Bishop David J. H. Lai of Taiwan paid his first official visit to mainland China this week, meeting with state officials in Beijing, exchanging information with new friends in Nanjing and Shanghai, and emphasizing the need for harmonious relationships - a message that resonantes with the country's official Protestant churches in their post-denominational era.
The visit is significant, because relations between China and Taiwan have been tense for many years, with the independence of the former clashing with the latter's 'greater China' policy.
The People's Republic has pushed hard to ensure that religious bodies adhere to its policy on Taiwan. During the recent World Council of Churches' team visit, this was stressed again. But observers say that there is pragmatism underneath the rhetoric.
Senior representatives from the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), the China Christian Council (CCC) and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) were among those who hosted Taiwanese church leader Lai, his wife Lai Lin, and the accompanying delegation during the historic visit.
The group also visited to the celebrated 93-year-old Christian leader Bishop K. H. Ting at his Nanjing home, met with students and faculty at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, and learned about the social outreach work of the Amity Foundation and Amity Printing Company.
Ordained in 2000 as bishop of Taiwan, one of the Episcopal Church's 10 overseas dioceses, Lai went to China with the primary objectives of educating himself, establishing relationships with the Church, and helping the wider Church develop a deeper understanding of Christianity in the country. He also informed inquiring minds about his diocese and his work as president of the National Council of Churches of Taiwan (NCCT).
"I have gained the necessary knowledge that assures me the country is trying its best to offer people freedom of religion," he said. "I have also valued the opportunity to educate people about the Church in Taiwan."
China has experienced an explosion in Christian numbers in recent years. Its official policy is to support regulated growth among recognised religions, and to see their contribution to social stability and moral development. But unofficial movements, which get labelled 'sects' are often stamped down on hard - and that includes a substantial number of Christians.
However the China Christian Council and the Catholic Patriotic Association have assisted church development, and in practice the gap between the official and unofficial churches is not as pronounced as some evanglelcal agencies allege.
At the moment, however, there are continuing clashes between the Vatican and the Chinese authorities over what the Holy See perceives as irregular bishops being imposed through the CPA. For its part, the government only permits 'spiritual' relations with the Vatican among Catholics, viewing it as an independent state and therefore as a potential rival in terms of governance.
Recently there have also been allegations about secret executions of Protestant dissidents. For these and other reasons, the issue of religious freedom remains a live concern, in spite of significant progress in recent years.