An open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, who arrives in China today.
Dear Justin, You must be excited at the prospect of leaving Britain and going to China. It must be refreshing to visit a country with a flourishing church. We hope that you will return refreshed and full of ideas of how to revive a floundering church whose membership is melting away like an iceberg in the tropics.
The church in China has up to 40million ‘official’ Christians, but membership of the unofficial underground church is believed to exceed this by far. Whilst Christianity fades in the West, China is on course to become the nation with the largest Christian population by 2030.
You have expressed pleasure at the possibility of meeting the new Protestant church leaders in China ‘and to see again at first-hand the wonderful work God is doing through the church in that country’.
We are sure you will notice that there are significant differences between the Chinese church and mainstream Christianity in the UK. For some reason the Chinese don’t seem all that concerned about girl bishops, homosexual priests, transgender baptism, climate change or interfaith worship. Perhaps you could find out why.
Chinese churches, on the other hand, focus on promoting the faith. This is especially true of the persecuted underground churches which lay great stress on fidelity to Scripture, living a Christian life and evangelism.
One of the purposes of your visit is ‘learning from each other’. As well as hopefully receiving guidance on how to revive a fading church perhaps you could return the favour by giving the Chinese leaders some advice.
The hosts of your visit are the National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, China Christian Council and the National Religious Affairs Administration.
This is fortunate as you and Xu Xiaohong, head of the National Committee Protestant churches, have some things in common. Both of you were selected by your respective governments, then appointed by your churches to prestigious posts. The similarity is, however, only superficial.
State control of the church in China is very different from state interference in the Church of England. The British state sees the CofE as a largely harmless antiquated anomaly useful for uniting the nation on great state occasions. The Chinese Communist Party sees the church as an obedient arm of the state administration helping enforce complete submission to the diktats of the CCP, and has every intention of ensuring this happens.
In England the Queen is chief governor of the C of E which, although personally important to Her Majesty, is largely symbolic. In China the CCP is the effective head of the official church you will be visiting. The government ultimately controls to a significant extent the church’s life and affairs. All officially approved Protestant churches belong to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which reports to the Administration for Religious Affairs, which is controlled by the CCP.
Religious freedom is guaranteed under China’s constitution, as in the UK. Since President Xi Jinping took office six years ago, however, the CCP has tightened restrictions on religions. Living Christianity is seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party which is particularly intent on uprooting the underground church.
Your host, Xu Xiaohong, head of the government-approved National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, upholds the government position. He said there were many problems with Christianity in the country, including ‘private meeting places’, by which he means the expanding underground church.
Xu Xiaohong agrees with the National Religious Affairs Administration which sees ‘unregulated’ churches as dangerous. In response, China’s local authorities are cracking down on underground gatherings. The southern city of Guangzhou has become the first major city in China to offer financial rewards to those reporting ‘illegal religious activities’.
These range from 100 yuan (£11) for information about individuals to 10,000 yuan (over £1,100, about two months’ average salary) for providing tip-offs about illicit groups.
China has been following a policy it called the ‘Sinicisation’ of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and bring it into line with Chinese culture and through this to enforce obedience to the Communist Party.
Your host Xu Xiaohong has affirmed this policy. ‘Some believers lack national consciousness, and that’s why we have the saying: “One more Christian, one less Chinese”.’
Recently he has accused the West of trying to use independent churches to subvert the Communist regime. He claimed: ‘Anti-China western forces seek to upset our country’s social stability or even overthrow our government through Christianity.’
The official churches with whom you will be meeting are under control of the Communist Party. This latest incentive is part of a nationwide effort to bring all Christian groups firmly under the control of the CCP.
It is not only the Protestant churches which face the continuous threat of state control. The same is true of the Catholic church. China has around 12million Catholics who are split between an underground church swearing loyalty to the Vatican and the state-supervised Catholic Patriotic Association.
Last year the Vatican signed an agreement giving it a long-desired say in the appointment of bishops in China. In response the officially approved Catholic Church in China said it would ‘persevere to walk a path suited to a socialist society, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.’
What is a cosy establishment relationship between church and state in England becomes a vastly different proposition in China. We are sure you will have a word with Xu Xiaohong on the importance of freedom of religion.
Have a nice trip.
Your brother in Christ, Campbell