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.

1 comment:

Betsy Anderson said...

Fantastic Daniel. Thank you so much! Betsy