Episcopal Church, China to explore ways to partner in seminary education

February 15, 2011

One of the leaders of the post-denominational Protestant churches in China recently met with the presiding bishop and others in the Episcopal Church to explore the possibility of future seminary education partnerships and exchanges, and to ask for support for an upcoming Bible exhibition.

"We came here to renew friendship with Episcopal Church and explore possibilities where we can cooperate in the future," said Elder Fu Xianwei, chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, following a Feb. 9 meeting with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

"We talked about theological education and also we're going to have a Bible ministry exhibition. The hope is that it can be supported by the presiding bishop and the Episcopal Church," he added, as translated from Mandarin Chinese by the Rev. Lin Manhong, interim dean of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, the national seminary of the China Christian Council.

"Mutual learning between seminaries of the Episcopal Church and those in China would be immensely helpful as we seek to root the gospel in differing contexts," said Jefferts Schori in an e-mail following the visit. "We have a long relationship, with significant history given the work of Roland Allen in China in the 1890s and early 1900s. The work of developing contextual theologies would also be greatly assisted by dialogue and exchange."

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement, or TSPM, is the patriotic Christian organization in China; along with the Chinese Christian Council (CCC), it forms the official, government-sanctioned Protestant church in China. ("Three-self" stands for, self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.)

An English missionary, Allen fled China during the Boxer Rebellion, the proto-nationalist movement in opposition to Western imperialism and Christianity that took place in China from 1898-1901. In the 1950s, when Chinese Communists moved to suppress religion and foreign missionaries left China at a time when there were about 700,000 Christians.

"China was the largest of the mission fields for the western churches until the time of the revolution. And at that time ties were severed with the western church in favor of the three-self movement," said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, adding that TSPM and CCC are partners with the NCC and the World Council of Churches.

Kinnamon hosted a luncheon Feb.7 for the delegation, which in addition to Fu and Lin, included the Rev. Zhang Keyun, president of Jiangsu Provincial Christian Council; Xiao Hong, deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Department of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), a Chinese government agency; and Xu Wenzhen, secretary of SARA's Foreign Affairs Department. The group was accompanied by the Rev. Peter Koon, general secretary of the Anglican Province of Hong Kong.

In the 1950s, TSPM began to embrace Christianity as an indigenous religion and all Protestant worship became non-denominational. The CCC was formed in 1980.

Since 1979, when during a meeting at the White House President Jimmy Carter pressed then Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping on religious freedom, Christianity began its nondenominational resurgence in China, said Peter Ng, the Episcopal Church's officer for Asia and the Pacific.

This is the first time the Chinese Protestant Christian leadership has publically asked for educational exchanges, said Ng.

"They don't want outside assistance; he [Fu] is talking about exchange. That means that they have opened the door for denominations to partner with the church," said Ng.

The Chinese Christian population is estimated between 18 to 20 million people, officially, not counting Christians worshipping unofficially in house churches.

Over the years, explained Kwok Pui-lan, professor of Christian theology and spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seminaries have sent younger faculty members to the United States and Canada for advanced training.

"Now they want to develop a more advanced program inside China because the need is so great," she said, noting the rapid increase in enrollment. "They want to raise up pastors and faculty with more advanced knowledge."

EDS plans to run a study seminar and visit churches and seminaries in China in 2012, added Kwok.

There are now 21 Protestant seminaries in China, Ng said. During the visit to the Church Center, the delegation also met with the Rev. Canon Don Thompson, general secretary of the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion.

When asked what educational exchange looks like in post-denominational China, Fu responded: "We believe that almost every faculty member has his or her own denominational background, theological perspective based on certain denominational traditions. So those professors from Episcopal or Methodist or other churches, carry their own traditions and bring more perspectives to our students that help to broaden and enrich their theological horizons in their theological thinking so we will help our students to do theological reflection."

TSPM and CCC are planning a Bible exhibition in the United States similar to the one that took place in 2006. In New York, the exhibit was hosted by the Diocese of New York and held at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

Fu also invited Jefferts Schori to the rededication of Holy Trinity Church, a former Anglican cathedral in Shanghai, to be held sometime in June.

Holy Trinity was completed in 1869, with help from the Episcopal Church. The government took over the building during the Cultural Revolution and at one time was used as a state-run movie theater.

The former cathedral was returned to CCC and TSPM, which began restoring it to its original design, including putting every pew back in place, Ng said.

"When I visited China in 2007, reconstruction had just begun. The floor had been removed, most walls had been dismantled and scaffolding was everywhere," Jefferts Schori said. "I understand that it is nearly ready to reopen as a worship center, and hope that the Episcopal Church can be represented at its rededication. While Christianity may have gone underground for a season in China, it has emerged as a great crop of blooming branches, well connected to the true vine of Jesus. We give thanks for the power of the Spirit in the Chinese context, the presiding bishop said."

The delegation also met with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, Church World Service, Diocese of New York Bishop Mark S. Sisk and visited New York Theological Seminary. The delegation came to the United States by invitation of the Rev. Billy Graham, whom they visited in Washington, D.C.