Christianity ‘no longer an alien’ religion in China

Having enough "properly trained pastors" is the biggest problem the church faces in China. Photo: takau99
Having enough "properly trained pastors" is the biggest problem the church faces in China. Photo: takau99
Published March 15, 2012

A small white chapel of Western design sits amid the high-rise residential buildings of Macau, a former Portuguese colony now administered by the People’s Republic of China. Popularly known as the “Morrison Chapel” in honor of Scotsman and Presbyterian minister Rev. Robert Morrison, the first missionary to land in the region in 1807 and the first to translate and publish the Bible in Chinese, it was the first Protestant chapel built on Chinese soil.

From there, Protestant Christianity spread throughout China.

“This is where the gospel came to the Chinese,” said the Rev. Stephen Durie, an Anglican priest and pastor of the chapel, officially christened a century ago as a nondenominational House of God, during a tour of the grounds in late February.

Christianity actually first reached mainland China in the seventh century during the Tang dynasty but didn’t begin to flourish until the 19th century. Later, in 1949, Mao Zedong banned the religion following the Chinese Revolution. It didn’t resurge until after his death in 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution. Now, with the communist central government’s sanction and oversight, Protestant Christianity has spread dramatically, manifesting in an unprecedented post-denominational, independent fashion.

And the Chinese government wants to work with the Episcopal Church, said Peter Ng, the church’s global partnerships officer for Asia and the Pacific, in an interview with ENS in China. “The government sees the Episcopal Church as a relevant voice in modern society.”

During a recent three-week visit to Anglican Communion provincial churches and Episcopal churches in Asia, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori visited China at the invitation of the China Christian Council (CCC) and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPC). She attended meetings in Shanghai, Nanjing and Beijing, where she met with the minister of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), the Chinese government agency that oversees religious practice.

Jefferts Schori’s visit marked the first time a presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church met with government officials in China.

In the United States, the problem is “there are many bishops and not many believers,” joked Minister Wang Zuo’an in Mandarin through an interpreter. “In China, [there are] so many believers who can’t find a bishop.”

Wang’s joke rings true for the Chinese church; the dramatic increase in Christians over a short time has challenged it to train pastors adequately and acquire land, especially in densely populated urban areas, on which to build churches. And it has challenged the atheist government to protect the rights of Christians, as well as other believers and nonbelievers.

Wang singled out having enough “properly trained pastors” as the biggest problem the church faces. “If there are no good pastors during the process of development, great problems will happen,” he said. Christianity’s rapid development in China has drawn much attention from nonbelievers, and it’s important for Christians “to set a good example,” he added.

The CCC must not only find its own way to develop, but also look toward others and learn from their development, said Wang.

The CCC and TSPM form the official, government-sanctioned Protestant church in China. (“Three-Self” stands for self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.) TSPM serves as a liaison between churches and government, while CCC focuses on church affairs.

SARA serves as a bridge between religion and the central government and coordinates relationships among religions to make them all equal, said Wang. Besides overseeing the TSPM, SARA also oversees the four other sanctioned religious groups: Muslims; Roman Catholics, of which the government’s Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, not the pope, is the supreme authority; Buddhists; and Taoists.

“That is another phenomenon in China … there’s more harmony between religious and nonreligious people. When conflicts do happen, an organization like SARA is needed to safeguard the lawful rights of people,” said Wang. In China’s history, he added, meaning since 1949 and the formation of the People’s Republic, there have been no religious wars or conflicts, nor one dominant religion. Recently, however, he said, Muslim populations have clashed in the western part of the country.

During her four-day visit to China, Jefferts Schori met with the minister of SARA and attended meetings with church leaders; Nanjing Union Theological Seminary faculty; and staff from the Amity Foundation, a faith-based social service provider.

“I think it was a very important learning experience for us, from the sublime to the ridiculous, figuring out the differences between CCC and TSPM,” said Jefferts Schori in an interview with ENS after leaving China. “It’s also very helpful to talk to people face-to-face because we deal with many caricatures of what China is like and what the religious environment in China is like. And I think we got a much more nuanced view of what it means to be a Christian in China today.”

During her meeting with SARA, Wang said that the churches and governments of China and the United States should strengthen their relationships through the continued exchange of information, and “the Chinese church and America, especially the Episcopal Church, should have an understanding and support each other,” he said.

Jefferts Schori explained to Wang and his staff that one of the roles of the Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations is listening to the cares, concerns and perspectives of the faith community in relation to the government, and that it also exists to challenge the government.

“Part of the role of the Episcopal Church is to promote harmony and peace in society … and to bring peace on earth in our own day,” she said. “And to challenge our own government in the ways it builds or doesn’t build peace.”

That includes very delicate international situations, such as implementing a two-state solution in the Middle East, where a peaceful solution’s impact would be felt around the world, she said. Similarly, peace on the Korean peninsula would have a positive regional impact, she said.

Before visiting China, Jefferts Schori visited the Episcopal Church in South Korea, where her colleagues expressed concern for North Korean refugees in China being sent back to North Korea.

“Our faith teaches us that large governments need to build peace in places that they have the ability to do so,” she told Wang and his staff, adding that the church sees itself as prophetic. “[Together] the faith community and governments have a much greater capacity to build peace around the world. And we seek partnerships in that work wherever we can find them.”

Unlike some religious groups in the United States, the Episcopal Church understands itself as empowering people of faith to take their place in society and “function as whole people,” said Jefferts Schori.

Christianity no longer an ‘alien’ religion

Within Chinese society, churches existed before 1949; after that year and the Korean War, when all the missionaries left, there were Chinese churches, the Rev. Kan Baoping, CCC general secretary, during a meeting in Shanghai. The council and TSPM share a headquarters there on the campus of the former Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral, which is in the process of being restored.

“All of a sudden the church lost all its resources, and after that we understood what the church is in China,” said Kan. The Three-Self movement was born in the early 1950s to bridge the gap between church and state, he said.

During that decade, TSPM began to embrace Christianity as an indigenous religion, and all Protestant worship became nondenominational. In 1978, China’s constitution was modified to guarantee the freedom of religion, with some exceptions. The CCC formed in 1980.

“Some people overseas may not understand why the church in China focuses on the Three-Self principles,” said Gao Feng, CCC’s president, in Mandarin through an interpreter. “In the 1950s, Three-Self was initiated by Christian leaders. Before that, many churches in China had already called for independence.”

Between 1840-1842, he elaborated, Western forces invaded China and adopted “patronage” treaties that protected the rights of missionaries. These treaties were negotiated between China and the British Empire after the First Opium War, which began in 1839 as a result of trade disputes and poor diplomatic relations.

“Chinese people thought [the treaties] were a big humiliation to the dignity of the nation of China and hated the Western military powers and missionaries from other countries,” said Gao.

From there, he explained, Christians recognized the importance of starting an independent movement in which Christianity no longer was referred to as an “alien religion,” thus letting it develop within the unique Chinese context.

The intention was: “To build a church for God in this land.”

The CCC operates seven departments: training, social services, research, overseas relations, publications, editorial and administration. The council is headquartered in Shanghai, with local councils established in cities and regions.

“Our vision is to serve all Christians in China, no matter if they belong to registered or nonregistered churches; once they become Christians we regard them as brothers and sisters,” said Elder Fu Xianwei, chair of the national TSPM. The council, for example, provides Bibles and hospice care, supports theological education and provides church buildings for “entrepreneurs” in China who have “volunteered to organize their own fellowships.”

For example, Fu said, “in some regions there are no formal church buildings; if we see a need, we help set up churches there to include all Christians.” The situation, he added, is “very complicated and cannot be solved in a day.”

Many unregistered churches have started to have contact with registered churches, he said, noting that he believes tensions will begin to lessen very soon. “The situation is quite complicated, still, but my colleagues and I have strong convictions that we should serve all Christians in China.”

Besides unregistered house churches, Christianity in China has seen the proliferation of mega-churches, whose charismatic leaders who prefer to go it alone and manage their churches as private businesses, and have proved a challenge to CCC/TSPM, said Kan.

The Chinese government in Western media often is criticized and accused of human rights abuses for detaining religious leaders. But for the most part, the religious leaders that ENS met in China said they thought they had an open relationship with the government.

Ng explained it this way: TSPM and CCC are the official Protestant church, but the government has taken a more flexible approach to house churches so long as they don’t violate the law.

In an interview with ENS in Hong Kong after Jefferts Schori’s visit, the Rev. Peter D. Koon, general secretary of the Province of Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui and a Shanghai native, offered his perspective and said the full story of freedom of religious expression in China wasn’t always reported.

Concerning reports of religious persecution of Falun Gong, for example, “Fifty percent of the population isn’t well educated, so they will be very easily led,” he said. “So it’s very dangerous [as a means of control and brainwashing].”

On its website, Falun Gong calls itself an “an advanced practice of Buddhist self-cultivation.” It has been outlawed by the Chinese government and is considered a “cult” by some in both East and the West. Followers of Falun Gong believe that illness and misfortune result from karmic retribution and refuse medical treatment.

In another example, there was a complaint when the government closed down two churches in a city of 120 churches, he said. One was an illegal structure, and the other was in a crowded community and the neighbors complained, he said.

Many of these churches have links with overseas churches that have money and will help them, said Koon. “This is the case most of the time. Other times, they want to immigrate, so they make a big deal.”

He concluded, “The government wants to use us as an agency to promote unity and harmonious society. They want to work together with all the religions.”

With baptism comes membership

China has 56,000 registered Protestant Christian churches and between 20 million and 40 million registered Christians. An exact number is difficult to discern for several reasons, including apprehension about officially registering because some people fear a second “cultural revolution,” church leaders said.

During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the government forbade Christian worship of any kind, forcing believers underground. Some were jailed, like the Rev. Xinli Yu, Beijing Christian Council president and principal of Beijing’s Yanjing Theological Seminary.

Born in 1939 and the son of a pastor, Xinli “made trouble” while studying in seminary before the revolution started, was arrested and spent 22 years in a labor camp. Released from the camp in the 1980s, he went to work for the church as a maintenance man and in 1984 was ordained a pastor, he said in Mandarin as interpreted during a meeting at the headquarters of the Beijing council.

In Beijing, a city of 20 million people, there were 200-300 churches before 1949. Today, there are 21, each with more than 1,000 members. One, headed by a woman, the Rev. Du Feng Ping, has more than 5,000 members and conducts four to five services each Sunday.

Besides their congregations, pastors and their staff members often oversee “meeting points.” In Beijing, nearly 1,000 meeting points serve between 70-80,000 believers. They work like this: At first, 10 or 20 believers gather in a house. Eventually the group outgrows its space and approaches the Beijing Christian Council for help in finding a larger space. Often, Xinli said, SARA assists the church in land negotiations in resistant communities.

“The fact that there isn’t this denominational competition, I think, is a radical gift to the rest of the world, a powerful gift,” said Jefferts Schori, reflecting on the meetings. “And we didn’t talk to anybody who thought that there was a major difficulty with meeting points, small family-sized Christian groups. They saw them as seedbeds for large congregations; that’s how large communities start. And there seems to be some fluidity that we don’t see reported in America, in moving between those groups.”

Each year in Beijing, 1,000 people on average are baptized and become church members. To become a member, a person must attend regularly for one year, take a special catechism class, then talk to the pastor and be baptized, Xinli said, adding that children typically are not baptized.

Baptism is a conscious, individual choice, Xinli said. “Children don’t have such ability.”

Training young pastors

As elsewhere, in Beijing the emphasis has been on training young pastors to meet the growing demands of increasing membership. More than 100 young pastors ? 60 percent of them women ? and church workers are in Beijing. Many were not related to the church before 1980 when, following the open policy, young people came.

“Young believers don’t know about denominations,” Xinli said. “When I was young, I was Assembly of God.”

In 1979, China’s National People’s Congress passed “reform” and “open” policies, which brought the country into contact with the outside world.

As the church in China grows and as the demand for qualified pastors increases, young people are flocking to China’s 21 seminaries, with the national seminary being Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.

The seminary, which opened in 2009, is among 15 universities in what is called “University Town,” a suburban area of new construction, including strip malls, a giant stadium and roundabouts outside Nanjing.

The provincial government donated the land for the new seminary, and the central government financed part of the construction, with the balance raised through individual donations, the Rev. Yilu Chen, the seminary’s executive vice president, said in Mandarin through an interpreter.

“The government’s viewpoint on religion has changed a lot. In the past, the government thought religion was poisonous to people and that it prevented society’s development,” he said.

“Beginning with the 17th Communist Party Conference, the party said religion can make cultural, social and economic contributions, and from then on the emphasis has been on the positive role that religion plays … talk of religious freedom is outdated now, and now we should talk about playing a positive role in society.”

Much like seminarians in the Episcopal Church, seminarians in China must be sponsored by a congregation. Once they complete their studies, they return to serve for three years in the sponsoring congregation before being ordained, said the Rev. Manhong Melissa Lin, associate professor of Christian ethics at the Nanjing seminary.

“We believe that if younger people can be trained in seminary, they can serve in churches for a long time,” said Yilu.

There are 330 seminarians with an average age of 25 enrolled at Nanjing, which offers a four-year bachelor of theology degree and a three-year master of divinity degree. A doctoral program is slated to be added eventually.

The campus can hold 500 seminarians; this year 500 people applied for 115 open slots. Seminarians come from all of China’s mainland provinces except Tibet. Tuition is 4,000 yuan, or around $600.

The seminary, Yilu said, urgently needs qualified professors and teachers. It has sent six professors overseas to earn doctorates and also relies on visiting professors from overseas. It also is looking at partnerships. In February 2011, CCC and TSPM church leaders, accompanied by government officials, visited the Episcopal Church Center in New York to discuss ways to work together.

Playing a positive role in society

Charitable work is another area in which the Chinese Church has looked to the Episcopal Church for help, with a delegation, including SARA’s deputy minister, visiting the church center in August 2011.

Churches engaging in social service works is somewhat new territory, for both them and the government, as evidenced in a the Feb. 28 headline in the South China Morning Post, “New Controls on Religious Groups’ Work.” The story said that the government recently tightened controls on religious groups to stop them from spreading religion and “undermining national interests” by accepting donations from overseas entities that come with political and or religious conditions.

(Similar to the United States, China doesn’t allow churches to proselytize when operating as social-service providers.)

During a meeting in Shanghai, Kan, the CCC general secretary, said the government used to frown upon churches providing social services to communities out of concern for that they would share their message and recruit members, but that its stance has changed in recent years.

“Now the government is encouraging the churches to exercise their social-service arm,” he said, adding that the church has responded by offering training and resources to churches.

The Amity Foundation, founded by Ting and other Chinese Christians in 1985, was one of the first nongovernment organizations and the first faith-based one established to address the needs of society. Today it provides social services ranging from education and medical assistance to disaster relief and helping rural farmers take advantage of solar energy. Episcopal Relief & Development is one of its strongest partners, said She Hongyu, assistant general secretary of Amity, during a presentation in Nanjing at the Amity Printing Co., which is part of the foundation.

Despite partnerships, the Amity Foundation has moved away from foreign donations.

“We started out 100 percent dependent on donations from abroad. In 2004, we established our own fundraising in China,” She said.

This year, Amity Printing is on schedule to print its 100 millionth Bible; profits from the printing of Bibles in 75 languages and shipping to 70 different countries and regions help finance the foundation’s work.

Jefferts Schori said that she was struck by the government’s change in attitude toward religious bodies engaging in social services.

“There is a parallel with Cuba. When the state discovered what religious communities could do for the benefit of the larger community, the state began to support at least the existence of those religious communities,” she said, “if not to actively support their development and growth, which I think the Chinese government has done, providing land for the seminary in Nanjing and building the facilities, they see that as a benefit.

“Fidel [Castro] changed his mind something like 25 years ago and remembered his own Jesuit upbringing and the state partners with the church in Cuba on community service, and they are quite supportive, they make special provisions for the churches.”

In Cuba, unlike in China, government members can hold religious beliefs.

In addition to Ng, Alex Baumgarten, the Episcopal Church’s director of government relations; the Rev. Charles Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop; and Richard Schori, the presiding bishop’s husband, joined Jefferts Schori in China, Hong Kong and Macau.

“I am surprised and in awe of a church that has encountered so much social change over the last six decades and nonetheless is able to be a positive and consequential force in shaping the society around it for the better,” said Baumgarten in an interview with ENS upon leaving China.

“I don’t think I was any more struck by it than with the Amity Foundation. In its work you see the church seeking to transform the world around it at every single level.”

? Lynette Wilson is an Episcopal News Service reporter and editor. She traveled with the presiding bishop in China, Hong Kong and Macau.


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