Support Chinese Christians, British and Irish churches urged
Churches collaborating together in Britain and Ireland have a ìuniqueî contribution to make in supporting the huge growth and development of Christianity in China, according to the coordinator of an ecumenical programme that forges links with both Catholics and Protestants there.
ìThe late 1980s saw a hardening of Chinese government policy towards the religions as a reaction to the collapse of Eastern Europe and the Tiananmen Square incident,î says Caroline Fielder, who is director of China work for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the official ecumenical body.
ìBut the 1990s and 2000s have seen a more pragmatic approach by the government and a revival in many religions, ì she went on. ìIn 2001 the then Chinese premier declared that religion was not only here to stay but that it may even outlive the Communist Party. The expectation is that religions can and will contribute significantly to the future development of Chinese society.î
Fielder was speaking at the 300-strong CTBI assembly, which is meeting in Swanwick this week and brings together representatives of the main denominations in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Fielder declared that the British and Irish churches are ìunique in our witness of working with both Catholics and Protestants in China. This is especially important because in China they are seen as two distinct religions which rarely have the opportunity of coming and working together.î
ìOur visits and programmes afford a unique opportunity for fellowship, learning and understanding together,î said Caroline Fielder. But she admitted that there is challenge as well as encouragement. Observers say that the new openness in China has also been accompanied by periodic crackdowns on religion, as nervous authorities in some provinces and regions struggle to handle a phenomenon that is new and not always welcome for them ñ the massive growth of religious sensibility in a country and system officially built on atheism.
Fielder went on: ìThere has been exponential growth in the Chinese churches. Protestant Christians are said officially to number around 17million. Researchers suggest the real number is more likely to be around 50-70million. There are 12 million Catholics. The Christian landscape is changing fast. Today there is a move away from the ìofficialî versus ìundergroundî church stereotype and a new group of intellectual Christians who are unaffiliated with any institution are emerging and becoming more significant in their witness to Christ in China.î
The China work of CTBI, through its member churches and agencies, needed ìto remain flexible enough to respond to the emerging needs of Christians in Chinaî, said Fielder. The ecumenical body is involved in practical programmes to support theological education, youth exchange, womenís projects, church visits and the provision of teachers through the Amity Foundation in China.
CTBI also produces an internationally recognised China Study Journal, and has collaborated with the University of Birmingham in academic research and teaching on religion in China and East Asia. It participates in dialogue with government and media, including conversations about religious freedom.
Caroline Fielder called on British and Irish churches at national and local level to become more involved in work to support Chinese Christians at an important time in the development of their country and their faith.