CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 June 2019

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What divides and unifies Chinese Christians?

HONG KONG (UCAN): January 18 marked the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which is promoted by both the World Council of Churches in Geneva and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome.

Michel Chambon, a French Catholic theologian pursuing a doctorate in anthropology at Boston University in the United States of America, asks what it holds for Churches and developing Christian communities in China.

Chambon, who is currently in China for a year of field work among local Protestants, says that a look at the past and current situation can give a deeper insight into understanding issues about Christian unity.

In the Chinese constitution, he points out that there are only two major Christian Churches: Protestant (Jidujiao) and Catholic (Tianzhujiao). However, he says that the real situation is more subtle than this legal framework suggests.

Excesses from the Maoist era followed by the invasive policy of the post-1979 era led Catholics and Protestants to divide themselves between legally registered (official community) and non-registered (unofficial community for Catholics and House Churches for Protestants) Churches.

But Chambon says the political factor is still not the sole explanation for all the fractures and differentiations within this rich and vivid Chinese Christianity, noting that one major factor to consider in history is that neither the efforts of Churches nor those of the Communist Party managed to erase divisions that marked Catholics and Protestants of pre-1949 China.

On the Protestant side, various denominations and major Protestant countries were committed to conquering and implanting their own religious traditions in the Middle Kingdom.

On the Catholic side, the situation is similar in many ways. The competition between Catholic nations, major religious congregations and orders created a highly fragmented pre-1949 Catholic sphere.

Despite attempts by the Holy See to standardise the ecclesiastical administration of the country, divisions between territories and spiritual traditions remained vivid until the arrival of the Communists.

This legacy explains why some contemporary Catholic groups refuse to belong to the official local dioceses, because they claim a different historical affiliation.

Chambon comments that the weight of history is also felt vis-a-vis the aftermath of the semi-colonialisation that China has endured. 

Various alliances between western Christians and gunboat diplomacy that marked the 19th and the early 20th centuries have, in the Chinese mind, linked Christianity to colonialism.

The Boxer Uprising between 1899 and 1901 reflects the burning problem of the last century. Thus, from the 1910s through to the 1920s, Catholic and Protestant circles improvised answers to this anti-western resentment.

On the Catholic side, the Church tried to promote the ordination of indigenous bishops to make the Church more Chinese, even though diocesan resources and power fell under the struggles of local clans and ethnic groups.

On the Protestant side, various Chinese preachers created new Churches free from foreign supervision in different regions of the country.

Chambon believes that it is also worth noting that present resentment against western semi-colonisation still explains the caution with which some Chinese Christians approach the current ecumenical movement.

The ecumenical movement, advocated by major international Churches, is sometimes perceived as nothing more than a new strategy of subjugation by foreigners. In addition, there are other elements that tear up the only coat of Christ in China.

The first element is the recent major socio-economic change. Indeed, the enormous growth since 1979 has led millions of Chinese out of their village to reach large cities. This demographic change impacts on Churches as well.

For example, the diffused discrimination that Cantonese people broadcast against newcomers, who do not speak Cantonese, is so deep that it is found even inside Christian communities.

Anyone who visits unofficial and official Catholics in Guangzhou will be surprised to note how the geographical origin largely explains the distinction between these two communities and their two clergies.

Chambon says that he believes that we should not ignore the fact that economic migration and latent xenophobia feed a real fragmentation among Chinese Christian communities.

Another dividing factor is the religio-cultural context of Chinese civilisation. This traditional background is characterised among other things by a deep respect toward ancient, sacred scriptures and a push for empowerment of local cults honouring a multitude of gods.

Therefore, he says that this context produces a constant emergence of new local sects that appropriate parts of the bible while simultaneously changing the Christian faith and claiming a Christian identity. In the long and ever-growing list of these sects, the most famous is the Eastern Lightning.

These religious groups recruit among Chinese Protestant networks by proselytising at the door of mainstream Churches. Thus, constant multiplication and spread of these pseudo-Christian sects blur the Chinese Christian landscape and prohibit ecumenical dialogue from any in-depth development.

A final factor is the sometimes ambiguous impact of the international opening of the country.

Although this post-1979 opening has globally favoured the ecumenical movement by allowing Chinese Churches to engage with international Christian networks and discover other traditions and practices, some foreign missionaries coming to China are opposed to ecumenism and actively influence Chinese Christians.

Chambon gives the example of the many Korean missionaries (mostly Protestants, but also Catholics), who, marked by their own national context, restrain Churches in northeast China from opening themselves to other Christian traditions and practices.

However, he insists that the Christian galaxy in China is much more than a fragmented and divergent reality.

Ecumenism is not condemned to disappear from China. All Protestants share the same Chinese vocabulary to name God, biblical background and notions of faith. However, Catholics and Protestants often do not.

Similarly, a certain number of liturgical hymns are found within different Christian traditions and communities. “In one city where I conduct research, the same person is employed by all local Christians to organise funerals,” Chambon notes.

This person is recognised and accepted by all Christians and declines to serve non-Christian families.

Another indirect inducement to ecumenism is that political pressure on Christian groups has created a communion of misfortune. Chinese Christians share a common history that binds them together and breathes a spirit of mutual respect.

Although these groups do not work together, they come together through religio-political structures that the government has put in place to manage them. In practice, pastors and Christian leaders meet regularly in joint training sessions organised by the Chinese administration.

“At the risk of being paradoxical, we must note that the Chinese Communist Party is not only a factor of Christian division, but also a factor of mutual knowledge and basic communion,” Chambon points out.

Thus, because of the history and political context, relations between Churches in China are quite cordial and friendly.

Finally, it is interesting to note that within the overall Chinese population the xinyesu, or believers in Jesus, are perceived as a totally distinctive group from the info, or believers in Buddha (a term that refers to all the gods).

It seems that the main dividing religious line in China, which traditionally lay between Confucians and religious people (Buddhists and Taoists), is moving toward a binary dichotomy between Christians and generalised Buddhists.

“In this context, Christian Churches are perceived by the majority of the Chinese population as a whole, as more or less homogeneous and clearly interrelated. This popular perception pushes Christians to develop on their own an even stronger family spirit,” he notes.

“In conclusion, we see that the ecumenical situation in China reflects strengths and weaknesses, intricacies and difficulties,” he concludes.

Although the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity hardly attracts any interest from Chinese Catholics or Protestants, Chinese Christians are aware of sharing the same spiritual filiation and of their duty to better honour Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, That they may be one so that the world may believe.


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