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Angela Tilby: China and its conflicting Christianities

10 January 2020


A Christmas service takes place at the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Intercession in Harbin, China, last month

A Christmas service takes place at the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Intercession in Harbin, China, last month

A STRONG case was made last year by Tom Holland in his book Dominion, to the effect that Christianity remains at the core of Western civilisation (Features, 27 September; Books, 13 September).

Christian belief in the power of the cross, with its implicit recognition of the unseen power of the powerless, has given a critical dynamic to Western societies. This helps to explain the continuing importance of compassion, justice, freedom, and tolerance, even in secular times.

Holland’s argument raises the question whether there are, or could be, any genuinely non-Western models of what Christian faith might look like.

An obvious example has emerged in modern China. Christianity came to China as early as the seventh century. Much later, Roman Catholic and Protestant missionary efforts led to persecution, as much for Christianity’s disruptive effects on the social order as for the fact that it was foreign.

Since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, China has been officially atheistic, but religious freedoms were extended in the late 1970s, and, since then, there has been a significant increase in numbers professing the Christian faith. Estimates vary between 40 to 54 million Christians.

Many — but far from all — Chinese Christians are enrolled as members into the official state-sanctioned Churches: the Three-Self Protestant Church and the Patriotic Catholic Church. The Three-Self movement (self-government, self-support, and self-propagation) is designed to ensure the separation of the Chinese Church from Western finance, values, and influence. The Patriotic Catholic Church is not controlled by the Vatican, although relations with Rome have improved in recent years.

Beyond this are a range of unofficial and underground communities that are sporadically persecuted. Because of the split between the “patriotic and the other Churches, Christians in China represent the divides of society itself.

The conflict of Christianities in China is nothing new. As Holland suggests, Christianity is a force for reform in the world, but it also has an instinct for stability and building long-lasting institutions. The Church in China is riding the conflict between peace and progress — the paradox here being that, from the Chinese state’s point of view, democracy is not progress, but decadence.

If Christianity is indeed dying in the West, it may be rising again in China, with aspects of its inherent potential still to be untapped. This is important, as China might, in the next decades, become the world’s largest economy — and, possibly as some predict, the global superpower for the foreseeable future.

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