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Hong Kong’s Last English Bishop: The life and times of John Gilbert Hindley Baker by Philip L. Wickeri

by
13 January 2023

This is an illuminating life of Gilbert Baker, says William Jacob

HONG KONG has become important for British and Anglican readers because of the increasing complexity of relations with China and an increasing Chinese presence in Britain, both in terms of migrants, especially in the professions, and of students studying at universities, who are the majority group of overseas students. Also, the Province of Hong Kong is a strong presence in the Anglican Communion, especially in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and in London, with a longstanding Chinese congregation and chaplain at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

This biography of Gilbert Baker, the last English Bishop of Hong Kong before the election of a Chinese priest as Bishop, and subsequently Archbishop, is valuable for understanding the history of Christianity and Anglicanism in China from the 1930s, when Baker, responding to an invitation from the newly appointed bishop, R. O. Hall, who had no experience of China, began work in China.

It illustrates the immersion of European and American missionary activity in Chinese society in the 1930s and the courage of Chinese and Western Christians during the Japanese occupation and after, with the triumph of Mao Zedong in 1948. Bishop Baker proved a key link with surviving Christian leaders, some of whom had been protected by Zhou Enlai, the longstanding Communist Foreign and Prime Minister, and the Hong Kong churches when, in 1976, Deng Xiaoping began to build relations with the West. Bishop Baker was the first church leader to visit the mainland, which he had known well, and to renew contact with Christian leaders; for Christianity had flourished under oppression.

Baker was the right man in the right place at the right time. Geoffrey Fisher, then Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed Baker, after he left China, to a key post in the Archbishop’s great project to steer the Anglican Communion into a post-colonial world. When Baker was unexpectedly elected in 1961 to succeed Hall, against Hall’s wishes, with the votes of the Chinese clergy and laity, Baker set about building a Chinese rather than a colonial future for Chinese Anglicanism.

Taking advantage of government funding, he promoted the Church’s mission through providing schools and colleges, health, and, especially, social care. He challenged the exploitation of workers, sought to improve industrial relations, built good relations with the emerging entrepreneurial class, and achieved a robust fund-raising system for the diocese.

He is particularly remembered across the Anglican Communion for regularising the ordination of women as priests, after his predecessor’s irregular initiative in the wartime emergency of ordaining Florence Li-Tim-Oi. With the support of the Chinese clergy and laity, and the reluctant compliance of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Archbishop of Canterbury, he ordained Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett as priests in 1979. This is an illuminating account of how a colonial Church was set on course to grow and flourish in a post-colonial context.

 
The Ven. Dr William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross, in London.

 

Hong Kong’s Last English Bishop: The life and times of John Gilbert Hindley Baker
Philip L. Wickeri
Hong Kong University Press £51
(978-988-8528-71-4)
Church Times Bookshop £45.90

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