LONDON - At Wednesday's assembly of the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), British and Irish church leaders have broadened their horizons from local mission to a wider world, realizing their important roles in supporting the development of Christianity in China.
Caroline Fielder, Director of China Desk, a working group of CTBI, presented a review of its activities in 2004. China Desk actively promotes and facilitates ecumenical cooperation among churches and Christian agencies in Britain and Ireland and churches in China, both Catholic and Protestant.
Some examples of its activities include: coordinating mission projects in China, organizing exchange programs between the UK and China, offering scholarships in theological education for Chinese students, publishing research journals as well as making representations to the government and the media.
Speaking to 300 church representatives from all major denominations, Fielder reaffirmed churches collaborating together in Britain and Ireland have a "unique" contribution to make in supporting the huge growth and development of Christianity in China, particularly in terms of the ecumenical relationship between Catholics and Protestants.
"Because in China they are seen as two distinct religions which rarely have the opportunity of coming and working together," Fielder explained, "the British and Irish churches are unique in our witness of working with both Catholics and Protestants in China."
"Our visits and programs afford a unique opportunity for fellowship, learning and understanding together," she continued.
Fielder has also depicted the changing face of religious freedom in China and is very optimistic towards the future of Christianity in this country and on their current system officially built on atheism.
According to Fielder, the watershed came in between 1990’s and 2000’s when the Chinese government first adopted a more pragmatic approach after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Tiananmen Square incident. It has caused the revival in many religions.
"In 2001 the Chinese premier declared that religion was not only here to stay but that it may even outlive the Communist Party. The expectation is that religions can and will contribute significantly to the future development of Chinese society," she said.
"There has been exponential growth in the Chinese churches. Protestant Christians are said officially to number around 17 million. Researchers suggest the real number is more likely to be around 50-70 million. There are 12 million Catholics. The Christian landscape is changing fast," she reported.
The China Desk has an ongoing research program, in co-operation with the University of Birmingham’s Department of Theology and Research Unit for East Asian Christian Studies. The program aims to document and monitor social and political trends in China. The results of the research are published three times a year in the internationally recognized China Study Journal.
Fielder also said, "Today there is a move away from the 'official' versus 'underground' church stereotype and a new group of intellectual Christians who are unaffiliated with any institution are emerging and becoming more significant in their witness to Christ in China."
She urged China Desk of CTBI "to remain flexible enough to respond to the emerging needs of Christians in China."
Fielder finally called on British and Irish churches at national and local level to become more involved in work to support Chinese Christians at an important time in the development of their country and their faith.
China Desk of CTBI cooperates closely with other important mission agencies in both China and UK, such as the Amity Foundation, the China Christian Council (CCC), the Church Mission Society (CMS) and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK).