The word, antidisestablishmentarianism, is a term originally applied to English church-state relations in the seventeenth through the ninetieth centuries. This historic conflict in the English context lies behind much of the church-state understanding in the United States. The U.S. disestablishment (and its normative and paradigmatic status) is a reaction to the English/European tradition. The premise of this investigation is that the examination of these historic issues in the West will usefully inform an understanding of the Chinese situation and especially American perceptions of it. Placing the current “established” churches in China, namely the Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), in the context of the historic “established” or state-related or state-controlled churches in the West, will help to dissipate some of the typically American antipathy to such an arrangement.
The English Context
Antidisestablishmentarianism (particularly in the English understanding) is the idea that church and state are intimately linked and part of the body politic of the nation, and should not be separated. Emerging out of the reigns of Henry VIII and his 3 successive heirs, Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary I (1553-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the so-called Elizabethan Settlement, as articulated by Richard Hooker in his monumental The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, has informed this context ever since. The Elizabethan Settlement, which established what came to be called “Anglicanism,” was an attempt to be a non-confessional comprehensive established church which embraced all English Christians and their various theologies, severed from ties to foreign potentates and bishops (specifically Rome, Wittenberg or Geneva). This “Establishment” had some parallels in Scotland and other countries of Europe, each of which however had confessional establishments in Lutheran, Reformed, Roman Catholic and Orthodox configurations.
In England this Establishment was challenged by Puritans and other more radical movements beginning in the late 16th century. This century-long struggle led ultimately Puritan emigration to New England, to the English Civil War (1642-51), the Commonwealth and Protectorate (1649-1659) and ultimately the Restoration of the King and Anglicanism (1660). The Restoration eventually included the “toleration” of three recognized nonconforming English Protestant sects (Presbyterian, Independents/Congregationalists and Baptists), and some Conventiclers. This new status quo (with the additional toleration of Methodists) obtained in various forms until the reforms of the 1830s. Vestiges of this Establishment continue to exist to this day with the established Church of England. Church of England bishops and senior clergy continue to be appointed by the crown and a set number of senior bishops are members of the House of Lords, with the Head of State (the monarch as Fidei Defensor) being approved and crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The United Kingdom is unique among Western democracies in this relationship. Many other European countries (especially Ireland and Greece) also maintain tight church-state relationships to this day.
A footnote in European church history, but to my mind a significant one in the Chinese context, is the Prussian Unionism. In 1817, Frederick William III, King of Prussia, decreed that in his dominions the Lutheran and Reformed churches be merged into the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union. The Kings of Prussia had been Reformed and many of their subjects had been Lutheran. The series of decrees from 1817 and 1830 were in part a commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the Augsburg Confession. He used as a model for this the Elizabethan Settlement and attempted to secure English bishops for his new established church but ultimately failed. This “syncretism,” as especially some Lutherans viewed it, led to the emigration of some Alt-lutheraner (who were now subject to persecution in Prussia) to the United States and to the formation of hyper-confessional groups such as the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. The American descendents of the Prussian Union, the German Evangelical Synod, continued their ecumenical destiny of unionism into the Evangelical and Reformed Church (1932) and the United Church of Christ (1957). The forced union of two incompatible confessions by the State led to the formation of a new and dynamic movement which eventually transcended these seemingly intractable divisions, not unlike the union of all Protestants in post-revolutionary China.
This historical connection between Church and State in the West, which stretches from the time of Constantine and Theodosius in the 4th century through the Middle Ages both in the East and the West, through the Protestant Reformation until the present, should give us a more sober perspective and appreciation for the Chinese context. The antidisestablishmentarian tradition maintains that the State has a legitimate role in regulating and setting parameters for religious organizations including forcing unions, accepting or rejecting certain denominations and confessions. In most nations, including non-Christian nations such as Israel and Muslim nations, India and others, this is a perfectly reasonable and desirable role for government to play. For most Americans, this idea is the antithesis of what we perceive to be the right order of things, and causes many to question the legitimacy of the current Chinese developments
The U.S. American tradition of disestablishment is very much a reaction to the English and wider European context. For Americans, disestablishment of religion is considered a human right. It became enshrined in the U.S. constitution in the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment. This informs the reality and perception of US Americans’ interpretation of Church-State relations and on the illegitimacy of governmental “interference” in church affairs. It informs how mission is conducted with rivalry among different Christian sects and religious tests of doctrinal purity or openness. Ideas of national corporate cultural character connected to the State in which the church is a component is viewed as anathema and un-Christian. This view obtains, in spite of the fact that for over 1500 years religious establishment was the presumed norm for the vast majority of Christians throughout the world. This is, of course, a kind of paradigm shift related to the Enlightenment, and the specifically the American experience.
The positive aspects of the American experience in the new framework of its religious non-establishment cannot be underestimated. The unleashing of creative energy in the many religious traditions is very impressive. It has had significant impact on worldwide Christianity in direct proportion to U.S. power in the world. In spite of the disestablishment of specific Christian sects, there is a very significant sense in which the Anglo-Protestant establishment was and continues to be a kind of national religion.
American religious experience has always had a practical and national character. This, Porterfield claims, is the Anglo-Protestant or Puritan tradition in the United States which has formed its various permutations of American exceptionalism both secular and religious. It also has caused the integration of religious and moral values into all aspects of society an ethos which continues, into religious and philosophical traditions completely detached from Anglo-Protestant Christianity. The connection of ethical behavior and God’s blessing and a notion of National Covenant, which underlies much of American thinking, is bizarre to Europeans.
In a very interesting article attempting to explain America’s peculiar religiosity to Germans, Klaus Harpprecht, in the 5 December 2002 issue of the German weekly Die Zeit, attributes this to America’s Puritan heritage. Harpprecht, like Porterfield, sees America’s current mission-like desire to spread “democracy” as coming from its Anglo-Protestant heritage, and the cynicism of Europeans toward this missionary endeavor as based on a less robust belief in human perfectibility.
The Islamic world is also deeply suspicious of America and its intentions. The comparison of American secular neo-colonialism with the Crusades is telling, and perhaps (from their perspective) valid, since it springs, according to Porterfield and Harpprecht, from the taproot of Anglo-Protestantism. One might say the Muslims’ antennae are up and attuned better than ours in the West. This issue could be explored at great length. There is from the American perspective a kind of euphoria (cf the popularity of the idea of invading Iraq) about our place in the world, which might be compared with the euphoria of the post-Nicene Church Fathers who saw the Christianized Roman imperial system as the fulfillment and breaking in of the Kingdom of God. There are many American Christians who see the United States in this light. This is especially true of the Christian Right and of the Darbyite Pre-Millenialists (cf the popularity of the Left Behind series) who see America’s uncritical support of Israel as part of God’s plan. This issue could also be explored at length.
Church and Culture in China and the Indigenization of Christianity
16th and 17th centuries
China, more than any European nation, has a concept of corporate national identity, which for millennia was connected with the emperor. There is great suspicion of foreign influence and ideas in China. This was true of the arrival of Buddhism in China and its subsequent indigenization which included a process of syncretism – involving especially its embrace of the Emperor and Chinese family values. This dynamic of a centralized authority, ruled by a philosopher king continued with the importation of Enlightenment ideas and ultimately Communism from the West. One could argue that the current party-run authoritarian regime is a continuation of this ancient Chinese model. Jesuit missionaries, who were early Western observers of the Chinese situation, in the late 16th century, were most impressed with this unified society as well as recognizing its faults. Although this was likely a limited and idealized experience, it points to a reality which seems to have parallels to this day. The Communist Party appears to have replaced the Emperor and his Mandarins. The early Jesuits were greatly admired by the Confucian scholars of the day and won many influential converts. Their success was due to their embrace of the Chinese philosophical and cultural worldview to express the truths of the Gospel. Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the most influential of the Jesuits, saw this as similar to the embrace of Greek and Roman philosophy by the early church. The demise of the Jesuit mission occurred when Chinese Christians prohibited by the Church from observing Confusion customs (breaking the bond between Christianity and Chinese culture), finally resulting in all Christians being banned. The need for an acculturated or indigenized form of Christianity was essential for its success. The Jesuit mission ended in failure, due to its refusal to become embrace the culture and to indigenize.
19th and 20th centuries
By the end of over a century of intense mission work by the brightest and best of Western Protestant missionaries from 1841 until 1949, less than a million Chinese called themselves Christians. Today, after over 55 years with no Western missionaries and long periods of relentless oppression by Communist officials there are perhaps 40 million Christians. Various explanations have been given for this phenomenon. Yet one significant factor is the acculturation and indigenization of the faith in the Communist period, which has enabled Protestantism and Catholicism to be viewed as truly Chinese religious options, just as Buddhism had been indigenized many centuries earlier, and thus moved from a foreign religion to a home-grown religious option. How did this happen and what does it look like?
This is a hugely complex problem which cannot be dealt with in great depth in this paper, but some observations will be attempted. What did the acculturation and indigenization of the Christian churches look like in China after the Revolution?
One recurring observation on the part of members of the China Seminar was what we perceived as the lack of indigenization. This was regularly observed especially with regard to the worship services we attended. That is, the hymnody, the order of service, clergy and choir vesture, the use of pews, the architectural and interior design of the churches, all seemed very Western (American) and non-Chinese. The exception being that all was conducted in Chinese, by Chinese leaders. Interestingly the introduction to the hymnal of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) indicates that over two-thirds of the hymns are of European or American origin. The expectation of the group, me included, was that this would be different. In all but language, one felt like one had been in a mainline American Protestant church in the 1950s, including a full church at multiple services (rare in mainline churches today). It was as if the old model (very successful in mid-century America), which now feels very old in the U.S., still works in China. Similarly, among the so-called unregistered or house churches, which are claimed to be growing even faster than the official churches, there appears to be a very Western style of worship, not unlike contemporary evangelical worship in the U.S. How is this indigenized?
With the expulsion of Western Christian missionaries and hierarchs after 1949, the various churches in China were compelled to develop their own leadership. Ting Kuang-hsun (K.H. Ting), who had been consecrated an Anglican Bishop, became the leader of the TSPM which combined all Christian Protestant denominations into one church or movement. Together with its network of seminaries, bible colleges, the Chinese Christian Council, the Amity Foundation and related institutions, the TSPM took the legacy of over a century of Western Christian missions and perpetuated it throughout the Communist period. Within this period, the content and form of this legacy seems little changed, rather as observed in worship and in part also in its theological training, it appears rather frozen in time. While in the West there has been significant theological development since the 1940s, the focus in China has been on other things. The three principles of self-governance, self-support (i.e., financial support) and self-propagation (i.e., indigenous missionary work) which, were first articulated by Henry Venn of the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society in the 1840s as principles of indigenous Christian Missions and later adopted also by the Lausanne Conference in 1974, were embraced by the emerging Chinese church. However, in post-revolutionary China a fourth principle was added, namely “patriotic,” by which was meant the idea that the church was to actively engage in the Communist program of building a new China. The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which came into existence with the break with the Pope in 1957, had similar aims. (Interestingly, like the TSPM which appears to be mired in the 1950s, the CPCA continued to worship according to the Latin Tridentine Mass until quite recently.) Both movements, however, embraced and continue to embrace the Patriotic program, i.e. strict rejection of outside control or influence and clear allegiance to Chinese culture and government (as articulated by the Communist Party).
Thus, these four principles: self-governance, self-support, self-propagation and conformity to patriotic goals of the party appear to be the way acculturation and indigenization has taken place over the last 55 years. Though not readily observable by a Westerner at a Sunday worship service, these principles appear to have enabled the Church to move from a foreign sect to an interesting religious and philosophical option for Chinese of all socio-economic and educational levels.
Antidisestablishmentarianism in the Chinese Context
Among the Chinese, the union of religion and culture (as expressed by the emperor or the party) is very important. This was also true in the West for many centuries. Once can argue that the mission of the church has been furthered and enabled by its historic complicity with the State. A significant factor in the Protestant Reformation and its success in effecting various breaks with Rome was the rise of nationalism in the various States of Europe. The various Protestant establishments throughout Europe furthered national cultures and patriotism to a very significant degree. In that context, evangelism, conversions, theological discourse, biblical scholarship and church life in general flourished for many centuries. This marriage of church, culture and state, even the forced union of churches (as in 19th century Prussia) was very successful for most Christians of Europe into the mid-20th century. Interestingly worship and theology were quite static in that period as well. For example, in the English-speaking realm, an antiquated early-17th century State-sponsored translation of the Bible (KJV) and the archaic religious language it produced continued unchanged (and un-acculturated) into the mid-20th century. This phenomenon seems also to parallel the strangely anachronistic worship in the TSPM churches in China. One might say the antidisestablishmentarian church is to represent stability and continuity rather than being a transformative and challenging force in society.
The tradition of religious establishment (voluntary and involuntary) which served the West very well for many centuries now appears to be serving the church in post-revolutionary China very well today. European Protestant antidisestablishmentarianism with its patriotic, nationalist and culture-embracing character fulfilled the evangelistic purposes of the church in its day. So too this patriotic, culture-(even Communist Party)-embracing movement in China today, seems to enable the church to succeed and grow significantly.
American disestablishmentarianism and China today
As noted in the historical survey above, the disestablishmentarian tradition in the United States and colonial America has stood as a critique of the European and Latin American models of church, state and culture. The church, in spite of its Anglo-Protestant quasi-establishment, has retained a critical distance from the state and culture. This has been increasingly true in the past half-century. As an extremely well-developed portion of civil society, the church is a separate entity from the State and culture. This view can be challenged and there are many vestiges of the church serving as a handmaiden to the state (especially the right-wing), as noted above.
Nonetheless, the encouragement of disestablishmentarianism by American Christians in China, by fostering and supporting the so-called underground churches and publicizing their purported persecution, Americans (and other like-minded Westerners) add a dynamic to the Chinese religious scene which is important. The free-church critique of the Erastianism of the TSPM and CPCA and how it plays out into the future will be interesting to observe. From an American perspective the outcome is thought to be obvious: the State-related institutions should be viewed with suspicion and the untainted house church believers are obviously the wave of the future. Yet one must remember that established churches in Europe and Latin America prospered for many centuries to the present, even as they discriminated with State help against the non-established sects (all in the name of maintaining “decency and order”).
The American penchant for supporting the underdog and our inherent suspicion of religious establishments should not make us unable to relate to both phenomena in China. The development of a cultural critique, one of the key benefits of disestablishment, currently appears to be lacking in mainland China. Yet in Hong Kong there appears to be the beginnings of this in movements in such groups as the Hong Kong Christian Institute and Rose Wu. This movement and similar movements have surely not been missed by church people on the mainland and thus will eventually have an influence.
The issues of Church, Culture and State are very complex issues and much more complex than many Americans (with our First Amendment fixation) are willing to understand. Through many centuries and many permutations, the church has not merely survived but has thrived in the context of meddling State officials. The church and religion as an arm of the a unified culture, as currently fostered by the Chinese Communist Party, is not at all unknown in Church history. Richard Hooker proposed something akin to this in 16th century England, as did Thomas Erastus in Heidelberg in the same period.
A key to the growth and prosperity of the Church in China appears to be its indigenization and independence from outside control and interference. It is flourishing in the way it has developed since the departure of foreign control in 1949. The American messianic-imperialist agenda in this area is very much to be avoided (see above), as are tendencies to impose our experience on them. It is my hope that Western Christians could be supportive of and non-prejudicial toward the Chinese Church in whatever way it is led by the Holy Spirit in this current period of its existence.