Bishop of Guildford highlights long history of Christianity in China

“There are huge numbers of practising Christians in China, amounting to many tens of millions, although I agree that the exact figure is very hard to determine…. The Chinese Government have a close interest in how religion helps in building a harmonious society, now that communism is not the only player in China’s major global role.”

On 7th November 2013 the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, took part in Lord Dobbs take-note debate on the recent developments in the relationship between the United Kingdom and China. He focused on the long-standing relationship between the West and China, particularly in terms of  the long history of Christianity in China. He noted contemporary initiatives to strengthen the relationship between the Church of England and the church in China, particularly the role of the Bishop of Birmingham as the Archbishop’s envoy to China.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham deeply regrets that he cannot be in his place today. He is the envoy of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury in relation to China. I am sorry that he is not here speaking, and not only because I am speaking in his place.

We are hearing, and shall continue to hear, many fascinating things in this debate about China, not least from the two maiden speeches, to which we look forward. The importance of student academic exchanges, stressed by some noble Lords, particularly resonates with me. I declare an interest in the University of Surrey with its developing—indeed burgeoning—links with China. That is wonderful.

I begin with the recent comment by Aaqil Ahmed of the BBC on British religious illiteracy. I make a plea for attentiveness to the religious and philosophical, not least Confucian, history of China, without which we shall not be able to understand China today or tomorrow, in all its bewildering and bedazzling complexity. As a metaphor for this bedazzlement, we might consider the current exhibition of Chinese painting at the V&A, which the Foreign Office Minister opened a few days ago, or cast our minds back to the exhibition at the Royal Academy which coincided with the Chinese state visit of 2005, and displayed wonderful artefacts of the Manchu emperors. Just as those paintings and artefacts are of bedazzling complexity and subtlety, so is China’s relationship with western religion and philosophy, and with Christianity in particular.

When Marco Polo visited Kubla Khan in the 13th century, he found to his surprise, in and around Nanjing, ancient Christian communities originating from Syriac-speaking eastern Christianity, probably from the seventh, or maybe the fifth or sixth century, along the Silk Road, following the economic tracks of the world. At a later date, there is an extraordinary monument to a Christian bishop from the so-called Nestorian Church of China from that early period. The combination of Christianity and China is not something new.

In, the 17th century, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci settled in China for many years, and accommodated his little community to Mandarin culture. By his time those earlier traces of Christian communities had almost disappeared. He experimented boldly with a Confucian interpretation of the Catholic faith. In the end, he was not supported by Rome. If noble Lords want a fascinating account of a dialogue between western philosophy and culture and Mandarin culture in that period, Cambridge historian Mary Laven’s book on Ricci’s mission to China is a very good way in. The stories of various 19th-century Protestant missions to China are much better known. They have their heroes and their heroines but I will not take time on that this afternoon in your Lordships’ House.

My point is that any understanding of the interrelationship between this country and China needs to take into account religious and philosophical dimensions that go back many centuries. Today, the Church of England, largely through the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, is building, as best it can, good relations with the China Christian Council. Elder Fu Xianwei attended the most reverend Primate’s inauguration earlier this year and, in a long personal conversation afterwards, invited him to China. I have no doubt that, at some stage, the most reverend Primate will accept that invitation and implement it.

The exponential growth of Christianity in China, especially in the growing eastern cities, is not well known here. There are huge numbers of practising Christians in China, amounting to many tens of millions, although I agree that the exact figure is very hard to determine. They operate largely—to use western language—in non-denominational church structures: roughly speaking, independent congregations in loose federations. The Chinese Government have a close interest in how religion helps in building a harmonious society, now that communism is not the only player in China’s major global role. Here, I particularly single out the work of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

The churches, as they noted at the most recent National Chinese Christian Congress, in September, are also making a major priority of international relations. Here is an opportunity for British churches to respond to this as we all give China the attention it certainly deserves. Co-operation is also developing over theological education, especially at the national theological college in Nanjing and with the Amity Foundation, in its work with the poor in rural regions. Amity Printing Presses, in conjunction with the International Bible Society, has produced 20 million copies of the Bible in Mandarin in recent years.

When Matteo Ricci went to China four centuries ago, he took, as a present from the Pope of the day, a chronometer that also showed the movements of the solar system—a wonderful example of western scientific craftsmanship, which made more accurate calculations than the Chinese astronomers and mathematicians could make at the time. However, Matteo Ricci discovered in return the riches of a deep and wonderful culture. This whole debate is about the exchange of religious, philosophical, economic and cultural gifts, et cetera. My plea is that, amid such a rich exchange of gifts, we do not forget to show proper attentiveness to the religious, philosophical and cultural traditions of China and our own country, and their part in what will happen as we further develop our relationship with China.


The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint):  …China is also a country with a deep cultural past. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford reminded us, and others echoed, this is a country with a long-standing philosophical and religious perspective. I have met some of the characters mentioned by the right reverend Prelate and they are very remarkable people. The authorities are very keen to see a harmonious development of Chinese society and recognise the role that faith groups can play, particularly in an urbanised environment…


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