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Church unity attracts little enthusiasm in China

Relationships between the various denominations not important for many Chinese Christians
Church unity attracts little enthusiasm in China

A Taize prayer gathering in Wenzhou Diocese on May 26. While Taize prayer is becoming popular among many Catholics in China, there's so far been little interest in the country for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which occurs every January. (Photo supplied)

Published: January 29, 2016 06:33 AM GMT
Updated: January 19, 2017 11:37 AM GMT

When preparing a booklet for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Joseph Chen, a Catholic in eastern Zhejiang province, learned that the path for ecumenism in China is not easy.

The young man downloaded some prayers from the Internet but they were in translation terms used by Chinese Protestants.

"When I showed the booklet to my fellow parishioners, their face darkened. They were irked that I used the Protestant version," said Chen.

The prayer gathering he planned was not a parish activity. "It was just among friends," he said, adding, "our parish does not hold such things."

Throughout the prayer week, observed Jan. 18-25, only two Christians showed up at Chen's informal gathering, which was following a theme based on the writings of St. Peter: "Called to Proclaim the Mighty Acts of the Lord" (Peter 2:9). It was the same theme followed by many Christians around the world who prayed for unity among Catholics and Protestants.

Despite Christians having a huge presence in Zhejiang, little has been done on promoting ecumenism, or unity among the churches. There are an estimated 2 million Protestants and 210,000 Catholics in the coastal province, an area that attracted international media attention when more than 1,700 church crosses were removed by the communist authorities over the past two years.

Before the Catholic Church was affected by the cross-removal campaign, some lay people criticized Catholic media for covering the removal of crosses from Protestant churches, saying "it is was none of our business."

In neighboring Jiangsu province, a priest who identified himself as Father James said Christian churches in China generally do nothing about ecumenism. "Some denominations more or less regard each other as competitors," Father James explained.

 

'A low priority'

In northeastern Heilongjiang province, Christianity once flourished in Harbin city due to its past close relations with Russia. There one can find a Russian Orthodox church, a Protestant church and a Catholic church in the same street.

However, a Harbin Catholic, who identified herself as Maria, told ucanews.com, there is little interaction between the various denominations.

"We have a lot of work to do internally as our community is still developing," said Maria. "So promotion of Christian unity has a very low priority," she said.

"We all know each other's existence but there is no cooperation between us. We only meet each other when there are high-level meetings organized by the government for religions," said Maria.

The Orthodox church is now only for use by Russians and other foreigners, she added.

In China's Protestant Church, many had never heard of the prayer week that was initiated by the U.S. Anglican priest the Rev. Paul Wattson in 1908. For those who know, they also find the road to unity as difficult.

A Protestant lay leader from Jiangsu province said she agreed there is a need for dialogue among Christians "but can everyone talk to each other calmly and peacefully?"

The lay leader who identified herself as Elizabeth told ucanews.com an example of a Catholic youth who came to their community in Suzhou recently.

"He cannot find another worshipping place after he came here. Since he gets along well with our children here, we readily accepted him and we worship together," said Elizabeth.

"But his mother back home felt unhappy after learning about this and ordered him not to come anymore. So you see. We have a gap."

Elizabeth too was influenced by the previous denomination that she joined when she was young.

"They told me that the Catholic Church is anti-Christ," said Elizabeth.

It wasn't until she studied Christian history that she took a fairer view of Catholicism. "I need to reflect and repent too," she said.

"If we Christians could get along peacefully in the first place, patiently wait for the return of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and be willing to make sacrifices, the situation of the Christian Churches in China may be very different today … who knows," she lamented.

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