The Cato Lecture is an important feature of the triennial Assembly in the Uniting Church in Australia.
In 1932, successful Victorian businessman Fred Cato established the Cato Lectureship to promote the enhancement of religion and education. The presentation of material of interest to the general body of church members was designed to extend the goodwill and friendly relations between Methodist or related churches in Australia and other countries.
Mr Cato stipulated that the lecturer was to come from overseas, and the lecture to be given within the proceedings of the triennial Methodist General Conference.
Following this tradition, this year’s lecture was presented by Dr Lin Manhong, the Associate General Secretary of the China Christian Council and the acting Dean of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.
Dr Manhong spoke on the topic: To be a marginal people of God: A Chinese Christian understanding.
It is my great honor to stand before you this evening. Before the joint consultation “One Flock, One Shepherd” in 2013, run by the China Christian Council and National Committee of the TSPM and the Uniting Church in Australia, I could never imagine that I would come to Australia, a land where I had never been, twice within a year, let alone to deliver a Cato lecture, when I had no knowledge about who Cato was. I would like to thank the invitation extended by the Assembly, especially from President Stuart McMillan and the Rev. Terence Corkin.
What I am going to deliver this evening will be entitled “To be a Marginal People of God: A Chinese Christian Understanding.” It will consist of two parts. In the first part, I will address the significance of following Christ to be a marginal people of God by drawing some insights from the theology of marginality and the new perspectives on missiology. In the second part, I will share with you some salient virtues that have sustained God’s marginal people to be a church in China.
My first visit to Australia was last summer attending the conference on the “Basis of Union: Catalyst for Renewal” held in Sydney. At the keynote address, Rev. Prof. Andrew Dutney gave data on the comparison between the Methodist Church of South Australia in 1972 and the South Australia Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia in 2013, which drew people’s attention, including myself.
•In 1972, 77% of Methodist circuits in South Australia were larger than 100 people in membership. In 2013, only 8% of Uniting Church in Australia congregations in South Australia had attendances of more than 100 people. In 1972, 4% of Methodist circuits in South Australia were smaller than 50 people in membership. In 2013, 72% of Uniting Church in Australia congregations in South Australia had attendances of fewer than 50 people.
• In 1972, the median size of Methodist circuits in South Australia was one hundred and sixty seven people. By 2013, the median size of Uniting Church in Australia congregations had dropped to 35 people.
• Further, in the 1976 Australian Census, 14% of Australians identified as Congregational, Methodist or Presbyterian. In the 2011 Australian Census, only 5% of Australians identified as Uniting Church in Australia.
Rev. Prof. Dutney noted that “the church today is as small as the church of the 1970s was large, and we are as marginal to the dominant culture today as we were central to the Australian society a century ago.”
The words “small” and “marginal” sound very familiar to me, for this has been the situation of the Chinese church, in spite of the fact that it has been growing fast in recent decades. Rev. Prof. Dutney didn’t comment on the nature of the church’s being small and marginal, but just stated that God calls this kind of church into being for mission in our time. I shall claim that a church being marginal and small opens the possibility of becoming the marginal people of God, which has great significance, and is a concept with which Chinese Christians can fully identify. Here I will just point out a few layers of significance of being a small and marginal church.
When it is at the margin instead of the central place in society, the church is more likely to read the Gospel from a different perspective. Jung Young Lee, a Korean American theologian who advocated a theology of marginality argued that when the church seeks to be at the central place, it tends to put more emphasis on Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords. The church then is interested in the power and majesty of Christ, and is more interested in his lordship than his servant-hood, and more interested in his resurrection than his death. Christians from this kind of church forgot that it was his weakness that made him powerful, and his humility that raised him to be the Lord of lords. Jung Young Lee pointed out that this trend of understanding belongs to the centralists. Influenced by the centralists’ viewpoints, the church has wanted to be a part of the central authority to rule and dominate the world. Many examples of such can be found from the history of Christianity in Europe and North America, as well as from the old missionary movement. Even in present times, the success of a church is always measured by the size of its membership and its budget.
However, if we read the Gospel from the perspective of a theology of marginality, we will realize that the stories of incarnation witness to us that Jesus Christ was the marginal person par excellence.
Jesus was conceived by an unwed woman, born far from his hometown, sheltered in a manger, visited by Eastern wise men instead of the elite of his nation, and fled into Egypt, which made his childhood doubly marginalized: politically from Roman authority, and culturally and ethnically by living in a foreign land. His life in Nazareth was certainly to be humble. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” implied that Jesus’ life as a Nazarene marginalized him in the eyes of the larger community.
Furthermore, Jesus was an outsider, rejected by his own people, as written in the Gospel of John: “he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11), and in the Book of Hebrews: “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he entered” (Heb. 13:12-13). Jung Young Lee argued that, being outside the camp, Jesus became a friend of marginalized people, including tax collectors, Gentiles, women, the poor, and the oppressed, by teaching them, healing them and comforting them. Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Romans, but accepted by the marginalized people, because he was one of them, a marginalized person and even a homeless person. As Jesus himself put it, “Foxes have holes, and bird of the air has nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20).
Dying on the cross was the perfection of Jesus’ marginality. The theology of marginality opposes kenosis being considered part of Christ’s divine nature, rather, they argue that emptiness is a process in which the divine nature becomes human, and takes on the form of a servant. Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). The incarnation is that God became human through emptying the divine nature. It is the process of God’s transition from the nature of God to the nature of a servant; and therefore, incarnation is the divine marginalization.
If Jesus Christ, the incarnated God, was a marginal person, we Christians are definitely called to be the marginal people of God, for as H. Richard Niebuhr put it, to be a Christian is to follow Jesus Christ, to have the incarnated Christ influence and modify one’s person, life and destiny, and to identify oneself with the cause of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the theology of marginality argues, that the whole history of Israel recorded in the Bible was the history of God’s marginal people, for people like Abraham, Moses, and the prophets who were the leading figures of the Israelites were all the marginal people, let alone the ordinary people of Israel. Even the kingdom of David was not at the central place of the then historical time.
The stories of incarnation and the New Testament passages along with the history of the Israelites have always been in the Bible, but only when the church is in a marginal position is it more likely to pay closer attention to them and to allow them to encourage and to have an adequate impact on the lives of Christians and the church. It is more likely that a small and marginal church won’t measure the success of a church by the size of its membership and its annual budget, because Jesus never paid attention to the number in the crowds who followed him and he never judged the status of anyone according to his or her wealth.
A second layer of significance for the church being small and marginal is to help it better understand the Christian mission from a new perspective, from the perspective of mission from the margins.
From Edinburgh 1910 to Edinburgh 2010, during the whole century, there has been much change in the understandings of mission. One of the significant changes is from “mission to the margins” to “mission from the margins.” According to WCC’s new affirmation on Mission and Evangelism, mission to the margins assumes that mission is a movement taking place from the center to the periphery, from the privileged to the marginalized, and from the rich to the poor. Mission from the margins recognizes that the marginalized are agents of mission and exercise a prophetic role, which resonates with the biblical witness that God chose the poor, the foolish and the powerless (1 Cor. 1:18-31) to further God’s mission of justice and peace on earth. Mission to the margins is a centralist approach, which is motivated by an attitude of paternalism and superiority. Mission from the margins is not simply to move people from the margins to centers of power but to confront those who remain at the center by keeping people on the margins.
Mission from the margins was the story of the early church. Mission to the Gentiles started not with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, but with the Hellenist Christians in Antioch. The understanding of those in Jerusalem was “to the Jew first, then the Greek” (Acts 13-14), and it was the Greek or non-Jewish Christians that represented the margins. The Antioch community was a dynamic element in early Christianity, and mission transformed their self-definition into “extraordinarily assured, open, active, pneumatic, city-oriented, Greek-speaking Jewish Christian heirs of Stephen,” as in church historian Ben Meyer’s words.
Moreover, the early church was a marginal church, oppressed by Romans and rejected by various religious and cultic groups. But only after Constantine, did the church gradually become a dominant group, imitating the practice and structure of the empire, and became a pyramidal, hierarchical, and male-dominant institution. Church historians often judge the greatness of a church by the power, wealth and glory it wields over state and various socio-political orders. But if we read the Gospels from the perspective of the theology of marginality, we shall realize that Jesus Christ is not the fulfillment of David but the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant, who is the true symbol of God’s marginal people.
When the church is in a position of being at the margin, it will be more likely to be like Jesus Christ to relate to and embrace those who are marginalized, because the church itself is one of them, as Jesus Christ was; it will be more likely for the church to join the voices from the margins and not just to listen to and speak for them from a distant, central and privileged position; it will be more likely for the church to be a more active agent of missionary activities to counteract injustice, inequality, and exclusivity that have kept people at the margins; it will be more likely for the church to remember its original nature and what it ought to be.
Being more willing to seek change and renewal of the church is a 3rd layer of significance for being a small and marginal church. Philip Wickeri, a contemporary missiologist argued that revolutionary change is more likely to take place in a church when it is in a marginal position. Wickeri quoted Thomas Kuhn by using an analogy to explain that revolutionary change, comes not from the center of a discipline but at its boundaries, where existing paradigms are not held onto as strongly, where prevailing orthodoxies can be questioned, and where individuals and communities are freer to be experimental and creative. The mission theology from the margins also somehow shares such features. Wickeri pointed out that mission theology from the margins can emerge in imperfect and ambivalent forms, but it presents the gospel in ways that are receptive to empowerment by the Holy Spirit, and so, more easily open to further correction and change.
Wickeri suggested that this kind of change and renewal of the churches requires the church to have a re-engagement with people at the margins of our society, to be ready to embrace disestablishment of the church, and to see the church’s relative “powerlessness” as a creative opportunity for change and renewal, as in the words of Douglas John Hall.
In sum, the significance of a church being small and marginal is that it helps the church re-read the gospels from a perspective of marginality instead of a centralist point of view, and to do so with a strong reminder that we are called to be the marginal people of God because Jesus Christ was the pioneer of the marginal people of God. Furthermore, mission from the margins and innovative changes are more likely to be generated in a small and marginal church. The experiences of the Chinese church also witness such significance. For the second part of the lecture, I shall share with you how the Chinese church is sustained by some virtues of being a marginal people of God.
The Chinese Protestant church has always been small and marginal since its beginning. Protestant Christianity was first introduced to China in 1807, and it was not well received among Chinese people for a long time after its arrival in China for a number of reasons. Missionaries and Chinese Christians, as well as all kinds of mission activities, were protected and secured by a set of unequal treaties that led China to a semi-colonial status. Apart from associating itself with the western powers, Protestant teaching and its followers’ behavior irritated Chinese people. Even Kenneth S. Latourette, a missionary historian, recounted the fact that “missionaries condemned local religious practices that formed an integral part of guild, community and political life” of China; “Christians, therefore, appeared to their neighbors recreant to moral, social, economic, and political obligations and to be attacking the foundations of society and civilization.” When it came to the 1920s, Christianity and its church became the target of nation-wide criticism by the May Fourth Movement and the Anti-Christian Movement, both of which had strong influence especially during the first half of the 20th century China. Christianity as a religion was considered by the May Fourth Movement somehow similar to the stagnant Confucian tradition and was accused by the Anti-Christian Movement of collaborating with imperialism. For the three decades after 1949, the understanding of and attitude toward religion among the Chinese people and of the government, were influenced by Leninism, which considered religion a tool used in modern capitalist countries to confuse the working class, and it was viewed as an opiate for the people, not simply an opiate of the people.
Since the reform and opening in 1979, China has gone through tremendous change in all aspects of people’s life. The understanding of and attitude to religion of the Chinese government and among the common Chinese people have gradually changed from antagonism to allowing religion to exist and now to encouraging religion to participate in society. The Christian population has grown rapidly. These two charts show the growth of Protestant Christianity in China in the past three decades.
However, even though the Christian population in China has increased greatly, Chinese Christians are still in a small minority when compared with the total population in China, and the church still locates at a marginal place in society as it has always been. This chart will give you an idea. Although the Chinese church is small and marginal, and not only still carrying some heavy burden of history but also facing new challenges both internally and externally, it keeps developing and growing. The goal of the church is not to develop into a powerful or influential force at the center of society or to grow into a social majority, but to witness to Jesus Christ by following Christ’s example on a land whose major population remains non-Christian. In the process of reaching this goal, being willing to suffer and eager to love are important virtues of the Chinese Christians.
In February 1980, some Chinese pastors and church workers were able to meet for the first time in public after the Cultural Revolution, and it was presumed to be a time for them to pour out the difficulties and sufferings they had gone through during the Cultural Revolution. During that chaotic period of time, the gospel was accused of being a poisonous weed, no church or seminary remained opened, the Bible and hymnal along with many theological books were burnt, and pastors and church workers were sent to factory, farm or even worse places to labor. As Bishop K. H. Ting recalled in his several speeches, the Cultural Revolution was neither cultural nor revolutionary, and during that time the Chinese people suffered so much, and Christians suffered so much with them. It seemed that Chinese Christianity was breathing its last breath. However, at the first church meeting in February 1980, none of the pastors mentioned the hardship they had endured during the Cultural Revolution, rather they rejoiced with tears at being able to meet again as Christians and to discuss how to reopen the church and the seminary and how to start to print the Bible and hymnals. They had a similar joy and enthusiasm as the exiled Jews had when they returned to the Jerusalem.
There were many moving stories about how Chinese Christians left their personal sufferings behind and devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the restoration of Chinese Christianity. Here I will just share with you two small pieces. In 1981, Nanjing Union Theological Seminary was reopened and started to recruit new students. While an old dying pastor in his sick bed woke up from a coma, and learned his son was admitted by the seminary, with great joy, he urged his son to leave for the seminary on time without staying for his funeral. He told his son, “As long as you can succeed in ministry, I will die happily without any regret.”
Another pastor, who was already very ill, still kept helping a young woman prepare for the entrance exams of the seminary by reading the Bible together and going through materials with her. When he saw her off for the exams, he leaned on his cane and said to her, “Before my life ends, if I could see some young people able to take over the church work, it would be the greatest comfort for my entire life.” It is this kind of passion and love for the church despite their hardship in life that made Christianity in China grow. In 1980, there were less than a handful churches which were reopened after 1979 and no seminary in China. Today, after 30 some years, there are 22 seminaries and Bible schools in China, over 60,000 churches and affiliated congregations with more than 30 million Protestant Christians. In 1981, there were only 47 theological students in China enrolled by the only seminary in Nanjing. Today, there are nearly 4000 full-time students studying at the 22 theological schools annually, and the annual new student enrollment of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary is 120 out of over 400 prospective students. Even though we have trained many church workers of different levels, such as over 3000 pastors, over 6000 elders, around 50,000 evangelists and over 190 thousand lay leaders, the number of the church workers cannot keep up with the growth of the church. So a local church worker has to work many hours. I will just show you a one-week schedule given by a young local church worker, a recent graduate of our seminary.
Monday: home visiting
Tuesday afternoon: Bible study; group leader fellowship
Tuesday evening: singing groups getting together
Wednesday morning: staff and clergy meeting
Wednesday afternoon: church gathering for aged group
Wednesday evening: Prayer meeting
Thursday morning: lay leadership training
Thursday afternoon: testimony sharing
Thursday evening: business fellowship; Bible study
Friday: women fellowship (2 sessions)
Friday evening: couples gathering; prayer meeting
Saturday morning: discipleship training
Saturday afternoon: 2 weddings
Sunday morning: 2 services
Sunday afternoon: special groups sharing
Sunday evening: evening worship
Most of the church workers in China have to work so hard, and many of them even have to endure poverty, because many churches locate in rural areas of China where economy is still undeveloped. Some only get a few hundred yuan per month and have to do additional farm work in order to earn a living to support the family, including their old parents and their children. Most of the church workers in rural China do not have health insurance. On the one hand, it is wrong for the church to allow many church workers to suffer from poverty even though the church cannot do much to improve the situation; on the other hand, the spirit of willingness to sacrifice and to suffer is praiseworthy, because they do it out of a great love for the church and their commitment to serve Jesus Christ. This can be a manifestation of being “into the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and to be the disciples of a crucified Lord,” as is written in Basis of Union. This also reminds us of the dynamic relationship between love and suffering. As the theology of marginality argues, suffering and love are inseparable; suffering is a part of love, for God loves and God suffers. God so loved the world that God suffered for us by giving his only Son to us. Christ’s suffering was redemptive because it embraced love. Suffering can be a negative experience and even a destructive force if there is no love; but if it embraces love, it can be a positive element of creativity and even have a redemptive value.
At the closing of a national meeting in 1983 after the Chinese church had reopened for 2 years, Bishop Ting urged the Chinese church to take a new road ahead of them. By doing that, the Chinese church had to buy gold refined by fire, white robes and salve for the eyes as he quoted from the Book of Revelation chapter 3, verse 18. Ting believed that the Chinese church already got some gold refined by fire owing to the experience of suffering during the Cultural Revolution. What was in want was the white robes and salve for the eyes, for the church had to be rebuilt and kept it clean and holy, and the church had to be guided by the Holy Spirit to have new vision in order to know more about the truth. For the church to have a new vision, Ting put much emphasis on the virtue of inclusiveness by calling the church engaging in the world.
Due to the influence of fundamentalist theology brought by the missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the unrest that marked the mid-twentieth century, the theological thinking of many Chinese Christians was rather conservative and their moral ideas rather narrow. Many Christians found no meaning in engaging in the world, for they were convinced that Christians did not have much to do with non-Christians, just as Tertullian believed that Jerusalem had nothing to do with Athens. Their ethic was centered on personal salvation, with the hope of the life to come as its goal. They believed that they were elected and called by God to be withdrawn from the world and that their only mission on earth was to devote to soul-saving. The reality they lived in also helped to prove what they believed true, for there was not much room for Christians to participate in society or engage in the world for quite a long period of time.
Bishop Ting tried to correct such theology and ethic by introducing the concept of the Cosmic Christ. For Ting, Christ is not so small as to concern himself only with religious or spiritual or ecclesiastical things, or only with believers. Christ is the one who sustains the universe by his word and power (Heb. 1:3) and who existed before all things, and in whom all things are held together. (Col. 1:15, 17) In Ting’s words, the significance of knowing Christ’s cosmic nature for Chinese Christians is to help them understand both the universal extent of Christ’s domain, concern and care and his love as the essence and foundation of this universality. This is to say that God’s love revealed in Christ extends all over the world to all of God’s people, and therefore, correspondingly, as Christ’s disciples, Christians should also learn to interact with and love others with God’s all-inclusive love reflected in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Ting’s notion of the Cosmic Christ has broadened the theological horizon of the Chinese Christians. It helps them understand that the work of the Holy Spirit is not just limited within the church. The society and even the whole world is also a place where God’s work is manifest, and therefore, they should have the strength and courage to carry out their responsibilities in the world and to live up to the ethical dimension of Christian faith in their daily life.
A good example of church engaging in the world is its providing social service for the community. As religious circles are given much more room to participate in society, and especially are encouraged to engage more in social work, Chinese Christians should seize this opportunity. Doing social service has special significance for the Chinese church. Theologically, it will be a good demonstration of Christians’ following Christ’s example to serve the poor, the needy and the marginalized people, so as to bear Christian witness in society. Practically, it will be an effective way for common Chinese people to see the good works of Christians so as to get to know more about Christians and then about Christianity as well. As a renowned scholar of religious studies, Prof. Zhuo Xinping posits, Christianity usually has two important social roles to play, one is the prophetic role and the other is the role of servant-hood. In the current Chinese context, Zhuo suggests that if Christianity wants to play the prophetic role in society, it must start with serving people around them. Personally I totally agree with Zhuo’s suggestion. In fact, by doing social service, it will definitely change the attitude of common Chinese people towards Christians from “one more Christian, one less Chinese” prevalent during the semi-colonial time to “one more Christian, one more good citizen,” and “one more Christian, one less criminal.”
In terms of doing social service, there is much for Chinese church to learn from the Uniting Church in Australia, especially from the Uniting Care. Although public charities in the strict sense of term were brought to China with the arrival of Western missionaries, and Christianity in modern China did engage in and develop a variety of philanthropies that contributed to the improvement and development of Chinese society in their time, at the present time, the charitable work that either common Chinese people or Chinese Christians have engaged in cannot be compared with what has been done in many other countries in the world. The Chinese church has appreciated so much that what the Uniting Care and the Uniting World have done for us in helping with the development of church-run social service in China.
In fact, both of our two churches share the same understanding about the church’s engaging in the world, as it is stated in the “Joint Commission on Church Union 2008, 89”: on the one hand, Christians are withdrawn from the world by God; but on the other, this withdrawal is for the purpose of being equipped for their participation in the mission of Christ in the world. Dr Andrew Dutney also argues: “As Christ existed in history for others, so the church exists for others. As Christ was sent, so the church is sent. As Christ’s lordship was expressed in servant-hood, so the church’s life is to be expressed in servant-hood.” “The ministry of the church must be exercised through its members’ participation in the ordinary life of the world.” And in President Stuart’s words, it is to go and bear fruit of the Holy Spirit, and to have a red heart being massaged by good works.
Another important virtue that helps the Chinese church is to trust God’s loving wisdom and the work of the Holy Spirit. As mentioned before, during the early years when the church was reopened, Bishop Ting stressed the importance of relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the Chinese church to have a new vision, because the church was embarking on a new journey. Although the Three-Self Movement (self-government, self-support and self-propagation of the gospel) began in 1950 marking the independence of the Chinese church and although the church entered into a post-denominational era beginning with most Christians of different denominations coming to worship together in 1956, due to political movements one after another, the Chinese church did not have good opportunity to develop much further in all areas until the early 1980s. As a Chinese theologian reflected in the 1980s, “In our experience we lack maturity; our vision is narrow and shallow, and we do not dare pretend that our ignorance is wisdom, but we firmly believe that a road leading to a higher truth lies before us. With a pious and humble attitude, relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and God’s loving wisdom, and with hearts full of confidence, we should run the race set before us.” It is with such confidence in relying on God’s loving wisdom and the work of the Holy Spirit that the Chinese church has developed so much. A more recent example is the Chongyi Church locating in Hangzhou, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary 2 months ago. In 2005, the church had nearly 2000 members with 300 lay volunteers, but today, they have over 9000 members with nearly 2000 lay volunteers. This reflects the new understanding of mission theology as stated by Prof. Kirsteen Kim, who gave the last Cato Lecture, “Missionaries do not convert us; the Holy Spirit does that.”
What the Holy Spirit has done is much more than adding to the number of those who are being saved. Here I will just share a story about the Chongyi church with you. (This is Chongyi Church.) 10 years ago, when the congregation could not fill the old church building which was also falling apart, they prayed for a piece of land to build a new and bigger church. After twists and turns, they found a piece of land that was available in a new developing area. So the senior pastor and his team immediately started the process of applying to buy that piece of land. But soon, they were informed that their application was turned down. The reason was that piece of land could be used for a better purpose, such as building a resort for entertainment, or even a factory, which would enhance the financial income for the local government, but a church could hardly do so. No matter how the church negotiated with the local officials, their heartfelt pleas failed. They were told only if they could prove that a church could make direct financial contributions to the local economy, would they be eligible to applying for buying that piece of land.
It may be possible for UnitingCare to prove such an ability, but there was definitely no way for a Chinese church to do that. What could they do in order to get that piece of land to build their new church? The senior pastor asked his whole congregation to pray earnestly every day for God’s loving wisdom and for the work of the Holy Spirit. After about 2 weeks, during an early morning prayer, the senior pastor got an idea, and on that very day he went to talk to the local officials, and not long after, their application was approved. Now what was the turning point? The senior pastor shared that during his prayer that morning, he was suddenly reminded of the fact that there was a huge shopping mall with grocery stores under construction in front of that piece of land. Then he knew what to do. He went to tell the local officials, that there were 2 thousand members at his church and the number would certainly grow. Apart from Sunday service, there were also other weekly activities going on. If his church members were to go shopping in that big mall only once a week after church or church activities, his church would make good contribution to the economy in that developing area. And the local officials were convinced! Whenever asked how his church could get that piece of land, the senior pastor would always say that it all depended on God’s loving wisdom and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit through earnest prayers.
The faith of Chinese Christians in the Holy Spirit is truly embodied in their intensive prayer life, and because they trust the work of the Holy Spirit, they believe the promise that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. They also believe that the Holy Spirit can guide them in knowing the higher truth through reading the word of God, and therefore they treasure the Bible very much. Chinese Christians trust that the word of God is a lamp to their feet and a light to their path, and thus, they respect the Bible as the true authority for their faith and life. In interpreting the Bible and applying the biblical teachings to their actual life, they focus more on the “hermeneutics of faith,” rather than the “hermeneutics of doubt.” Hence, they are able to pay closer attention to the biblical stories of incarnation; they are more willing to read the Gospel from the perspective of the theology of marginality, and they are more content with being the marginal people of God.
A frequent quote from Bishop Ting regarding the Bible for the Chinese church is: “the Bible unites us.” This is because the common attitude of the Chinese Christians towards the Bible has served as an essential basis for the older generation Christians of different denominations coming together to merge into a post-denominational church. Furthermore, being post-denominational is a form of “spiritual and ecclesiological poverty,” which reflects Chinese Christians’ willingness and readiness to give up confessional pride and to see good in Christian traditions outside their own, in order to promote the unity of the church. This kind of humble attitude is definitely a witness to the Holy Spirit at work in Chinese Christians’ heart. I believe that it was moved by the same Holy Spirit that the Christians of the former Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches in Australia were able to come together to form the Uniting Church in Australia; and it was moved by the same Holy Spirit that 30 years ago, the Uniting Church had communion with Congress and became a multi-cultural church.
In fact, both of our two churches have much to give witness to the Holy Spirit working among us. For the Chinese church, it is the Holy Spirit that has worked in the hearts of the Chinese Christians so that they are willing to make sacrifice and eager to love; they can be convinced to engage in society by following Christ’s example of serving, to broaden their understandings of mission, and to renew the church in a Chinese context.
For the Uniting Church in Australia, I am not in a position to say much about it, especially in front of you, for I dare not pretend that my ignorance is wisdom. But what I do know, from the theme of the Assembly, Hearts on Fire, and from the address delivered by President Stuart, is that the Uniting Church in Australia wants to pray for a stronger presence of the Holy Spirit in church life, and calls for a revival of the church by keeping alive the fire on altar of the heart of every member of the church.
Let this be our joint prayer that the sacred fire kindled by the Holy Spirit on altar of the heart of Christians in both our two churches and in our partner churches as well will continue to burn and burn more prosperously, so that on the faith journey ahead of us, we can keep adjusting our perspectives in reading and understanding the scripture with a reminder of returning to the foundation of our faith, in doing mission more inclusively, and in seeking changes and renewal for our churches, guided by the light of the Holy Spirit.
In his invitation letter, Rev. Corkin expressed his expectations that this evening’s lecture reflect the theme of the Assembly and create a platform for theological reflection in dialogue with the growing experience of the Chinese church. I hope this task has been fulfilled, at least more or less. Thank you very much for listening.