian people can be a challenge. 

“Going to church is one of the easiest ways to be with a group of Canadians,” Wong says. 

A native of Hong Kong, Wong’s mother tongue is Cantonese. Her knowledge of Mandarin, however, has enabled her to reach out to church visitors from mainland China, building relationships through outreach programs such as English conversation groups. 

Parishioners at St. Matthias and St. Luke Anglican Church in Vancouver teach ESL students baking skills to help build relationships. Photo by Marion Wong

Mandarin is the main language spoken in mainland China and Taiwan, while Cantonese is most commonly spoken in Southern China and Hong Kong. Languages and dialects in different cities and regions are often mutually unintelligible. As a result, successive waves of Chinese immigration have seen shifting approaches to Chinese ministry among Canadian Anglicans. 

In Vancouver, the case of St. Chad’s Anglican Church is instructive. Beginning in 1994, the parish started printing Sunday bulletins with side-by-side English and Chinese languages. 

At the time, Hong Kong immigrants were the main focus of Chinese ministry at St. Chad’s. After the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, a wave of immigrants worried about the possible effects of the handover arrived in Canada. Subsequently, another wave arrived from Taiwan, concerned that the island would follow suit in coming under mainland control. 

In the years after 2000, mainland China became the largest source of Chinese immigrants. It was during this time that the congregation began offering exercise classes such as tai chi and ping pong to help Chinese mothers stressed out by caring for their children in Canada. 

In 2005, St. Chad’s started a Chinese worship service on Sundays. Initially, the church tried to combine Mandarin and Cantonese into one service using earphone translation, before separating the worship into Mandarin and Cantonese services. 

The ESL chorus at St. Matthias and St. Luke sings an anthem during Sunday worship. Photo by Minna Gao

The culture between the people coming from Hong Kong and the culture of local-born here are much closer compared with [the] culture of Chinese people coming from mainland China. […] Once we had the two separated, then the Mandarin ministry grew substantially,” says the Rev. Paulina Lee, current rector of St. Chad’s. 

Between 2003 and 2013, Chinese ministry at St. Chad’s saw an increase in average Sunday attendance from 18 to 42. Meanwhile, the average age of parishioners kept getting younger with an influx of Chinese students. 

As the number of residents of Chinese descent continues to grow, Anglican congregations in Vancouver have increasingly taken part in Chinese New Year festivities. 

In the Diocese of Toronto, celebration of the Lunar New Year has also become an annual tradition for Anglicans at St. James Cathedral. A hub of local Mandarin ministry, St. James has advanced what assistant curate the Rev. James Liu calls the “cathedral model” for ministry, also adopted by St. George on Yonge and St. Thomas’s Anglican Church on Huron Street. 

The Rev. Morning Wang, assistant curate at St. George on Yonge, likens the cathedral model to a funnel that brings people from the streets into church life through the experience of the liturgy. 

“Our strength is not in terms of money. […] Our strength is actually the liturgy,” Wang says. The liturgy has become the tool for us to share the gospel.” 

The model has proven successful in attracting Chinese newcomers to the church. Some are immigrants, but many are visitors accompanying their children who are studying in Canada. 

The first part of the cathedral model revolves around reaching out to share the gospel, which helps ground newcomers in the basic aspects of Christianity. Many Chinese people have little background in the Christian faith or knowledge of different denominations. 

“If you see Chinese people [and] you say, ‘Well, we are Anglican,’ it confuses them,” Liu says. “They do know who Jesus is, they do know what church is, and so we start from there.” 

Like many Chinese Christians who join the church, neither Liu nor Wang were raised as Anglicans. Liu is originally from Tianjin, Wang from Shanghai. Both are native Mandarin speakersthough Wang also speaks Cantonese. 

“We are not cradle Anglicans,” Wang says. So we treasure a lot more about the three pillars [of Anglicanism]—that would be the Bible, tradition, and reason. And especially liturgy.” 

The second part of the cathedral model involves teaching newcomers the liturgy by inviting them to join Sunday worship. Both St. James and St. George on Yonge hold weekly Mandarin-language services, which followed earlier Bible study groups. 

For many Chinese newcomers unfamiliar with Christian practices, the experience of attending the Eucharist can provoke a range of questions, from which prayer book to use to the meaning of the bread and wine. 

“They cannot follow the liturgy, so it is not comfortable. […] But for us, it is a great opportunity to talk about that with them,” Liu says. So we sit with them together in the pew, and just help them follow the liturgy.” 

Afterwards, congregation members invite newcomers to speak more about their faith. These discussions lead into the third step of the cathedral model, a basic catechism with 25 lessons. The majority of Mandarin speakers who study the catechism at St. James end up being baptized into the Anglican church. 

With Chinese immigration to Toronto paralleling the waves of immigration to Vancouver, Anglican congregations have seen a similar shift in linguistic emphasis. Where St. James focuses on Mandarin ministry, other Toronto churches have long held Cantonese services, reflecting earlier immigration from Hong Kong. 

St. John’s Anglican Church Willowdale, which recently celebrated its 45th anniversary, is one of four Cantonese-speaking parishes in Toronto. In its early years, the only language of the parish was Cantonese. But the use of English at St. John’s has increased in recent years, reflecting the fact that while first-generation immigrants favour their mother tongue, second- and third-generation descendants tend to gravitate towards English. 

“Right now, Mandarin and Cantonese are quite separate, quite distinct, in terms of the style and needs and so on,” says the Rev. Simon Li, incumbent at St. John’s. “However, the next generation would have more and more commonality [of language], and there’s a much higher chance to bring them together in one worshipping community than the first-generation immigrants.”


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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