Editor’s note: An ecumenical delegation from the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches in Canada visited Christian churches in China last April. During a stop to Nanjing, the delegation met briefly with Bishop Ding Guangxun (who in the Wale-Giles Romanization of Chinese is also referred to as Bishop K.H. Ting), the last Anglican bishop in post-denominational China. Bishop Ting is a well-known figure in international Christian circles.
At 90, still quick-witted but in frail health, Bishop K. H. Ting remains one of the most sought after Christian leaders in China. No one, it seems, who visits China wanting to know more about Christian churches there, ever leaves without seeing him. That includes his admirers and detractors alike.
Often called the last Anglican bishop in what is now post-denominational China, Bishop Ting has lived through some of the most turbulent periods in Chinese history and has been a key figure in helping Christian churches survive these difficult transitions, including the now-infamous Cultural Revolution.
Not everyone agrees about his contributions – some have labeled him a closet Marxist because of his support for socialism in China – but Bishop Ting and his views about Chinese society and Christianity cannot be easily discounted. He is a man with a genial smile who doesn’t hesitate to express a caustic but well-thought-out remark.
For a church to survive, he said, it must be relevant to its milieu. “For the church in any country to have a selfhood of its own, a real and not a borrowed identity is all-important,” he wrote in an essay. “First it provides evangelical effectiveness in the country it is located, and second, it gives enrichment of the church universal in its understanding and worship of Christ.” It is a sentiment that is all too important in China, given the burden of its colonial past where religion was not only imposed from outside but was in some cases, in collaboration with imperialism.
On the matter of religious liberty, which many – especially from the West – say is absent in China, Bishop Ting argues that the issue is “not just a legal matter or a question of human rights.”
In an essay, Religious Liberty in China: My Perspective, he argued that religious liberty must also carry the weight of social responsibility. “What are the leaders of the religion for which liberty is sought going to do with liberty once they have it? What are the social consequences of their ways of using that liberty?” He recalled that during China’s war of resistance against Japanese aggression in the 1930s “there were Protestants in China who preached from the pulpit that the aggression was ordained of God: The Chinese had sinned and God sent Japanese troops to punish them.” He also recalled that” quite a number of foreign and Chinese leaders were entirely without sympathy for the people’s liberation struggle,” asking Christians to pray that God would drown the army in the river. “What a cruel and inhumane prayer that was,” he noted.
Such statements have earned Bishop Ting the ire of some Christians. But to his supporters, labeling Bishop Ting an apologist for Beijing is simplistic. During the Cultural Revolution, he wrote, China’s constitution “mentioned the freedom to propagate atheism, but said nothing about the freedom to propagate theism or religion. As a matter of fact, not only the freedom of propagating, but also that of religious worship was denied.”
He added that religion in China “enjoys a good amount of freedom” not because the Communist party has “a high opinion of religious doctrines” but because “it seeks to foremost unite the whole people in the cause of nation-building…(it) cannot afford the luxury of communal conflicts kindled by religion.”
While he has led the branch of Protestant Christianity in China that agrees to be registered with and is not critical of government, he has nonetheless affirmed that the state should not ban religious house meetings. He is also said to have supported the pro-democracy student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
Born to a Christian family in Beijing in September 1915, Bishop Ting studied at Shanghai’s St. John’s University and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1942. From 1943 to 1946 he was pastor of the International Church in Shanghai. He left China to be missionary secretary for the Student Christian Movement (SCM) in Canada, where he formed a friendship with a religious leader who, like him, was labeled a Communist because of his involvement in social justice – Ted Scott, then the SCM’s general secretary, who later became primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. After a year, he became a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Upon his return to China in the 1950s, he became principal of Nanjing Theological Study; in 1955 he was consecrated bishop of the coastal province of Zhejiang.
During the Cultural Revolution, his home was taken over by Red Guards and he and his wife were reported to have joined millions of other intellectuals and professionals sent to work in labour camps across China. But Bishop Ting has been quick to say that there were many more who suffered worse fates. There are those who believe that he was deliberately spared hardships because of his friendship with communists.
When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, he became head of the Three Self-Patriotic Movement and later, president of the China Christian Council, which worked to re-establish relationships with Christian churches around the world, including Canada. While the reins of religious leadership have been passed on, Bishop Ting, even in his twilight years, has remained an important point of reference for Christians in China.