CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Connecting the struggle of ecumenism with people’s struggle for livelihood

HONG KONG (SE): During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which concluded on January 25, the diocese of Hong Kong participated in three main functions to celebrate the ecumenical movement among various Christian denominations in the city.

A prayer service was held in English at the Union Church in Kowloon followed by one in Cantonese at Christ the King Chapel in Causeway Bay and then a breakfast for the leaders of the various denominations.

But while much enthusiasm was shown by those who took part in the ceremonies, the question remains as to how to bring the ecumenical movement to bear on the everyday lives of Christians in the city and relate it to their struggle for livelihood and freedom in the political sphere.

Reverend Phyllis Wong, the host of the English prayer service, described the small gathering in the church of which she is pastor as a symbol of a movement among Christians, and Bishop Ben Chang Chun-wa, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, described it as not so much an action, but a commitment to focus on obedience to God’s commands under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

However, outside the heady atmosphere of the strongly committed, the ecumenical movement faces other challenges. A survey taken last year by the Centre for Catholic Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong among 5,100 Christians found that at least 20 per cent of them had never heard of the ecumenical movement.

A small, but significant minority said that they did not believe in it and approximately the same number said they had heard of it but did not really know what it is.

However, a solid two-thirds spoke favourably of better relations among Christian Churches, but the study found that young people had relatively less knowledge of or interest in the ecumenical movement than older generations.

An article posted on the UCAN website on January 31 quotes a Protestant educationalist, Cynthia Yuen, as questioning the relevance to young Christians of the ecumenical gatherings of the committed.

She said that she believes that a type of detachment of young people from their Church leaders is a natural enough phenomenon, but if the ecumenical movement is to gain traction it is essential that more be done to bridge the gap.

She quoted 20-something-year-old Lau Yiu-chung as saying that he knew the prayer services were on, but did not feel interested enough to go and really his only experience of other Churches was a visit to a Protestant community when he was a member of the Catholic Society at university.

Yuen worries that the ecumenical activities and input on their importance is something that seems to be disconnected with young Christians, as the struggle that the Church is involved in is not necessarily the one within which younger Christians are immersed.

She believes that this leads to a generational disconnect, which leaves the younger generation looking at a Church that can be mostly irrelevant to the struggle of their lives.

However, among Christians that see the ecumenical movement as important, there is a strong belief that Churches must give a more combined witness in society to be effective and should be seen as complementing each other rather than being in competition.

However, Yuen also sees the Church as being stuck between a rock and a hard place, as the particular situation of China makes it difficult for them to address matters of politics, so to the young, their statements seem big and empty, even when they try to talk about matters of livelihood.

But there are exceptions. Wan Hoi-wing, from the Hong Kong Christian Council, pointed to the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church and the Protestant Christian Institute as being involved in a relatable mission.

Wan pointed out that around half of the organisers of the 2014 Umbrella Movement were Christian and, although they did not know much about each other’s backgrounds before they began, they learned a lot as they began praying together and sharing.

The temporary prayer centres set up in the streets at the time also gave some experience of shared ecumenical and interfaith prayer to the young people who participated.

However, just because gatherings of denominational leaders may not have an across the board appeal, it does not mean that they should not go ahead or that they are meaningless.

At another level there are also lots of private initiatives going on. Ho Kwai-yin, from Tai Po, told the Kung Kao Po that he attended the prayer service at Christ the King with a friend from the Assemblies of God.

He explained that doing things like that together has given him insight into the tradition of others and that he has been enriched by joining activities at his friend’s Church as well.

Bishop Chang said at Christ the King that he believes that the ecumenical call for repentance and forgiveness is important and he reminded people of how long Christians have been denied forgiveness and the feeling of release from disunity.

However, while the articulation of the sentiment may seem foreign to the streets, the call of the ecumenical movement has much in common with the political manoeuvring of the people holding banners at rallies, as the two struggles for mutual understanding and acceptance, as well as overcoming the barriers of self-interest and prejudice that hold people apart have a lot in common.

However, the ecumenical movement in Hong Kong has shown that it is capable of doing difficult things, as was demonstrated by a trial version of a joint Nicene Creed that was prayed by Christians from various denominations together at Christ the King, reflecting that the once seemingly impossible can indeed be achieved with an open mind and will to succeed.

But the struggle of Christian Churches, which have much in common, to come together reflects the challenges of the political sphere where often there is much less convergence, but the dynamics of both have a lot to offer each other.

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