Chinese Theological Review 13

A Chinese Perspective on the Ecumenical Movement

Gao Ying

The year 1997 witnessed the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty after its seizure and retention by Britain for 155 years following its defeat of China in the Opium War. This inevitably pushes one to review the sad pages of modern Chinese history, a history whose imprint is still deeply felt by the Chinese people. The subsequent repeated military onslaughts and partition of China by Western powers and the Japanese from 1860 to 1900 and continuing through the first four decades of the 20th century with Japanese and Russo-Japanese incursions, culminated in the Japanese occupation of northeastern China from 1931 and its full-scale invasion of the whole country in 1937. These events were paralleled by internal protest movements and violent unrest: the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), the Boxer Rebellion (1899), the overthrow of the Qing dynasty (1911) and various other political movements as well as various counter-measures aimed against them. Finally the Civil War (1945-49) ended with the defeat of the KMT by the Chinese Communist Party and the founding of the People's Republic of China. Students of history will find every page of modern Chinese history drenched with blood, tears and the untold misery of the people. It is in this soil that the Christian Church took root.

It has been most unfortunate that the history of Protestant Christian missions in China has been entangled with Western colonialism. The unequal treaties, which led to the seizure of Chinese territory and the disregard of her sovereign rights, were the same treaties which granted extra-territorial privileges to Western missionaries. From 1807 to 1950, numerous denominational mission boards in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand sent thousands of missionaries to evangelize China. In their evangelistic zeal, the early missionaries tried to set up denominational churches affiliated with their respective "mother churches" across the whole of China. Every Western Protestant denomination was busily engaged in the China mission field against the backdrop of that nation's five-thousand-year-old culture.

Christians in China have never forgotten the devotion of those missionaries who came bringing a genuine Gospel message to China. We offer thankfulness to God for them. These missionaries' lifelong labors sowed the seeds of the Christian faith among the Chinese people and many even laid down their lives in China. However, in the course of time, not only the hundreds of millions of Confucian, Buddhist, Daoist (Taoist) and Muslim Chinese found themselves bewildered by the array of denominational manifestations of Christian faith in their country. Even Chinese Christians themselves were perplexed to discover the rivalries existing among the denominational mission boards, each claiming her own denomination as the true representative of the Gospel of our one and undivided Lord Jesus Christ. In spite of this perplexity the Protestant Church in China found itself from the very beginning divided into denominational churches, which tended to be offshoots of their "mother churches" transplanted to a foreign land. They were as mutually exclusive of each other as they were of those Christians following the Roman Catholic tradition. To the average Chinese, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have been and still are considered two separate religions. Regrettably, even the name of the Christian God was rendered differently in Chinese by early Catholic and Protestant missionaries, such that their converts could not and still cannot share the Holy Bible together.

By the end of the 19th century, following the spread of Christianity in China and in the face of political and social changes, the Protestant Church in China found itself seriously challenged in its efforts to reach the people.

Although the various mission boards gave a lot of attention to the setting up of new hospitals, schools, orphanages and so on, witnessing to the love of Christ and bringing new converts into the church, the dependence of the Chinese Church on mission boards financially and institutionally, as well as its identification with Western culture, caused it to be alienated from the people. While patriotic national movements were on the upsurge, Protestants, consciously or unconsciously, found themselves siding with Western countries and lost the sympathy of their fellow countrymen because of this. There was even a popular saying: "One more Christian means one less Chinese."

The divisiveness of Protestantism greatly weakened its witness to the people. The church found it difficult to justify the different denominational stands. Some national leaders even raised the question: "Can Christianity, which has caused and supported so many wars in Western history, which is at present minutely divided in its own household, be a factor of help to China at all in her present life and death struggle for national unity?" (1) Naturally, this greatly hindered the spread of the Gospel. (In 1948, that is, 140 years after the introduction of Protestant Christianity into China, the National Christian Council (NCC) reported the Protestant population in China as 700,000-less than 0.2% of the national population.(2))

Under such circumstances, thinking Christians in China began to ask: Is the body of Christ divided? Denominations grew up in Europe and North America as the outcome of historical circumstances, but did they have any meaning for China? If Christians cannot love one another, how can we preach the Gospel of Love? Further, how can a divided Church be the conscience of society, fulfill her prophetic mission and serve the whole of humankind? In their search for a way out, Chinese Christians were led to return to the Bible. The prayer Jesus offered before going to the cross "That they all may be one," became an immense moving force for Chinese church leaders. They began to see that the Body of Christ is one. Denominationalism, though it has played its role in the history of the Western churches, was counter-productive for the church in China-the Chinese cultural heritage cherishes harmony and inclusiveness in human relations and the confrontational approach of Protestant denominationalism could only weaken the Chinese witness to Christ. The way forward for the Chinese Church seemed to lie rather in establishing an indigenous, unified church freed from denominationalism. (3) Thus, towards the end of the 19th century, a movement for an indigenous, united Chinese Church emerged.

Many Western missionaries were equally as enthusiastic about this movement as their Chinese colleagues were. The Chinese experience of Christian unity caught the attention of the mission boards of the West. At the Edinburgh Conference of 1910, Dr. Cheng Jingyi, who later became Chair of the National Council of Churches in China, called on the mission boards of the West to support the Unity Movement in Chinese churches. In his seven-minute speech he said:

"Since the Chinese Christians have enjoyed the sweetness of such a unity, they long for more, and look forward for yet greater things. They are watching with keen eyes and listening with ears for what this conference will show to them concerning this all-important question. I am sure they will not be disappointed ... Speaking plainly, we hope to see, in the future, a united Christian Church without any denominational distinctions. This may seem somewhat peculiar to some of you, but, friends, do not forget to view us from our standpoint, and if you fail to do that, the Chinese will remain always a mysterious people to you!" (4)

As a result of the untiring efforts of the Chinese church leaders and their supporters in the mission boards, the First National Chinese Christian Conference was convened in Shanghai in 1922 with "Tile United Church" as its theme. It was attended by participants of the mainline denominations with equal numbers of Chinese and Western representation. That Conference issued a message to the Christian churches, which took an unequivocal stand against denominational divisiveness in the Chinese Church. 1t stated:

"We Chinese Christians who represent the various leading denominations express our regret that we are divided by the denominationalism which comes from the West. We are not unaware of the diverse gifts received through the denominations that have been used by God for the enrichment of the Church. Yet, we recognize fully that denominationalism is based upon differences the historical significance of which, however real and vital to the missionaries from the West, are not shared by us Chinese. Therefore, denominationalism, instead of being a source of inspiration, has been and is a source of confusion, bewilderment, and inefficiency ... we firmly believe that it is only the united Church that can save China, for our task is great and enough strength can only be obtained through solid unity. Therefore, in the name of the Lord ... we appeal to all those who love the same Lord to follow His command and be united into one Church ... and in calling upon missionaries and representatives of the Church in the West, through self-sacrificial devotion to our Lord, to remove all the obstacles in order that Christ’s prayer for unity may be fulfilled in China." (5)

The movement for an indigenized Chinese Church bore its first fruit in the first quarter of the 20th century. The Chun Hua Sheng Kung Hui (Anglican Communion) came into being in 1912. The Church of Christ in China, embracing Presbyterian and Congregationalists, was formed in the 1920s, as was the National Christian Council of China. At the Lausanne Conference on Faith and Order in 1927, Dr. Tingfang Lew of the Yenching School of Religion was invited to address the plenary session. He took "The Necessity of Unity" as his theme and shared with the conference the witness of Christian unity in the Chinese Church. His speech was challenging and thought provoking; with a vision of an indigenous Chinese Church making a contribution to the World Church. He said:

The people in the Far East have their own spiritual and religious inheritance, which is in some aspects different from that of the Western nations. Their inheritance helps them to understand the purpose of God in Jesus Christ in their own way. It may give them a certain insight and understanding which the West has not yet seen. There is among the Chinese Christians now a felt command of God to interpret Christianity in terms of the spiritual inheritance of the Chinese race. They believe that such interpretation, when made together with their own spiritual experience, should become the possession of the whole Church Universal. The movement for an indigenous church is growing more audible and more persistent in China. It is the hope of the Chinese Christians that the united Church will be enriched by the contribution of the indigenous churches not only of China but also of Japan, India and of other lands. (6)

The ambiguity of the modern missionary movement in China was demonstrated in that while it brought the Christian Gospel to China, it also served as an arm of Western expansionism in China. While the Western powers carved out their respective spheres of influence in China, so did the Christian mission boards from those countries. This led to two distinct features of the Protestant churches in China, namely, their unusual divisiveness and their total dependency on the mission boards. However, precisely because of that, the churches in China seemed led to go through the experience described by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr's theme at the first WCC Assembly of 1948, "Man's Disorder, God's Design." By God's grace, the very predicament of the Chinese churches drove them zealously to struggle for indigenization and Christian unity. The Protestant churches in China were among the few so-called younger churches active in the ecumenical movement in its formative years. When the World Council held that first Assembly in Amsterdam in 1948, six Chinese church representatives were present and Dr. T.C. Chao, then dean of the Yenching School of Religion, Beijing, was elected as one of the six presidents of the WCC, and the only one from non Euro-American churches.

Was it an irony of history that Chinese participation in the newborn WCC encountered a major twist? As the Cold War took shape in the post-WWII years and war broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950, the World Council, for the first, but fortunately only time in her history, took sides in the military confrontation of the two Cold War camps and supported the US-led "New International Order." (7) This not only led to the resignation of T.C. Chao as president, but also to a forty-year estrangement between the churches of China and the World Council. It was only after the end of the Cold War, during the Seventh Assembly, 1991 in Canberra, that the China Christian Council resumed membership of the Chinese Church in the World Council.

The forty years from the early fifties to the early 1990s held for Chinese churches an ordeal by fire and also rejuvenation in the loving grace of God. What marked the church's countenance as she emerged from the trial by fire? Externally, the church in China lives in a society governed by an openly atheist political party. Internally, after severing ties with the Western mission boards, the Chinese churches began experimenting with forms of united worship and later with a post-denominational model of church polity. These forty years probably make the experience of the Chinese Church unique within the ecumenical movement. Chinese Protestants are grateful for the warmth and understanding of the ecumenical family. At the same time, this distinct experience inevitably brings with it some sobering loneliness when we compare notes with sister churches. To cite one instance, while sitting in the Faith and Order Commission meetings devoted to the discussion of Christian unity, a participant from China cannot help the feeling that some from the European churches sometimes tend to assume that the Holy Spirit is a monopoly of Western-apostolic churches and thus any church experience beyond the Western one must be doubtful and put to serious question.

The pain of separation between the Christian Church of China and the ecumenical family was, I believe, felt equally in the Chinese churches and the world churches. When we in China thought of our Lord's prayer "That all may be one," we could not help asking ourselves "Where are we now in God's sight?" We are grateful that God, in God's good time, brought the Chinese Church and the world churches together again in the ecumenical family. This led to a revived zeal in the Chinese Church to learn about the World Council anew, forty years after its founding. On the part of the World Council, a China Ecumenical Formation Program was set up and the China Christian Council (CCC) was invited to appoint a representative working in this program. This has contributed greatly to the understanding and the solidarity between the CCC and the WCC, which will bear its fruit, I believe, in the years to come.

I am grateful to have been assigned as the first CCC representative to the WCC after forty years' estrangement. Soon after my arrival, a colleague in the administrative staff told me that many years ago when she began working with a leader of the WCC, she had so often heard the name of K.H. Ting. Now, after forty years, how exciting it was to see someone coming directly from China to work in the World Council. This led me to probe into the meaning of continuity and discontinuity in church relations in the ecumenical movement vis-a-vis world history. Standing on the threshold of a new century, Christians in China are deeply aware of being a part of the Church Universal. The growth of the Chinese Church cannot be isolated from the growth of the world churches, and the World Council is helping us in furthering our ties with churches in other parts of the world.

In the blink of an eye, my one-year assignment has come to its end. During the last year, I have been privileged to have been invited to various international meetings and seminars, including the trip to Rome with the Bossey students. I had opportunities to visit different Units and Desks, learning and experiencing the WCC's work. What have I learned in the course of the year? The answer to this question involves a heart-searching process which I have only just begun and which will probably continue for some time after my return to China. Let me discuss below a few of the points which come to mind.

The warmth of a genuine ecumenical fellowship. Coming from the more or less homogeneous society and cultural heritage of China, one is struck by the different ethnic identities, cultural heritages, varieties of language, denominational lines, different skin colors, etc. represented in the World Council. In Geneva, with so many UN agencies and other world political and economic bodies, this is nothing out of the ordinary. What makes the World Council unique is the warmth of fellowship. Since I was with the Asia Desk and have had more opportunities for getting to know the staff in Unit IV, I can say I feel quite fond of my friends in Unit IV for their ecumenical commitment and the social services they provide to the needy through their daily work. Their humaneness touches me deeply. From my pastoral experience I believe that loving care for others is the one essential quality in ecumenical relationships. I am especially grateful to all my friends on the Asia Desk who have shown their love and care for me and have helped me greatly in many ways. I trust that this spirit will be carried on after the restructuring of the WCC. We love one another, not because we are the same, but because we, as Christians from all parts of the world, agree to differ and resolve to love. I believe this is the biggest asset and strength of the World Council.

As one who comes from a non-Christian family background, who has been baptized into the post-denominational Chinese Church, I have little knowledge of the historical denominational traditions of Christianity other than what I learned in my Seminary years. I have been glad to make up my lack of knowledge in this respect during this year. My exposure to the different emphases of the various denominations in doctrine, theology, liturgy and church polity helps me to respect differences. Last May I was invited as a guest of the WCC Women's Desk to participate in the European Orthodox Women's Seminar. This was my first experience in the life of the Orthodox Churches and it gave me a first-hand opportunity to get acquainted with the liturgy and theology of the Orthodox Church. We worship the same almighty God. All the differences in our religious experience serve only to enrich our lives in God. For this reason, I would wish to have further opportunities to learn more about Eastern Orthodoxy. During my stay in Geneva, I have been going to the Sunday services of different denominational churches, especially those that we do not have in China, such as the Eastern churches, and I have gone to the Jewish synagogue. All these experiences have helped to enhance my vision of the Church Universal and the meaning of the ecumenical movement.

At the invitation of the WCC Secretariat for Ecumenical Relationships, I attended the International Seminar of the WCC and Pentecostalism. This was my first experience of meeting with Pentecostals and getting to know Pentecostalism at first hand. Although there is no Pentecostal Church in China today, many Christians in rural meeting points choose to express their faith through the practice of faith healing and the search for miracles. They pretty much resemble Pentecostals. Through my better understanding of Pentecostalism, I now understand our own congregations in the countryside better also. As the history of the Christian Church reveals to us, whenever the church becomes over-institutionalized and loses her early vigor, there will always be new forms of the expression of faith among the ranks of Christians. In fact, they supplement the institutional church.

In 1998 the World Council will celebrate its 50th anniversary. During the Council's existence in this second half of the 20th century, the world has undergone tremendous changes, which have in turn brought changes to the World Council itself. The present number of WCC member churches has almost doubled from its founding years and the merger of other ecumenical bodies into the World Council has served to enrich its mission and representation. On the other hand, these changes have also brought new difficulties with them. For instance, how can a balance be kept among programs in Faith and Order, Church and Society and World Mission? In our pursuit of Christian unity, how shall we consider the small minority denominations? While acknowledging the Western cultural heritage which is nurtured by Christian faith and gives the church her cultural countenance, today when two-thirds of its member churches come from the developing world, how can the WCC make further efforts at de-Westernization, thus creating new opportunities for wider participation by the Third World churches (including expansion of the official languages of the Council).

With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the World Council has faced new challenges and is currently making adjustments. The "Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC" involves not only program but also the institutional setup. My year in the WCC coincided with this adjustment process and this has enabled me to learn about the new institutional models, which may be adopted by the WCC in years to come. I trust that following the series of adjustments being introduced, tile WCC will have better coordination among her various clusters to avoid overlap and duplication; that it will also have more vigor and cohesiveness to steer the ecumenical ship forward. On the other hand, even when these adjustments have been made, the WCC will still be confronted with many serious challenges. For instance, while a reduction in staff is almost inevitable, how can the balance of women and regional representatives be maintained? How can the WCC staff be rejuvenated? How can the World Council ensure for itself a committed staff while preventing the drain of personnel from national churches?

Another new post-Cold War challenge for the Council is the possible tendency for denominational as well as regional growth. For instance, in Eastern Europe, there is no longer the same need for the Council as there was in the Cold War years. How will it be possible for the Council to build up stable relationships of mutual trust between itself and member churches? In this regard, I appreciate very much the efforts of our present General Secretary Dr. Konrad Raiser, who made up his mind at the beginning of his term to visit as many member churches as possible. He may well turn out to be the General Secretary who has visited the largest number of member churches. From my experience of WCC activities during the past year, I realize that the unique strength of the World Council lies in its broad representation of different churches and regions. The World Council can contribute more to the member churches and simultaneously consolidate its own position by playing a bigger role as a clearinghouse encouraging mutual sharing of the ecumenical experience of the regional churches. (One example in this realm was the Faith and Order Commission's invitation for the CCC to share the experiences of the post-denominational church in China at its sessions.)

For historical reasons, Protestants and Catholics in China treat each other like adherents of two different religions. We do not worship together, or exchange pulpits, nor do we discuss issues of common interest in our church lives. There is very little communication among members of the two branches of Christianity. Here in the World Council, the joint worship every Monday morning demonstrates the "visible unity" cherished in the ecumenical movement. Likewise, the numerous projects jointly implemented by different denominations are very encouraging and challenging to us in China.

On the other hand I must confess that coming from a post-denominational Chinese Church one cannot help noticing nevertheless the sectarian and denominational lines of demarcation in the ecumenical family. These are perplexing and difficult to identify with. Also, I am afraid that any church person from the Third World who lacked proficiency in the official languages of the World Council and was not sufficiently acculturated to the Western lifestyle would find it difficult to be "at home" in the ecumenical family in Geneva. Consequently, the effective interflow of ideas and spiritual and ecclesiastic experience would be made very difficult.

On the whole, throughout the year's experience, my perception of the WCC has been enhanced, my commitment to the ecumenical movement has been deepened, and my experience of the diversity of denominational traditions has been enriched. This is a year so different from any other year in my life.

The Christian Unity Movement, which emerged in China at the turn of this century, has always been marked by its contextuality. It was the response of the Chinese Church to the dual challenges of perplexing Western denominationalism and the growing self-awareness of the Chinese Church in search of her own identity. The pioneers of the early Christian Unity Movement were themselves trained in denominational backgrounds and closely associated with the mission boards. Nevertheless, in spite of this, they stood fervently for indigenization and Christian unity in China, knowing that this was the only way to identify with our own people and lead them into the Christian Church. For Chinese Christian leaders, unity and indigenization were intertwined. Today, at the end of the 20th century, the Chinese Church is totally independent and has no institutional affiliation whatsoever with any Western mission boards. Likewise, we see the World Council as World Council of Churches, not as a continuation of the International Mission Council. This is the ground of the China Christian Council's membership in the World Council and we in China believe this is our support and contribution to the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches.

While offering our gratitude to our Lord Jesus Christ for being permitted to enter into the "That they all may be one" of His grace, the church in China is fully aware of our own shortcomings. We know that there is still a long way ahead of us before we can live up to the Church as Christ promised us to be. In our pilgrimage towards Oneness in Christ, we pray that we would be able to witness more fully to God's love with our sister churches in other parts of the world and learn humbly from their experience at the same time. We in China would like to see the continuation of the China Ecumenical Formation Program and will give it our support whenever possible. So far as I myself am concerned, after returning to China I shall be teaching "Ecumenism" at the Nanjing Theological Seminary. This course will be the first ever of its kind in the curriculum of theological seminaries in China. Through my teaching process I may be able to continue to learn further about ecumenism and meanwhile, transmit whatever I learned in the World Council to the younger generation of Christian ministry in China, hoping that the ecumenical consciousness of the Protestant Church in China will gradually be enhanced as time goes on. It is my hope that through the process of the Ecumenical Formation Program in China, more exchange programs can be provided, especially among the young people who are the future of the church in China.

Fifty years ago, in his address to the First Conference on Faith and Order, Dr. Tingfang Lew not only expressed the cry of the Chinese churches for unity, but also expressed their hopes for the Church Universal: "Finally, the united church should be the church not just for one section of the world, but for the entire world." Now, after half a century, his words are still echoed in the prayerful hearts of Chinese Christians today.

Rev. Gao presented this working report to the WCC/Asia Desk on the completion of her year in Geneva.
English original. Chinese translation in the Nanjing Theological Review, No. 2 (1998), p. 19.

1 Faith and Order, "Proceedings of the World Conference, Lausanne, August 3-21, 1927," in The Necessity of Unity, ed., H.N. Bate (London, 1927), p. 497.

2 Ibid., p. 496.

3 Ibid., p.499.

4 Philip L. Wickeri, Seeking the Common Ground (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), p. 216.

5 Faith and Order, "Proceedings of the World Conference, Lausanne, August 3-21, 1927" The Necessity of Unity, ed. H.N. Bate (London, 1927), p.495-96.

6 Ibid., p. 499.

7 Marlin van Elederen, Introducing the World Council of Churches (Geneva: WCC publication), p. 25.