Prayers from the past

By Liu Dong Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-18 18:35:03


The Gothic-style Xujiahui Cathedral is now a popular tourist attraction. Photo: CFP
The Gothic-style Xujiahui Cathedral is now a popular tourist attraction. Photo: CFP

One of the earliest Western Protestant missionary to China in modern times, British citizen Walter Henry Medhurst, arrived in Shanghai in 1843, the same year that Shanghai opened its port to the world. He would never recognize today's ultramodern metropolis from the cluster of villages he encountered.

He was one of several missionaries who not only brought visions of Christianity to the city but also added to its rich culture. Christianity is still adding to the city's life as it expands here. Today the official statistics note there are more than 220,000 Protestants and 140,000 Roman Catholics in Shanghai.

The chairman of the Shanghai committee of the China Christian Council, Pastor Xie Bingguo, said in 2011 there were 170 Protestant churches in the city and 140 Roman Catholic churches. These numbers are expected to grow rapidly in the next five years - just 40 years or so after all churches in Shanghai were shuttered during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). 

Before the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, most churches in Shanghai were run by foreign missionary organizations and this continued until the Korean War (1950-53).

The US Department of State then froze all Chinese public and private property in the States, including the money in banks that supported the missionary activities in China, causing huge problems for church-backed universities, hospitals and religious facilities.

With the worsening of relations between China and Western countries at the time, all Western missionaries were forced to leave the country by 1954. All of the church-backed universities, hospitals and charities were taken over by the Shanghai municipal government or individuals. 

About then pro-government Chinese Christian leaders established two national church organizations under the leadership of the central government and the Communist Party of China - the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches in China (TSPM) was set up in 1954 and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) in 1957.

National organizations

Later in 1980 and 1981, two other national Christian organizations were established: the China Christian Council and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, which worked with the TSPM and the CPCA to manage and coordinate all Christian religious affairs under the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

The Three-Self Movement referred to self-governance, self-support and self-propagation and was first suggested in 1892 by Henry Venn, one of the shapers of missionary movement in the 19th century, and Rufus Anderson, who worked at the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The principles were drafted formally during a conference of Christian missionaries in Shanghai.

In 1951 the Chinese Christian leader Wu Yaozong launched the Three-Self Patriotic Movement to remove any Western influences from the churches in China. Since then the churches in China have only been allowed to function under government-backed TSPM and CPCA.

Christianity in Shanghai probably started in Xujiahui as early as 1608 in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when Catholic missionaries first set foot in Shanghai.  

Located in one of the city's most prosperous commercial centers, the first Western church in China, the St Ignatius Cathedral or the Xujiahui Cathedral has been standing for more than a century. It is now the headquarters for the Shanghai Catholic diocese. The Gothic-style cathedral was erected in 1910 by French Jesuit missionaries. A popular tourist venue, it can hold 2,500 people at a time.

In the former French concession, the French missionaries were busy and built Shanghai's first observatory as well as a museum, library, orphanage, schools and hospitals. Remnants of their work remain today. The Xujiahui Library was established in 1847 and now houses Shanghai's largest collection of antique foreign books. Other memories from those days can be found in the Xuhui Middle School which was the first school opened by Westerners in China in 1850 and the Aurora University which later became part of today's Fudan University.

Not far from Xujiahui stands another church, the Shanghai Community Church, probably the most famous Protestant church in Shanghai today. It can be found on today's Hengshan Road, formerly the Avenue Petain, in the former French concession.

After Shanghai opened up in 1843, missionaries from different denominations and different countries swarmed to the city. The Community Church was the first and largest non-denominational and non-national church built here and was established by an American Christian couple in 1925.

From 1925 to 1936 every Sunday service there was broadcast by Shanghai radio. After World War II Westerners and Chinese Christians attended church there until 1949. Locals called the church the "international church."

Taken over

During the Cultural Revolution the church was appropriated by the Red Guards as an opera troupe rehearsal space. There were no religious activities at the church from then until the 1980s.

Today the Community Church has more than 4,000 registered parishioners and more than 1,000 regularly attend the Sunday services, according to Senior Pastor Liu Bin.

"We are always full on Sunday as well as important holidays like Christmas and Easter. The only thing we are worried about is the safety issue if we have too many people attending," Liu told the Global Times.

Gao Lihua, who studied for years in Singapore before returning to China, attends the church every Sunday and sums up the feeling of many of the congregation. "I like this church because it makes me feel at peace and in a spiritual home."

As well as Bible study groups and the meetings of elders, the Community Church began Sunday afternoon English services in 1996 which now attract hundreds. It is a very popular venue for weddings.

The church is also famous for its music, especially its acclaimed youth choir which sings every Wednesday and Sunday evenings. "Our choir members are all volunteers who work during the day and rehearse and sing in their spare time," Pastor Liu said. Office worker Zheng Zhihui is a member of the choir. "We all love singing and believe in the same faith. We like to give our best voices to God and others and that's why we gather here, " the 27-year-old said.

The Community Church has welcomed over the years many foreign celebrities among the estimated 10,000 foreign visitors. They include the former US President Jimmy Carter, the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard and the former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich.

The future churches

Like much of Shanghai the churches in Pudong are more about the future than the city's history which is more easily found in Puxi. Until 2000 there were no major Christian churches in Pudong but today the area is home to more than 40. The three largest churches in Pudong were built within 10 years of each other to meet the demand. These can be found in places like the Biyun International Community and the nearby Zhangjiang High-Tech Park.

According to Hu Qiuqiu, the Senior Pastor of the Hong'en Church in Biyun, each of these churches now attract between 1,000 and 2,000 worshippers every Sunday. Some 600 foreigners go to Hong'en for services every Sunday afternoon. Hu said the foreigners' church services were organized by foreigners. They rent the church and managed the services themselves. Under Chinese law foreign worshippers have to hold their services apart from Chinese believers.

"But we are getting along very well as brothers and sisters in Christ," Hu said. This year, the church plans to upgrade its air conditioning and audio systems. The money for this project has been donated by Chinese and foreign Christians.

Hu works with 20 other ministers at the three major churches but she said most of the chores of the church were handled by volunteers from the parish. "They are all engaged as professionals during the week but they share the work for the church whenever they come here. It's just like a family where you do everything naturally and don't have to be asked.

"Certainly the number of Christians in Pudong has been growing quickly over the past 10 years. As more and more people move here, whether they are migrant workers, locals or foreigners, many are looking for a spiritual home," Hu said.

New churches are being planned for Pudong including one near Pudong International Airport and another close to the yet-to-be opened Shanghai Disneyland.

The underground movement

There is another aspect to Christianity in Shanghai and that is the existence of house or underground churches.

Many people believe the number of Christians in China is seriously underestimated. Many Christians, especially in major cities like Shanghai, prefer to attend services at house churches rather than the government-authorized churches.

House churches can be traced back to before the Three-Self churches were established. Some Christians then did not accept the principle of the Three-Self doctrine and began worshipping at small and clandestine venues which were not registered or licensed.

Traditionally house churches could be found in rented office spaces or private homes. They are not outlawed but cannot legally hold services.

According to Liu Peng, an expert with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the numbers of these churches have been growing rapidly in China's major cities.

"It is hard to say precisely how many Christians there are in China. I reckon there might be 50 million. They came from various strata of society and half of them attend house churches," Liu said. 

Chinese law does not recognize these as legal religious entities and several large house churches have been raided by the police or closed down by government orders. Commonly when a house church grows in popularity it splits into two or more small churches so as not to draw attention to its existence.

Posted in: Society, Metro Shanghai

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