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Recognised by the State — if with conditions

29 June 2018

Christianity is thriving in China, but this raises questions about its relationship with the culture and the government, writes Chloë Starr


Protestants from the Nanjing Christian Church sing carols, Nanjing, Jiangsu province

Protestants from the Nanjing Christian Church sing carols, Nanjing, Jiangsu province

AT THE Beijing International Christian Fellowship, Pentecostal-style arm-waving is taking place. But it is not about responding to a song: it is the offering or, as Anglicans would call it, the collection. The arms are holding phones aloft to scan the huge barcode on the screen behind the choir and make that week’s donation. China may now be a cashless society, but it is not a godless one.

Despite a two-year campaign spreading out from Zhejiang province to remove distinctive red crosses from church roofs and efface Christian iconography from the landscape, Christianity in China is thriving. The government acknowledges the existence of about 25 million Christians in registered churches: a significant gain on the three million believers present when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.

Academic estimates suggest that there is a total of just over 70 million Christians, while the charity Open Doors gives a figure of 97.2 million. Roman Catholics make up about 12 million of this number (or six million of the government figure). The single biggest and fastest-growing group are unregistered, or house-church, Protestants.

When the Church began to regroup in the early 1980s, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the house-church congregations, evangelised by itinerant preachers, were largely rural and disproportionately old and female. Now, throngs of students and young elites worship in the New Urban House Churches. Their ministers are as likely to have been trained in the house churches’ own seminaries, or abroad, as they are to have been ordained through the state system.

While the Chinese government recognises two separate Christian denominations, Catholic and Protestant, and two authorised bodies to run these: the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TPSM) respectively, there are, effectively, four categories of Church, since both “official” Churches have unregistered counterparts, whose members see themselves as loyal directly to God or to Rome, and who are — sometimes fiercely — opposed to government involvement in their affairs.

This does not mean that members are antagonistic to each other, however, and some attend both types of church, while priests from official churches may enable shipments of Bibles to be sent to their local counterparts.

CHLOË STARRQR code to scan for offerings in Beijing International Christian Fellowship service, Beijing USE

China is officially “post-denominational”, after Western or “imperialist” Protestant denominations were merged in the 1950s, and all registered Protestant churches come under the Three-Self Principles Movement. The only Anglican diocese is, therefore, Hong Kong, which became a Province in 1998.

One of the last remaining Anglican bishops in the mainland was the leader of the TPSM, Ding Guangxun, or K. H. Ting, ordained priest in 1942, who died in 2012. Unregistered Protestant churches, or house churches, may be independent or affiliated with a variety of networks, and it is these churches that have benefited most from overseas support: financial aid, training for pastors and leaders, and a ready supply of Christian materials come from Evangelical churches and Chinese-American congregations in the United States, but also from Korean churches to the Korean-speaking region of north-east China.

Denominations are, in fact, gradually (and unofficially) returning to China. Some house churches are keen to label themselves Reformed or Calvinist, but there is often little to distinguish the sectors to an outsider: the liturgy of a Protestant house-church service may be similar to an approved service, and it can be difficult, on the Roman Catholic side, to tell whether a given bishop has been ordained with or without Vatican approval.

Large urban Protestant churches in the state sector typically have four or five services on a Sunday, with a thousand in each congregation, and offer Bible-study and prayer meetings midweek, while house churches vary from discreet gatherings to megachurches that rent city-centre office space.

CHLOË STARRThe Revd Wang Chunren, of Jianggao Church, Guangdong, next to a billboard explaining Sinicisation, with examples of his Christian art USE

IF CHURCH attendance is growing in both registered and unregistered churches, and the Chinese Church is sending out missionaries to neighbouring countries and beyond, Christianity in China has also been enriched by growth in the academic study of Christianity. Many individual scholars of Christianity are members of faith communities, but this sector as a whole operates outside the church sphere.

There are now dozens of MA programmes in Christian studies in state universities, and scores of academic theses are published each year, on topics ranging from biblical hermeneutics to canon law, and from Tyndale’s translation to Christian-Confucian dialogue. Speciality journals support this growth: Chinese Catholicism; Philosophy of Religion; Journal for the Study of Biblical Literature; Journal of Comparative Scripture, and many more. University centres for the study of Syriac (“Nestorian”) Christianity in China exist alongside those specialising in Ming dynasty Roman Catholicism or Judaic studies.

The non-church sector, and academic studies of Christianity, have proved significant for a number of reasons. While “theology” is not an academic discipline in China, and is restricted to seminaries (whose degrees normally cannot be transferred into the state system for graduate study), the study of religion more broadly has benefited from the Party-State’s gradual abandonment of the notion that religion will naturally wither in an advanced socialist society.

The more positive attitude to Christianity seen under Wen Jiabao (Premier from 2003 to 2013), who praised the contribution of Christian workers to society, has been tempered under the current President, Xi Jinping, whose clampdown on “foreign” religions, as well as NGOs, has been widely reported in the Western press.

But, over the past ten or 20 years, interest in Christianity from public intellectuals and scholars has given credibility to religion, enabling Christian ethics to permeate society more widely. It has provided a counter-methodology to Marxism in the humanities, and an alternative narrative to the “foreign religion” taint of Christianity.

Scholars trace Christianity’s history in China back to the seventh century, and have contributed to a revisionist historiography that challenges the “imperialist invaders” version of 19th-century mission history, pointing also to the contributions that Western Christians made to society, in their anti-footbinding campaigns and school- and hospital-building programmes. Given that many local church bodies throughout China are trying to reclaim former church and mission properties confiscated in the 1950s, or during the Cultural Revolution, a generally more benign view of Christianity assists negotiations with officials.

ALAMYThe Sanjian Church, Wenzhou, in China’s east-coast province of Zhejiang, is forcefully demolished on 29 April 2014; (right) before the completion of its construction  

DESPITE all these gains, and the remarkable stories of healing, conversion, and faith during the spectacular growth of the past 40 years (as depicted, for example, in Paul Hattaway’s China Chronicles series), the Church is facing serious challenges, besides addressing the consumerism, deepening inequality, corruption, and changing sexual mores accompanying rapid urbanisation and economic growth.

Growth in the Roman Catholic Church is flatlining as rural communities shed members to the cities. Churches of all types confront personnel shortages and training issues: there is a dearth of theological educators. Many pastors work seven-day weeks, while house churches face additional uncertainties from the newly amended Regulations on Religious Affairs (PRC).

These regulations, which came into force in February 2018, after an extended period of “consultation”, limit religious meetings to authorised venues and ministers to those officially sanctioned and trained, and require online materials and monetary donations to be pre-approved — although they also seem to make direct registration with local Religious Affairs Bureaux possible, bypassing the need to align with the state church organisation, a sticking point for many house-church leaders.

As for much of the past four or five hundred years, the problem for the Church lies in how regulations are locally interpreted. China is a vast country. Guangdong is 4000 kilometres from Kashgar: the distance from London to Baghdad. Governing the territory is a considerable feat, and it is unsurprising that misapplication of regulations is a constant headache, for individuals as well as state authorities.

The harassment of Christians — recorded, for example, in recent reports that children have been barred from (state) churches in four separate provinces — has often related to over-zealous local interpretation of rules. Churches elsewhere continue a full programme of Sunday school with no interference, although they are not allowed to baptise anyone under the age of 18.

The amended Regulations on Religious Affairs have been worrying both house-church leaders and foreign observers, however, especially given that churches and government advisers were expecting a “normalisation” of house churches in late 2016 (with a White Paper drafted to that effect). There is clear potential implicit in the new regulations to shut down all religious activity beyond tightly regulated bounds.

The International Church in Beijing which I began with is an anomaly, in that a passport or overseas ID is required for anyone to enter the building, whether for a Mandarin- or Korean-language service, or an African church service held there­ — but it is only an anomaly for Christians. Tibetan Buddhists in Lhasa must show their government-issued identity cards to enter the Jokhang Temple, the holiest site of Tibetan Buddhism, and the whole temple square is under rooftop surveillance.

The situation is reportedly much worse for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, in north-west China, where the “re-education” of Muslims whom the government accuses of fomenting terrorism or separatism has increased over the past 18 months. Foreign journalists reporting on the series of camps built to counter the rising tide of conservative Islam in Xinjiang have suggested that Uyghurs and Kazaks have been detained for re-education merely for travelling abroad, donning a full veil, or attending Friday prayers.

The persecution of Christians is, for the most part, more subtle, and primarily administrative. Christian groups may be denied permits to construct a church building because of new zoning regulations; individuals may be discriminated against for promotion where Party membership is required for certain jobs, but there have not been mass arrests, or surveillance of the type seen in Xinjiang or Tibet.

Some, like Dr Ying Fuk-Tsang, the director of the Divinity School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, have encouraged church leaders to study relevant laws and know their rights as they negotiate with officials. Several house-church pastors, like the former law professor Pastor Wang Yi, of the Early Rain Reformed Church, in Chengdu, have been active in challenging the state’s interpretation of its own laws, and in trying to work with other groups to promote civil society.

Pastor Wang believes that the new regulations fundamentally infringe constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms; he also believes strongly in the separation of Church and State, and is unwilling to accept any government management of churches or control over doctrine.

Having long advocated that religious affairs come under the judiciary, not the Party, he sees the recent transfer of oversight of religion from the State Administration of Religious Affairs to an administrative line under Party control as a backward step. While the earlier generation of house-church believers were wedded to the separation of Church and State, and tended to isolate themselves from society, Pastor Wang and the other elders at his church support outreach and social involvement. Wang was recently arrested — and subsequently released — for organising a ten-years-on memorial service for victims of the Sichuan earthquake, a disaster for which many church members provided aid (News, 23 May 2008).

Other house churches, such as Shouwang Church, in Beijing, have tried in the past to register with the government, but have been refused and evicted from their leased premises. Shouwang was, at one point in the early 2010s, worshipping outdoors in parks. Its members have been harassed and stopped from gathering, and leaders are regularly detained at home on Sundays to prevent their preaching. Their theology of protest and resistance has led to the deconstruction of the Church as commonly understood.

Sun Yi, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Renmin University and a church member, has argued in the past that nominal registration for convenience under the Three-Self is not an option for true believers, given that the Three-Self is a quasi-government institution born of a political movement, in violation of the principle of separation of Church and State, which cannot represent the majority of believers, and is not in line theologically with Evangelical beliefs. It remains to be seen whether Churches such as Shouwang will be permitted to register under the new system, and whether they will be able to accept in good conscience a form of registration with the State.

CHLOË STARRCatholic pilgrims climb towards Sheshan Basilica during the annual May pilgrimages to Our Lady of Sheshan

AS THESE examples suggest, the relation between Church and State has pitted Chinese Christians not just against the State, but against each other. Ongoing tensions between church groups over how to respond to the demands of an atheist state date back to the 1940s and 1950s, but have come into sharp focus recently with the State’s encouragement to “Sinicise” Christianity. All religions are expected to Sinicise, or “make themselves Chinese”, including the quintessentially Chinese Taoism, which has led some to suggest that the aim is not a religious one of inculturation, but rather political: “listening to the Party and making religious beliefs and practices, dogmas and customs, conform to socialism with Chinese characteristics”, as one China-based scholar put it to me recently.

In the early 20th century, debates in the Chinese Protestant Church centred on the part played by foreigners and missionaries in the Church, and the need for an inculturated Chinese Church, free from the tarnish of imperialism. Mainstream Churches implemented this by gradually ceding leadership to Chinese priests, and putting in place measures to become self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating, while the new independent Chinese Churches were “three-self” by default.

By the 1950s, when the young Communist government set about reforming church structures, a definitive split came about as liberals sought to continue purging the Church of “imperialist” influence. An influential minority of Chinese Protestants viewed the establishment of the PRC as liberation, and its social emancipation as akin to salvation; they looked to Christ’s self-sacrifice as a model for how Christians should relate to their nation.

These churchgoers were optimistic that the fledgling government could overcome the errors of the Nationalist administration, strengthen and unify China, and bring about its promised land reform and poverty alleviation — and they trusted the promises made that religious practice would be permitted to continue. Other leaders, personified by Wang Mingdao, a Protestant church leader and founder of the Christian Tabernacle, who spent 25 years in prison for his theological views, denounced all forms of compromise or accommodation, and held that holiness demanded obeying God over human decree.

The debates around Sinicisation are reminiscent of the 1950s, in that they are polarising, and dependent on prior understandings of the authority of the Bible and the nature of Church-State relations. For the Revd Geng, in charge of the Qingpu district of Shanghai and its dozen TPSM churches, Sinicisation is the current term for what the Church has always done: presenting the gospel within Chinese language and Chinese culture.

PUBLIC DOMAINNestorian priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a Nestorian church in China, Tang dynasty  

In one of his churches undergoing refurbishment, it meant inviting a well-regarded calligrapher to produce two great vertical scrolls of scripture to hang on each side of the sanctuary. The Church’s most pressing need now, Geng believes, is to reform itself: to move away from its emphasis on personal piety and start serving society. The Church needs to work with society and its structures to do this. Pastors such as Wang Yi, with their unrealistic calls for democracy and the future beyond the Party, were, he argued, damaging perceptions of the Church.

Another pastor-theologian teaching at the Three-Self seminary in Guangdong agreed that the political understanding of Sinicisation, with its particular definition of Chinese culture and its emphasis on shared values, might be different from that of church personnel, but the Church would continue to implement its own vision. As Dr Benoît Vermander, Professor of Religious Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, notes, there is a double trap here: the Church should not neglect creative and innovative inculturation simply because the order comes from the government.

Some I spoke to recently were even more enthusiastic. For the Revd Wang, of Jianggao Church, Guangzhou province, Sinicisation meant using his Chinese watercolour paintings and calligraphic Bible art to renew and develop a Christian culture in China; to transmit Jesus’s love by assimilating the Bible into Chinese art.

For some others in the house churches, meanwhile, anyone advocating Sinicisation is denying Christ, while Sinicisation means the “twisting of the gospel by culture”. When Pastor Wang Yi’s church published online in 2015 a document, “Reaffirming our Stance on the House Churches: 95 theses”, eight of those theses addressed the issue of Sinicisation.

In the understanding of this Reformed Church, Sinicisation implied redemption through Chinese culture, outside of Christ, adapting the doctrines of the Church to Chinese cultural traditions, or a rejection of subsitutionary atonement for “justification by love”. In the place of Sinicisation, they, like others in the house church, called instead for “the evangelisation of China; the kingdomisation of the Church, and the Christianisation of Chinese culture”.

The chasm between these different understandings of Sinicisation among Protestant believers underscores the depth of mistrust on either side — the 95 theses called the Three-Self a movement of the Anti-Christ, and its members apostates — and the ongoing need for mutual understanding and reconciliation.

CHLOË STARRWall hangings in a church office, Qingpu district, Shanghai. The first reads “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another,” while the lower scroll encourages believers to be loving and peaceable towards one another “as we persevere in the direction of Sinicisation, along the path of loving our country and loving the Church”

The Roman Catholic Church, meanwhile, embroiled in separate negotiations between the Vatican and the Chinese state (with an expected accord yet again postponed), has been more passive in its reaction to demands to Sinicise. A strategy of passive resistance delayed the imposition of a Chinese Catholic Church in the 1950s, and now appears to be gaining the Church space to think while it deals with its own more pressing divisions, as Pope Francis attempts to negotiate unity between the “underground” Church (which in many places is quite open, and in regular contact with local authorities) and the government-sanctioned wing.

While Pope Francis has been taking the long view in seeking reconciliation even at a cost to the faithful who have not supported the Catholic Patriotic Association, debate on his actions has been as vituperative in recent months as arguments among Protestants.

In a strange twist, at the same time as religions are being encouraged to Sinicise, the Communist Party has seemingly been approximating itself more and more to a religion. Xi Jinping has co-opted the term “faith”, or “belief”, in his speeches; documents speak of “the soul of the Party”; and China itself is held up as an object of devotion. Where “faith” was once a negative term used primarily of religious belief, banners across motorway bridges and street junctions now proclaim: “If the people have faith, the state will be strong.”

Like the meaning of Sinicisation, the content and object of that faith appear ambiguous, but reside in the Party-State and its core socialist values. The deification of Mao at the height of Communist propaganda was blatant, but deifying the Party-State as a civil religion is perhaps yet more ambitious still, and a reminder to the Church of the subtle power of idolatry. An atheist state may fashion itself in the guise of religion, but falters at the first commandment.

Dr Chloë Starr is Associate Professor of Asian Christianity and Theology at Yale Divinity School. Her latest book is Chinese Theology: Text and context, published by Yale University Press at £40 (CT Bookshop £36).

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