Reflection: Learning about China

by | Oct 21, 2019

I am writing you from Baltimore, where our Stated Clerk Diane Frasher and I are attending the Mid-Council Leaders Gathering in anticipation of GA224 next June.  It looks like it might be a fairly quiet GA; there don’t seem to be many big issues percolating but who knows what might arise in the next 8 months.

This event (which used to be called the Polity Conference, an annual meeting of the Office of the General Assembly) is now co-sponsored by the Board of Pensions.  So some of us were able to thank Clayton Cobb, who is retiring this month as our regional consultant, and to greet Rev. Kristin Leucht as our new regional consultant.  Kristin is our neighbor, as she has served for over 20 years in various pastoral positions with La Canada Presbyterian Church.  Kristin’s email is, and her work cell is 267-815-1329.  She will be coming to a Presbytery meeting soon to meet us.

But for me personally, the most interesting event happened on the day I left for Baltimore.  Karen Sapio and I were invited to meet with the Foundation for Theological Education in South East Asia (FTESEA), who was hosting representatives from the China Christian Council (CCC).  FTESEA is supported by ten mainline denominations, two in Canada (the Presbyterian and United Church of Canada) and eight in the United States (the “Seven Sisters” and the Reformed Church in America).  The China Christian Council is the main Protestant institution in the People’s Republic of China.

One of the legacies of the Church Missionary Society and ABCFM is the CCC’s partner “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”  This is the Chinese application of three principles of self-governance, self-support (i.e., financial independence from foreigners), and self-propagation (i.e., indigenous missionary work) for the establishment of indigenous, or local, churches in what were considered overseas mission fields.  The CCC’s relationship with the Chinese government emphasizes this approach, as the government is obviously concerned with unwelcome influence from Western nations, perpetrated through Western missionaries.  It has been unfortunate when Western missionaries became conscious or unwitting agents in suppressing the self-determination of non-Western peoples.

This three-self identity of the Chinese indigenous church extends into attempts to articulate and teach the Christian faith in authentically and distinctively Chinese ways.  With this helpful approach, and in its relationship with the state, the CCC (and Nanjing Union Theological Seminary) reminded me greatly of the opportunity when Karen Sapio and I were invited to Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cuba.

So Karen and I found ourselves meeting with these Christian church leaders from another Communist country, with other ecumenical partners.  In the midst of the meeting I noticed that I was the only person who used the term “Mainland China”—everyone else simply said “China.”  No one said anything, but during lunch I spoke with the Episcopal representative about my professor who served as the theological adviser to the Anglican Archbishop in Hong Kong.

I asked the Episcopal official about the relationship between the Anglican church in Hong Kong and mainland China, and the official said in a rather pointed way, “there is no relationship; we are ONE CHINA.”  I was a bit puzzled and asked him to clarify; he stated again “there is One China, which includes Hong Kong.”  I said “you must talk to different people than I do,” and he responded with what seemed to me to be a “look.”

Karen and I went to sit with the person who spoke English the best, and learned a great deal about Christianity on the mainland—the fact that they do not have denominations and resist attempts to assert denominational identities, the connections between Confucian thought and the church in China, and the impact of the growth of urbanization, individualism, and materialism in today’s China, including the impact of the “one-child” policy that resulted in generations of young adults who were the protected center of their parents’ lives.  This is amplified because virtually all pastors have been born after the Cultural Revolution, so all they know is the last few decades of cultural and economic development.

Obviously there is too much to discuss in this column, but the epilogue occurred here in Baltimore.  Mienda Uriarte, our area coordinator for Asia with World Mission, told me that the PC(USA) and CCC have experienced some tension over the CCC’s assertion of the One China policy.  Because of our strong relationship with the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, we cannot ignore the desire for sovereignty or at least some local identity for the Taiwanese (or, for that matter, the people of Hong Kong).  This has resulted in a stalemate of sorts, as the CCC representatives would like the PC(USA) to either leave the Taiwanese behind or report to the CCC who we are meeting with in Taiwan.

Whenever I think of God’s dream for the nations of the world, I think about how God chose to bring salvation through a small child in a small town in a small and relatively powerless nation, and because of that, we Presbyterians have stood with small nations as they attempt to defend their rights against the forces of empire through the centuries.  As I lived in Hawaii, I came to appreciate the outsized impact of aloha that comes through that very small island nation that has been absorbed by the empire of the United States—and yet they strive to retain their distinctive culture, which I think is universally considered to be a gift to the world.

May we pray for all the peoples of the world, especially those whose identity and even their lives are being threatened by the forces of aggression and domination.  And may we, even we who are citizens of the empire, appreciate and defend the gifts of the small nations of the world.