Friday, December 18, 2015

The United Church of Canada Delegation Returns From China

This is the news release I wrote (and which General Council Office staff edited) to try to sum up the United Church of Canada delegation's experience while visiting the Protestant church in China. It is posted on the delegation's blog.

An official delegation of The United Church of Canada has returned from a visit to China at the invitation of the China Christian Council (CCC) and the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China.

The 10-day visit, from November 28 to December 7, was a major partnership initiative for both the United Church and the Council. The delegation was led by the Moderator of the United Church, the Right Rev. Jordan Cantwell, and the General Secretary of the General Council. The 22 members of the delegation were selected from across Canada to represent the diversity of the United Church, and included lay people and ministry personnel, theological educators and students, people in community ministries and Aboriginal leaders.

In China, the delegation was warmly welcomed by national, provincial and city CCC leaders and pastors and the faculty and students of the national theological college, Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. Visit sites included the CCC and Three-Self Patriotic Movement national office in Shanghai, longtime mission partner the Amity Foundation and Amity Printing’s Bible printing plant in Nanjing, and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (the Chinese government body supervising the country’s five official religions), the Institute for World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the CCC office in Beijing. Churches were visited in Shanghai, Suzhou, and Beijing. Delegates met with the Canadian Consul General in Shanghai and the Canadian Ambassador and staff in Beijing.

A centrepiece of the visit was a two-day theological consultation with Chinese and Canadian presenters at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. One topic explored during this time was the understanding of the church as a minority. This may seem obvious from the Canadian perspective, as membership, revenues and influence decline in Protestant denominations. In China, although the church is growing very fast, the Chinese church is in fact a small minority in society, and Christian communities have always been in the margin of the larger society. Dr. Lin Manhong, Associate General Secretary of the CCC and Dean of the Nanjing Seminary, noted that these characteristics can be of great significance.

As partners, we may want to ask ourselves, what do we want our churches to be? Should the church be prosperous, powerful, influential, largely populated, at the center of the world, or should be the church be content with being powerless, small and marginal, but prophetic, caring and loving?

The delegation was also given opportunities to visit important cultural sites such as the Yu Gardens in Shanghai, the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, the Memorial to Dr. Sun Yat Sen in Nanjing, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the Great Wall in Hebei Province.

This visit will certainly result in increased cooperation between the two churches in areas of mutual interest such as community ministry and, it is hoped, in exchanges among Chinese and Canadian seminary professors, students, and ministry personnel.

The visit was an historic opportunity for learning and deepened partnership. General Secretary Nora Sanders commented:

Throughout our journey, as we looked forward to renewed relationships with the China Christian Council and Three Self Patriotic Movement … reminders of our historic relationships in China enriched the sense of possibility and purpose. The joint commitment now is to continue the journey – to learn, to work, to worship, to create together new paths toward unity, justice and peace.

The United Church of Canada delegation meeting with the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Beijing. Photo by Rev. Dr. Alan Lai.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord Always: Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015

Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.
The LORD has removed your judgment;
he has turned away your enemy.
The LORD, the king of Israel, is in your midst;
you will no longer fear evil.
On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem:
Don’t fear, Zion.
Don’t let your hands fall.
The LORD your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
He will create calm with his love;
he will rejoice over you with singing.
I will remove from you those worried about the appointed feasts.
They have been a burden for her, a reproach.
Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time.
I will deliver the lame;
I will gather the outcast.
I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth.
At that time, I will bring all of you back,
at the time when I gather you.
I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples
when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the LORD.
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Common English Bible

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7, Common English Bible

Two weeks ago I was in Shanghai, China, attending Grace Church. It was founded in 1942 as a Baptist congregation, and is now part of the China Christian Council, the Protestant church of China, which hosted our United Church of Canada delegation. Now, much of the service was very familiar. The first hymn was He Leadeth Me, and the second was Blessed Assurance, so I knew both of those, and the words were printed in English in the bulletin even though most people were singing in Chinese. There was also simultaneous English translation with headsets. There were opening prayers, Scripture reading, a choir anthem, a sermon – 40 minutes long – and a closing prayer and benediction. But this church didn’t mark the first Sunday of Advent, although that isn’t that unusual as the season of Advent only began appearing in United Church of Canada worship 40 years ago or so.

And after the service we met with the head pastor, and he told us about Grace Church. It has 8,000 members, with between 600 to 800 at Sunday services and others worshipping in smaller meeting points around Shanghai. There are 200 in the youth group, and 300 children in the five Sunday school classes. So, coming from rural Eastern Ontario, numbers like these were unfamiliar to me.

In the 1960s China went through what is called the Cultural Revolution. In the chaos millions of people were persecuted, historical sites were destroyed, and churches and temples were looted. Chinese churches were closed until the late 1970s. And the pastor of Grace Church told us that, when the church reopened in 1978, "the brothers and sisters were so happy." Imagine that, the church was closed for a decade, and Christians were unable to worship publicly. They had to keep their faith a secret. Imagine the joy they felt when they were finally able to gather together and praise God. We heard this all over China, about cleaning up and reopening churches after the Cultural Revolution, and the first worship services taking place. I visited the site of the first church in Beijing to start worshipping again. It began again in 1979 with a congregation of 30 seniors. That was it - that was the church in China’s capital city. Today 100,000 people attend worship in Beijing churches every Sunday. The head of the Christian Council said, “We are very sure that it is due to God’s grace that we have this growth in our church.”

In Beijing I attended Sunday worship at Haidian Church. It has 10,000 members and 17 staff. In fact, they had to demolish the original building and erect a new one to accommodate the crowd of worshippers, about 4,000 each Sunday. I went to the third service of the morning, and there were people lined up to get in, and many of them were young, so that was certainly unfamiliar. The service was so full there were people standing along the walls, and even sitting in the front pew. And we went back that night for the annual Christmas tree lighting. There are actually Christmas trees and decorations in stores and shopping areas everywhere in Chinese cities, even though Christmas is not a public holiday. Haidian Church had a huge Christmas tree made of wire outside on the sidewalk, and a thousand volunteers from the church took part in the service, with an enthusiastic choir in Santa hats, and dancers in costume, and thousands of spectators. The only Christmas carol I recognized was Angels We Have Heard on High, but that was fine. I don’t think I have ever seen as many happy people in one place as at that Christmas tree lighting in Beijing.

On this Sunday of Joy, the prophet Zephaniah says, "Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem." The letter to the Philippians says, "Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks." Our Christian brothers and sisters in China are living out these words, rejoicing in the Lord always, exulting with all their hearts, giving thanks to God - even though their religious freedom is not the same as here, even though the church may be the size of Canada’s population but is still a tiny minority in a country of a billion people. Are we rejoicing, with our freedoms and privileges? When we sing Joy to the World, are we just reciting a much-loved Christmas carol, or do we really mean that the coming of Jesus is joy to the world? Are we like that choir on the street in Beijing, showing everyone around us how happy we are that Jesus is born and the Saviour reigns? Are we genuinely glad that the divine has become human in Jesus Christ, or are we just putting on the brave face our culture wants at Christmas? Be glad in the Lord always! Again, I say, be glad!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Learning a Perspective of Marginality: An Amazing Pilgrimage Through China

I have been away in China with a United Church of Canada delegation invited to visit the China Christian Council and Three Self Patriotic Movement, which means the Protestant church there. We visited Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Beijing, and met with Chinese church leaders, theologians, pastors, seminary students, and church members as well as with the State Administration for Religious Affairs (the official body overseeing China's five officially recognized religions), the Canadian ambassador and his staff, and the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Our delegation's experiences during the visit are documented on our blog, with wonderful photography by my colleague Dr. Alan Lai of Toronto's Chinese United Church, but here are just a few of the memories I bring back (in no particular order):

  • Worshipping at churches full of people, often singing familiar hymns (Blessed Assurance) in Chinese;
  • The queue of people waiting to get into the third Sunday service at Haidian Church in Beijing;
  • Amity Printing's huge Bible printing plant in Nanjing, which has printed over 100 million Bibles for use in China and abroad. I recognized pages from a New International Version edition that I had just given to a boy in one of my congregations!
  • Hearing about the work of the Amity Foundation with people with disabilities;
  • Consulting with Chinese, Canadian, Australian and Finnish colleagues at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary;
  • The questions asked by eager seminary students after my presentation on United Church of Canada ecclesiology;
  • The respect paid to my mentor Dr. Ray Whitehead, who taught at the Nanjing Seminary, led the Canada-China project, and is considered an old friend of China and the Chinese church;
  • The 21st (or 22nd) century skyline of Shanghai, reflected in the Huangpu River at night;
  • The high speed train that travels from Nanjing to Beijing in four hours at 300 km/h;
  • Passing over the Yangtze River on the train;
  • The view over the mountains of Hebei Province from the Great Wall;
  • Beijing's air pollution, like the fog of my youth in Nova Scotia but smog that made the entire city hazy;
  • Chinese formal gardens, visited at Shanghai and Suzhou, emphasizing ponds, trees and pavilions rather than lawns and flowers;
  • Christmas trees everywhere at malls and shopping areas, as well as in churches;
  • Haidian Church's outdoor Christmas tree lighting service, with a huge and enthusiastic choir in Santa hats singing Angels We Have Heard on High in Chinese to a thousand happy spectators;
  • Coming out of the Dushu Lake Church in Suzhou and seeing as many as 20 or more couples having their wedding photos taken;
  • Walking in the footsteps of one of my favourite theologians, Pierre Teilhard de Cardin, through the old streets of Beijing. One of our Canadian delegates was Maylanne Maybee, whose grandfather Dr. Davidson Black worked with Teilhard on paleontological digs;
  • Strolling near our Beijing hotel and realizing that I was at the former Italian Legation, burned by the Boxers during the siege of the foreign Legation Quarter in 1900;
  • Being told at the State Administration for Religious Affairs that we were meeting in the house where the last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, was born;
  • Being given much to think about regarding religious freedom and the church's relationship to the state;
  • So much delicious food, even if it was often unfamiliar!
  • The overwhelmingly gracious hospitality of our Chinese hosts, and the support and friendship of my fellow pilgrims from Canada.

More will occur to me as I take my photos off the camera and phone. But I also want to note an "Aha!" moment during our presentations at the Nanjing seminary, as a Chinese colleague mentioned that the Protestant church in China dates from 1807, when Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society began his mission work in Guangdong Province. The first congregations of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches which became the United Church of Canada date from the 1780s through 1810s, which means that our church and the Chinese church are actually about the same age (while, both, of course, stand in the historic catholic and apostolic tradition).

We heard numbers that were mind blowing to Canadians: Beijing churches with six Christmas Eve and four Christmas Day worship services; building a new Protestant church a week in Jiangsu Province; 600 baptisms a year at the Dushu Lake Church in Suzhou. But Protestant Christians still account for only three percent of China's population. At the Nanjing Seminary consultation, the seminary's academic dean (and associate general secretary of the China Christian Council) Dr. Lin Manhong said something that spoke to me. She was reflecting on Christians in China being a tiny minority, and in Canada experiencing declining influence:
I just want to humbly remind our two churches that a church being small and marginal has great significance. The significance of a church being small and marginal is that it helps the church re-read the gospels from a perspective of marginality instead of a centralist point of view, which tends to put more emphasis on Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords, which is more interested in his lordship than his servant-hood, and which is interested in the power and majesty of Christ, which leads the church to tend to seek to be at the central place, and to tend to measure the success of a church by the size of its membership and its budget. But if we read the gospel from the perspective of marginality, we will realize that the birth, childhood, life, and death of Jesus have indicated that the incarnated God was a marginal person, and therefore, as a result, we Christians are called to be the marginal people of God. Furthermore, a church being small and marginal is more apt to respond to the new shift from mission to the margins to mission from the margins.

This will be a continuing story: How the Canadian and Chinese churches deepen our relationship, how we make the transition from being "united and uniting" into being "post-denominational," and how we embrace the possibilities in marginality.

These are my photos. From top to bottom:

The Forbidden City in Beijing, from which Imperial China was governed. The photo is of the first Outer Court. There are three more courts before reaching the Inner Courts where the Emperors and their retinues lived.

The Great Wall of China at Badaling in Hebei Province. The wall was created before 200 BCE by the Qin Dynasty bringing together earthen ramparts built by individual states. These fortifications were built about 1505 during the Ming Dynasty.

Looking from Shanghai's famous Bund across the Huangpu River to Pudong at night, with the Oriental Pearl TV tower.