The Practical Prophet: Bishop Ronald O. Hall and his legacies
Moira W. Chan-Yeung
Hong Kong University Press £38
AT THE beginning of the 21st century, China is now well on the way to becoming the world’s most populous Christian nation. Christianity has moved from being a carefully monitored — and even, during Mao’s regime, persecuted — movement to becoming a faith comprising beliefs and forms of behaviour that the state now actively wishes to encourage among its citizens. It would seem that socialism or capitalism are not enough to provide cohesion and meaning that might provide values to sustain a nation of such diversity. So faith has a future in China after all, it seems.
Moira Chan-Yeung’s appraisal of Bishop R. O. Hall is a welcome and timely contribution to the growing body of literature on Chinese Christianity. This book is the third volume in the prestigious Historical Studies of Anglican Christianity in China, under the skilful editorship of Philip Wickeri. Co-published with Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui, these volumes are throwing fresh light on the intensive and extensive history of Anglicanism in China in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hall was the longest-serving and, arguably, the most influential Anglican bishop serving overseas during the 20th century. After distinguished service in the First World War, including the award of a Military Cross, Hall trained for ordination at Cuddesdon. After ministry in Newcastle, and also with the Student Christian Movement, he became Bishop of the diocese of Victoria and Hong Kong in 1932.
Hall managed to evade capture during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong during the Second World War, and he ordained Florence Li Tim-Oi to help minister to the needs of those refugees who had fled Hong Kong and had escaped to neutral Macau. She was the first woman to be ordained in the Anglican Communion — the legacy for which Hall is most often remembered.
Yet, as Chan-Yeung’s appraisal shows, Hall’s ministry was a more systematic and extensive exercise in social engagement, and was marked with a burning compassion for the less privileged. Throughout his ministry, he emphasised the needs of ordinary people, especially victims of social or political upheaval.
Hall drew his inspiration from the social theology of F. D. Maurice, which resulted in significant contributions to the development of social welfare, low-cost housing, and education. He established an orphanage in Tai Po, which later became the St Christopher’s Home. Under Hall’s leadership, the Anglican Church became a significant partner with the Hong Kong government in the provision of social services. (Indeed, this partnership in ministry has continued to flourish and expand under the current Archbishop, Paul Kwong.)
One of the great strengths of Chan-Yeung’s book is that it rehabilitates a vision — one of intensive and extensive public impact, but profoundly rooted in a lively social theology. Hall’s ministry did not centre on a simplistic concern for converting handfuls of Chinese citizens — a task that seemed to preoccupy other missionaries active in the field. Hall saw mission as something much deeper: as the leaven that changed the very nature of the society that it worked in rather than just rescue a few souls from it.
Chan-Yeung’s book brings us new and refreshing insights into Hall’s life and ministry, and her book deserves to be widely read and studied. The legacies that Hall has bequeathed Chinese Christianity — centres for education, development, and welfare — now explain, in part, why the faith has such rich potential in China.
As Chan-Yeung shows, Hall saw the world as the place where the Kingdom of God could be built. So Hall’s ministry set about transforming the social worlds that people inhabited. Hall understood that it was this that would change people’s lives: enriching the soil prepared the ground for the seed of the gospel; and in this Hall was a typical — if all-too-rare — practical prophet.
The Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Professor of Theological Education at King’s College, London.