Ecumenism in China

By Li Wenxin and Louie Crew

First appeared in The Witness 67.8 (1984): 15-17
2004 by Wenxin Li and Louie Crew

    Today protestants in China are united.  Denominations have virtually disappeared, even though many current members and most clergy were originally trained in one of the several denominations which still compete in the West.

    This unity has greatly pleased some Western observers, among them the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.  Preaching in Beijing in December 1983, the Archbishop noted that the first missionary arrived in China not far from the time that the first missionary arrived in England.   St. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.  When the Pope sent St. Augustine in 597, Runcie reminisced, "He gave some very good advice:  'Teach them the essentials, but don't worry too much if their customs are different from ours.  Let them follow their own customs.'"

    The 102nd Archbishop went on to confess:   "Now you know and I know that in the spread of Christianity around the world, that good advice has not always been followed."  The Chinese Christian Association which invited the Archbishop has been delighted with his support of their unilateral ecumenism and with his respect for their independence of all Western Christian hierarchies.

                               A Long Time Coming



    Chinese Christians urged genuine ecumenism as early as 1921, but the Western Christians, who then controlled most of the churches of China, balked.  Even after the foreign Christians had departed--all by the time of the creation of the People's Republic in 1949--religious divisions persisted.  Ironically, it was nonChristians who ended the divisions:  the Gang of Four, who ruled during the Cultural Revolution of the decade of 1966-76, suppressed all religious activity and most intellectual endeavor.  Traumatized, the protestants united.

    The Beijing Christian Association illustrates the unifica tion.  In 1979, it combined what had been 5 different protestant sects before the Cultural Revolution.  Two of its clergy, Mr. Yin and Father Liu, recently explained to us the results.  The Rev. Mr. Yin Jizeng was trained in the Church of the Brethren tradi tion (a.k.a. Little Folks Brethren).  Father Liu Zhonghe, 76, was trained at Central Theological Seminary in Nanjing and was ordained an Anglican priest long before the Revolution of 1949.  With six other male clergy these two minister in two separate  churches, and each preaches about twice a month.

                                 New Wine Skins

    Like all other protestant congregations in China, the Beijing Christian Association Church, is both physically and theologically autonomous, not responsible to any higher ecclesiastical authority.  It has no bishops or other overseers; and those elsewhere classified as bishops, such as the five who are Angli can bishops in China, exercise no material authority, only spiri tual influence over their flocks dispersed into less hierarchical congregations.

    In many ways the evangelical majority exercises the strongest influence on the polity, liturgy, and doctrine of the church united.  The hymnal is evangelical, as are most sermons.  The Church does not baptize infants.  Converts choose their own form of baptism.  No one follows a liturgical calendar nor do the ministers usually vest.  Most in the congregation bring their Bibles to follow the texts, and they expect their preacher to cite the text often in sermons, which the congregation prefers to be long.  At the Chong Wen Men location, ministers' chairs obscure a plain altar:  the pulpit centers the service.  The ministers wear a microphone to assure that they will be heard even in the outer reaches of the large room.

                            Other Voices, Other Rooms



    The Church does practice some diversity.  For example, early on every third Sunday, Father Liu holds in the adjoining chapel a service of Holy Communion from an Anglican prayer book.  Normally about 20-30 attend, only 2 or 3 under 55 or 60.  Several hundred attend most of the services in the main room.

    People at the Holy Communion are friendly with an informality compatible with that of the evangelical majority.  Once recently, for those who remained after Communion, Father Liu illustrated and discussed Anglican chant; but one would not expect to hear anything of that sort in the main services.  Nor would one feel welcome to genuflect.  Father Liu rarely makes the sign of the cross in his benediction, and he serves from Baptist-styled individual glass thimbles, not from the common cup, to which  people objected on health grounds back in 1958, before the union with other groups.  Father Liu vests for the eucharist, but at other times dresses like any other person.

    "The idea gets vaguer and vaguer about the different groups," Father Liu explained.

                                 The Daily Bread



    The Beijing Christian Association meets its material needs-- chiefly clergy salaries and the expenses of operating the building--mainly through revenue from rent derived from Church properties.  Clergy receive 70-90 Yuan ($35-$45) per month, or roughly the salaries standard for teachers and many other profes sionals with similar training.  As in the United States, most government workers (here called "cadres") and most farmers receive more money, but few salaries in China are large.  Physi cians, for example, receive $50-$60 per month.

                                    The Flock



    The Beijing congregation, like Christian groups all over China, reports enormous revival.  For a long time after the 1949 Revolution, the majority of China's religious buildings-- Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim alike--were either closed or reopened as schools, as hospitals, or during the Cultural Revolution, even as coal bins.   By contrast, last Christmas one of the two Beijing congregations had to move to its present large quarters at Chong Wen Men to accommodate the crowds.

    Church-going in Beijing is not the dressy, show-off affair which it is in much of America for poor and rich alike.  Most wear the grays and and blues ubiquitous in China.  With white robes trimmed in scarlet, the choir adds a touch of the pageantry one can find at only a few local public activities, such as sports events or at the Beijing opera.  Some members of the choir sing professionally elsewhere, one with the Central Broadcasting Group.  All who sing at the Church are unpaid volunteer Christians.

    Father Liu stresses that prominent citizens--physicians, college presidents, and others--are in the congregation every week, not just as observers, but as Christians.  Even as early as 1954, the nation's constitution guaranteed religious freedom for everyone.  Chinese Christians were in the People's Congress which prepared that constitution.  While officially atheist, the Party guaranteed the liberties of all people in China.  The Gang of Four subverted the constitution by arguing that "religious liberty" gave them the right to fight against any religious  beliefs.

     Women and men make up about equal portions of the congregation, sometimes as couples, often singly.  As in America, however, women are not visible in most pulpits, though soon more will be.  The Chinese Christian Association recognizes no  barriers to women as ministers, and several women are now in training at the seminary in Nanjing and in local centers.  In Shenyang, capital city of the northeast Liaoning Province, Lu  Zhibin and Wu Ai'en already pioneer as the first official women ministers in the country.  Ms. Wu  ministers to a congregation of people who, like herself, are of Korean descent.

     Women also maintain their own Sister Committee, which tends primarily to women's specialized needs, arranges visits to the sick, organizes transportation, etc.  Ms. Wang Yiaoqing, a woman in her seventies, leads in this group at Chong Wen Men Church.

     Father Liu noted that the Chinese church supported the rights of women and children long before the welcome national drive currently reaffirming them.

     Age disparity often first startles the outside visitor to the church in Beijing.  Most in the Sunday congregation are over 60.   The young prefer the service on Saturday nights.  Some nonChristian students drop in to inspect out of curiosity but usually don't join.  The young who do join, work mainly as clerks.  According to Father Liu, most "converts" are children of Christians.  Even so, Father Liu predicts that with new churches opening now almost daily somewhere in China, the church should be a more visible presence in China in 10-20 years.

    Prodded to explain how one might distinguish a Chinese Christian from any other Chinese person, Father Liu acknowledged:  "It would not be easy."  Pressed to explain whether religion then makes any difference in the lives of the believers, Father Liu said that yes, "Christians will make even better workers, even with tasks that are harder and dirtier.  Christians work not just for themselves and for the state's modernization drive, but also for God."

    Father Liu said that he does not feel that the young will be jeopardized in employment or educational opportunities if they are known to be religious:  "Most employers recognize that the religious would make more faithful and dedicated workers."

                             In But Not Of the World



    We asked Father Liu whether he fears that the new national concern over "cultural contamination" marks a return to the religious suppression of the Gang of Four.  "No," he assured us;  "The acts during the Cultural Revolution were mostly the work of the four people, but the new acts are a political consensus duly arrived at within the full party."  Father Liu believes that  China would not likely repeat the bitter lessons of that earlier time, that the nation has learned just how evil it is to suppress religion.

    In autumn of 1983 Zhou Yang, chairman of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, criticized himself publicly for his  paper on "alienation," saying that after he had published it he  feared the "adverse effects it would have on the Party."  Members of the Federation "agreed that while remarkable progress had been made in literature and art in the past five years, writers and artists had failed to heed the Party Central Committee's opinions on fundamental issues aimed at overcoming tendencies toward bourgeois liberalization" (China Daily, November 12, 1983).

    Christian minister Yin Jizeng feels that regarding the new charges of "cultural contamination," the Christian community agrees substantially with the government and opposes the importation of Western pollution like pornography.

    Both ministers stress that religious people enjoy much more liberty now than they did during the Cultural Revolution.  During that time, the clergy who now serve the Beijing Christian Association went to orchards in the suburbs to pick fruit.   Father Liu explains that they did not dare risk communion services even privately, but did read the Bible together.  In his recent visit the Archbishop of Canterbury praised the Chinese Christians for the work that they had done to rebuild their Church.

                                The Outer Limits



    The Beijing Christian Association is affiliated with the China Christian Council which hosted the Archbishop, but most of its ministers stay put and are not itinerant, not even for short- term exchanges of pulpits.  The Jin Ling Concord Seminary in Nanjing trains many of the new protestant clergy in the country; but its space is limited, with only three students there now from all Beijing, a city of 11 million persons.  Thus the clergy in Beijing, as do many clergy elsewhere, themselves train most of the candidates for the ministry.

    Chinese ecumenism does not extend to the local Catholics, who meet only a few kilometers away in stark isolation--not from the protestants only.  Chinese Catholics still say the mass in Latin. They have reconstituted their hierarchy regardless of Rome.   Minister Yin said that he and other protestants have almost no dialogue with the Catholics.  Nor do the Christians of any sort align themselves with Chinese Buddhists and Muslims, who also suffered under the same religious repression of the Cultural Revolution.

    Nor do the people at the Beijing Christian Association connect with Liberation Theology, popular in many other Marxist settings, especially in Latin America.  Liberation theologians address the needs of the poor and the oppressed.   Like many of their counterparts in the United States, Chinese protestants who  address those needs tend to do so in their roles as private citizens or as government workers, not as religious prophets.  The only politics one is likely to hear about from the pulpit at Chong Wen Men are celestial politics, or questions of theological  hegemony.  One Sunday last December a minister trained by the Salvation Army explained for over an hour Jesus's pun on St. Peter's name, "rock."  The congregation seemed wrapt with that ancient conundrum.

    Possibly even more than in the United States, church and state are separate in China.  Meeting the material needs of the poor, locating and redressing injustice, healing the sick, championing the causes of the ignored or the forgotten....:  these tasks in China, as in America, are the responsibility of the state and of individuals working within the state.

    Though thousands are Christians in China, religious people of any sort are a very small portion of this society, now numbering 1 billion 200 million.  In many ways Chinese protestants are still discovering for themselves who they are, still building their union.   A visitor senses an intense beauty in their gatherings.   Outsiders such as ourselves cannot know enough to have the last word on their experience.

At the time of writing Li and Crew taught English together in Beijing.


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