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Conflicting conversations in the Church in China

HONG KONG (SE): “If you had asked me one year ago about the chances of a deal (between the Vatican and Beijing), I would have said remote to nil,” Ian Johnson, the author of Wild Grass, a reflection on civil society and grassroots protest in China, said in a blog posted on SupChina on January 6.

He then notes that in the second half of last year he began to see signs of warming ties, but these have mostly been dismantled since the end of November with the presence of an illicitly ordained bishop at two ordinations of bishops and the reassertion of an independent Church at the Ninth Congress of Catholic Representatives at the end of December.

He quotes Bishop Pei Ronggui, who is recognised by the Vatican, as setting up a showdown when he said at Christmas, “There is no way there can be an independent Church, because that is the opposite of the principles of the Catholic Church.”

Johnson says in his blog that he is not surprised that problems in the relationship have emerged, but what he is surprised about is that the Vatican has pushed so hard in the two-way talks.

He believes that Beijing does not need the deal at this stage and can walk away from it anytime, something which he believes is becoming apparent in the understanding of Pope Francis.

Johnson adds that he believes that the Vatican is in a tricky situation, as if any deal was to be made it would almost certainly result in great pressure being put on the unofficial Church communities to join the official community.

Nevertheless, in a book about to be released, The Souls of China: The return of religion after Mao, he says that religion has gained a strong foothold in civil society in China, partly, he believes, because many people are dissatisfied with its radically secularised society and are searching for new ways of living.

He points to renewed interest in traditional religions like Taoism, Buddhism and folk religions, adding that Christianity and New Age ideas have also gained traction.

In a comment posted on China Source Blog on January 4, Bret Fulton backs this up, saying that there are two different conversations going on concurrently in China at present.

One he describes as highly optimistic and filled with vision.

“These believers dream together about their country’s future. They talk of the Church’s central role in being a blessing as it impacts on the culture at home. And they make plans for how they will join with the global Christian community in fulfilling the Great Commission,” Fulton notes.

He says that they are equipping people to play their role as the salt and light of society, and are studying how to equip themselves with the necessary education to ensure their leaders can articulately address the dynamics of modern society.

He notes that this enthusiasm is mostly coming from first generation Christians in an urban setting.

“They speak urgently of raising the next generation by providing alternatives to China’s state-run education system,” Fulton notes.

They see problematic areas as being family and marriage breakdown, which puts the Church on the threshold of unprecedented possibilities.

However, he points out that the other conversation is at least tinged with much apprehension in the face of the stepped-up government aggression towards religion in general and Christianity in particular.

“As 2016 played out, there was increasing evidence of what may lie ahead. Yet the government’s moves were in many ways inconclusive, leaving considerable unfinished business to be sorted out in 2017,” Fulton says.

However, he notes that how new legislation on non-government organisations will affect the relationship between Churches in China and the outside world is still an unknown.

Although he acknowledges that the exact impact of the new legislation is yet to be seen, it does leave people apprehensive.

He points to the draft of the new regulations on religion, the final version of which is due to be released in the near future, saying that House Churches and unregistered segments in mainstream Churches could find themselves under renewed pressure.

However, Fulton believes that the draft raises more questions than it answers, but the fundamental question that he believes Churches need to ask themselves is how they should relate to the government.

“The Church in China is at the threshold of many new possibilities, some very promising, others disturbing. Holding these two conversations in tension is a daily fact of life for Christians in China as we enter the New Year,” Fulton concludes.

But while Fulton seems to see some room for the Vatican to wiggle in its dialogue with Beijing, Johnson seems more inclined to describe it as being on ice.

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