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Rise in Christians has China’s churches looking for help

ICC Note:

Episcopal News Service gives a brief history of the Protestant church in China and reports that pastoral training is lacking within the church due to its dramatic growth in recent years despite adequate theological training centers.

By Lynette Wilson

3/14/2012 China (Episcopal News Service) – 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.

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.”

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