17 August 2007

Irish Anglican bishops in
China: their role in moving
from a mission church to
an independent church

Patrick Comerford in to Beijing in 2004 (Photograph: Caroline Fielder)

Rising China in the Age of Globalisation:

The Inaugural International Conference of the UCD Confucius Institute for Ireland and the Irish Institute for Chinese Studies

16-17 August 2007:

Irish Anglican bishops in China:
their role in moving from a mission church to an independent church

Conference session 2:
Friday 17 August 2007
Chinese Culture & Language

Revd Canon Patrick Comerford, BD, Dip Ecum, FRSAI,
Director of Spiritual Formation,
Church of Ireland Theological College, Dublin

A copy of the Nestorian stele in the Mien Church in Shanghai ... the followers of Nestorius had brought Christianity to China within two centuries of his death (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Next month marks the bicentenary of the arrival in Macao on 4 September 1807 of Robert Morrison (1782-1834), the first Protestant missionary in China. And in October, Trinity College Foochow – now the Foreign Languages School – is marking the centenary of its foundation 100 years ago in 1907 by graduates of Trinity College Dublin and what is now the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission.

The celebration of these anniversaries shows how things are changing in China. Today, there are between 20 and 80 million Christians in China – depending on whose statistics and counting methods you accept – and some observers say there are now as many, if not more, Christians in China as there are party members. However, at least three dilemmas continue to be problematic for Protestant Christians in China.

Protestant and Catholic Christians remain deeply separated. Protestants, or members of Jidu jiao (literally, Christianity), and Catholics, members of Tianzhu jiao (literally ‘Lord of Heaven’ religion), are seen as members of different religions, with different words for God, Christ, Spirit, and Christianity, and different translations of the Bible.[1] How can China’s Christians relate constructively and ecumenically to each other?

To what degree can Christianity be seen an indigenous Chinese religion? Unlike Buddhists or Muslims, Christians in China are not always seen as part of a global, universal belief system. Christian missionaries first arrived in China in 635, predating the arrival of Islam and some schools of Buddhism. Yet Christians are seen as the heirs to the foreign missionaries of the last two centuries. Did those missionaries plant a foreign religion, or did they see Christianity as something to be rooted in Chinese soil and history?

And, to what degree can Chinese Christians own the legacy of the missionaries of the last 200 years? In their efforts to be truly Chinese, must Chinese Christians turn their back on the missionary legacy? Or is there something the missionaries contributed to the development of current Chinese social, political and cultural values?

I will not attempt to answer these questions this afternoon. But in approaching them in the context of this conference, I think it is helpful to look at the careers of four unique Irish missionary bishops who worked in China in the 19th and 20th centuries.

My generation in Ireland remembers with affection the Maynooth Mission to China and the Far East Magazine. The Columban Fathers were founded as the Society of Saint Columban in 1916. However, Irish people are less familiar with two Church of Ireland or Anglican mission agencies that worked in China in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Irish branch of the Church Mission Society, also known as the Hibernian Church Missionary Society and now CMS Ireland, and the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, first formed in Trinity College Dublin as the Dublin University Fukien Mission.

Four bishops from the Church of Ireland worked with these agencies and the Church in China in the last two centuries: William Armstrong Russell, the first Bishop of North China; Herbert James Molony, Bishop of Zhejiang (Chekiang); John Hind, Bishop of Fujian (Fukien); and John Curtis, Bishop of Zhejiang (Chekiang), the last Irish Anglican bishop to work in China.[2] These bishops were key figures in the formation of the Anglican Church in China, the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui (CHSKH, literally the Holy Catholic Church of China), and they contributed substantially to the vision of moving the Chinese Church from the control of mission agencies to being truly indigenous and independent.

William Armstrong Russell:

The first Irish bishop to work in China, Dr William Armstrong Russell (1821-1879), was a key figure in the early Anglican presence in China and in the formation of Anglican dioceses in China. Although he died almost 10 years before DUFEM was founded, his early work inspired many DUFEM members who followed him to China.

Russell was born in Littleton, Co Tipperary, in 1821. After ordination, he left for China in 1847 with two companions, including another TCD graduate, William Farmer. Although they arrived in China almost 40 years after Morrison, this small group of two Irishmen and one Englishman were the first Anglican missionaries to settle in China.

Russell and his wife Mary worked together as a missionary couple, mainly in Ningbo (Ningbo). When the second Opium War ended in 1859/1860, Russell said ‘the whole of China is opened up to the preaching of the Gospel.’ But he was deeply anguished that the humiliating terms of the treaty, as dictated by Britain, had been secured by ‘the hand of man, of cruel, covetous, God-less man,’ and he condemned the events from his inmost soul.

When the ‘Taiping’ rebels stormed Ningbo in December 1861, the Russells were ordered to move across the river into the foreign settlement, which was protected by foreign gunboats. Eventually, in 1862, against his best wishes, an injured Russell returned to England, where he worked on translating the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer into Chinese. But the call from China came again. When George Smith resigned as Bishop of Victoria, Hong Kong, in 1864, CMS proposed a missionary diocese centred on Ningbo, independent of the colonial see in Hong Kong, with Russell as bishop of the new diocese, and with authority over all CMS mission work in mainland China.

Archbishop Longley of Canterbury agreed, but any action was delayed for years as the mission agencies disagreed over the new diocesan boundaries. In addition, the new Bishop of Victoria, CR Alford, objected to losing his missionary responsibilities in mainland China, and did not want his diocese limited to the island of Hong Kong and an expatriate and colonial population of English-speaking merchants and seamen.

Eventually, Russell returned to Ningbo in 1868, but as CMS Secretary for China, and in this role, he travelled throughout China. Meanwhile, Alford stood on his dignity at the expense of developing a truly Chinese Anglican Church on mainland China; while Alford accused the missionaries of not doing enough and CMS of neglecting China, he opposed the plans for a new diocese based on Ningbo, insisting there was no need for a new bishop.

The new Irish-born Bishop of Peterborough, William Connor Magee, made a surprising intervention in the debate when he used an unplanned maiden speech in the House of Lords to defend the right of missionaries to work outside British colonial and trading areas, and attacked any effort to link mission work with trading and political interests:

There were trades carried on by British subjects and protected by the Government which would make a most unhappy preliminary to the preachings of the missionary. Should he wait till the beneficent influence of fire-water or opium had made the people more amenable to the preaching of the Gospel?

Archbishop Tait of Canterbury finally agreed to a new diocese, embracing all of China north of Latitude 28, and the work of Anglican missionaries and chaplains in Shanghai and Beijing. Alford was left with South China, including Hong Kong and the Province of Fujian (Fuh-kien) – which later became a focus for Irish missionary work, and in 1872 Russell was consecrated the first Bishop of North China in Westminster Abbey.

Russell quickly set about organising a truly Chinese Church. He exercised only a nominal jurisdiction over Beijing, which was too far away, and missionary work there was left in the hands of more high church Anglicans from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) and the Episcopal Church of the United States. Instead Russell’s work focussed on a region that embraced Ningbo, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, then China’s principal port and commercial centre, and in 1875 he accepted Holy Trinity Church, Shanghai, as the cathedral of the Diocese of North China.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai, where three Irish missionaries were bishops (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Between 1875 and 1876, he ordained four Chinese clergymen. In 1877, he took part in the first General Conference of Missionaries in Shanghai, an ecumenical gathering of 126 missionaries from different Anglican traditions, as well as Methodists, Presbyterians and Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission.

Russell took an independent stand on crucial aspects of Church life in China; he wanted a diocese free of the controls of British colonial rule in Hong Kong; his vision was for a church that was no longer dependant on the brutalities of colonial expansion and imperial wars to find opportunities for growth and evangelism; and he wanted the Chinese people to have their own clergy and the New Testament and the liturgy in their own language. All these helped pave the way for an authentically Chinese Church that would be self-propagating, self-supporting and self-governing.

After Russell’s death in Ningbo in 1879, his Diocese of North China was divided into the Diocese of North China, based in Beijing, which was transferred to SPG, and the Diocese of Mid-China, based in Shanghai, which remained within the CMS sphere.

Herbert James Molony:

The second Irish Anglican bishop in China, Hebert James Molony, also worked hard to move his diocese from missionary control to being part of a truly Chinese church. Born in Dublin in 1865, Molony was educated at Cambridge before going to North India in 1890 as a CMS missionary. When George Moule, who had succeeded Russell as Bishop of Mid-China, retired in 1907, there was a general feeling that Zhejiang (Chekiang) Province, centred on Hangzhou (Hangchow) and Ningbo (Ninpo), should become an ‘English’ rather than an ‘American’ episcopal area, transferring responsibility for the appointment of the next bishop to the Church of England and the Church of Ireland and their mission societies. And because of internal divisions in the diocese, it was agreed that the new bishop should be chosen from outside the diocese. And so, Molony was selected and was consecrated as Bishop of Mid-China in 1908.[3] A year later, the name and boundaries of his diocese were changed and he became Bishop of Zhejiang (Chekiang). The diocese included Hangzhou (Hangchow) and Ningbo (Ningpo), and the English-speaking congregation of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai.

One of Molony’s first moves was to appoint a Chinese priest, Sing Tsae-Seng, as an archdeacon, indicating his desire to move the diocese from missionary control to being a truly Chinese church. He took his first steps towards transferring the control of church life in Zhejiang from the missionaries to the diocese in February 1910 when he proposed the appointment of ‘a Diocesan Board, on which the Synod will devolve [its] executive functions.’ The diocesan board would take responsibility for all pastoral expenses, and he asked CMS for a block grant for a number of years, instead of a variable annual grant, to help the board to stimulate self-support in the Chinese church councils.

Molony’s proposals were rejected by CMS in London, but he had the support of the missionaries in his diocese, who felt that the need for more Chinese catechists and schoolmasters was greater than the need for more missionaries.

When this proposal was also rejected, Molony wrote:

A feeling of real distrust of home methods is engendered when it appears that the proposals made have apparently been ignored … Other men will be lost if the Society will not alter its policy of sending out all accepted missionaries regardless of opinion from the field.

Then in 1912, 11 of the 12 Anglican and Episcopalian Dioceses in China – the sole exception was the ‘colonial’ Diocese of Victoria, Hong Kong – united to form the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui (CHSKH, literally the Holy Catholic Church of China). Molony was a key bishop in moving the CHSKH towards self-government, independence and indigenisation. Although it was a further 18 years before it was recognised as an independent church within the Anglican Communion, the CHSKH at its first synod in 1912 approved its own constitution and canons of church government, strongly influenced by the Church of Ireland.

A CMS delegation from Europe visited Zhejiang in 1912-1913 and was impressed by ‘the advanced condition of the organised church life’ in Molony’s diocese. However, the delegates were not happy with the role played by local committees in organising mission work. Their advice was rejected by Molony and the local committees or sub-conferences continued as an influential mission-centred element in the diocese, and the process of devolving control from foreign mission to the local church continued.

Under new diocesan rules drawn up in 1913, the diocesan synod would consist of the diocesan bishop, any assistant bishops, all licensed clergy and lay representatives of the pastorates or parishes; overseas grants were to be paid into a diocesan fund; and the diocesan board would appoint the chairs of district church councils. Two years later, the diocesan synod began to transfer property from CMS to the Diocese of Zhejiang.

At a spring conference in Hangzhou (Hangchow) in 1917, the missionaries supported Molony’s proposal for the election of a Chinese assistant bishop. Archdeacon Sing Tsae-seng, a son of the first Chinese Anglican priest in the diocese, was elected as Molony’s assistant bishop and was consecrated in 1918. Meanwhile, Molony proceeded to select and to ordain more Chinese priests. At its general synod in 1921, the CHSKH agreed to seek recognition as a self-governing church within the Anglican Communion. At the time, Molony argued that it was anomalous that China’s Anglican bishops came from England, the US or Canada, that they were appointed without consultation with the Church in China, and that they were consecrated outside China.

However, Molony’s efforts to transfer his diocese from the control of foreign-born missionaries to indigenous, local church leaders were not always welcomed by the missionaries. One complained that ‘the present method of diocesan organisation’ had ‘killed evangelism’ and had ‘eliminated the missionary as a factor in getting things done.’ Others accused the Irish-born bishop of being power-seeking and authoritarian.

With civil war, floods, and increasing Japanese interference from Japan’s new foothold in Shanghai, CMS missionaries in Zhejiang were warned in 1924 not to travel without escorts, and the mission schools were closed. By March 1927, all the missionaries had left Zhejiang and had moved into Shanghai, where they were living in three rented houses. Yet they were all back at their posts by the end of the year. Molony reported that they ‘thought it better to let government and business people’ press their claims for compensation if they wanted to, but the missionaries all waived ‘their rights out of sympathy with the nation in its period of confusion.’

By the time Molony retired in 1928, a great deal of CMS property had been transferred to the diocese, and the schools and hospitals had councils reporting to the diocesan synod. He had guided the diocese patiently and wisely through 20 difficult years, but he took a more sombre view of the prospect for foreign missionary work than many of his contemporaries and was concerned to build up a genuinely indigenous church.

John Hind:

The third Irish bishop was the Belfast-born Bishop of Fujian, John Hind (1879-1958). He was one of the early visionary missionaries who saw the need for the Church in China to become an authentically Chinese Church. His vision and his theology of mission and of the church prefigured many of the theological foundations for the shape of the church in China today.

Hind’s family had a strong commitment to mission, and his uncle, James Hind, was one of the first CMS missionaries in Japan. As a Trinity student, John was active in the Dublin University Fukien Mission (now DUFEM), and in his own words ‘was learning as much as possible about life in China with a view to my future work there.’ He was ordained deacon in Killaloe, Co Clare, in 1902 as the Diocese of Killaloe’s ‘own missionary.’

On his journey to Hong Kong in 1902, Hind fell in love with one of his fellow passengers, Alice Carpenter. Hind was ordained priest in Hong Kong later in 1903 by the Bishop of Victoria, Joseph Charles Hoare, and in one move became general overseer of Funing district, pastor of all the parishes and clerk of the works for the building of the new church and missionary’s home. Alice and John were married a year later in Saint John’s Church, Fuzhou.

Hind travelled around the Funing area on foot or in the TCD, a small boat presented to the mission by Trinity College Dublin, and he built new churches, chapels, schools and hospitals.

A new, separate Diocese of Fujian (Fukien), with Archdeacon Horace Price as bishop, was formed out of the Diocese of Hong Kong in 1906.

When Alice and their first child died within weeks of each other from dysentery, John Hind returned to Ireland with their baby son and became a curate in Saint Mary’s, Belfast. However, against all expectations, he returned to China in 1911, arriving as Sun Yatsen’s revolution was bringing the old imperial order to an end. Back in Fuzhou, Hind worked as headmaster of the CMS Middle School in Fuzhou and at Trinity College Fuzhou, which are celebrating their centenary this year as the Fuzhou Foreign Languages School.

The years 1912 to 1918 saw considerable growth expansion for the church in China. In 1912, the Diocese of Fujian (Fukien) joined the other Anglican dioceses in forming the new autonomous Anglican Church (CHSKH). In 1916, Hind’s mission reported a mass movement towards Christianity among the fishing community and boat people of the Funing Coast. This movement spread so rapidly, that when Hind came to confirm the baptised, they and their friends were so numerous the service was held in the open air.

Meanwhile, with the outbreak of World War I, Price had become a naval chaplain and he nominated Hind, then only 39, to succeed him as bishop. In accepting, Hind felt ‘a deep concern to see the Church become more truly Chinese in character and to see the administration become Church-centric rather than mission-centric.’ He was consecrated in Lambeth Palace in 1918 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson.

As Bishop of Fuzhou, Hind lived in Nantai. The diocese was slightly larger than Ireland: 38,500 square miles and had a population of over 4 million, with about 18,000 Christians and about 280 Anglican congregations.

At his first diocesan synod in 1919, Hind immediately discontinued the custom of keeping the minutes in English. It was agreed that the minutes should be in Chinese only, and all speeches must be in Chinese. He was convinced that the mission to China must become the Church in China. He reversed the accepted seniority of the missionaries – in future they were to be assistants to Chinese incumbents, and would cease to chair church councils; and the synods – not a missionary conference – would decide where the missionaries worked. Hind’s aim was to bring the Chinese Church to the point that it depended as little as possible on outside help, and he realised that a time would come when it would be better, for the health and safety of the Church, for westerners to leave China.

Hind played a crucial ecumenical role at the National Christian Conference in Shanghai in May 1922, leading to the formation of the National Christian Council of China, the predecessor of today’s China Christian Council.

Hind hoped the new council would provide a safety-valve for the resentment among Chinese Christians ‘at the control of Christian activities by missions and missionaries.’ He thought the removal of the foreign element from China would no longer cause the churches to collapse, and hoped that ‘gradually and one by one, the present institutions are replaced by institutions which bear a fully indigenous character.’ Hind’s views pointed prophetically to the future course Christianity would take in China under the Three-Self principles and the unity of Chinese denominations in the post-denominational China Christian Council.

He was also a pioneer in women’s ministry: in 1922, he ordained six women as deacons, and by the end of his episcopate, he had ordained seven Chinese women as deacons.

Realising that the foreign missionaries would soon have to leave China, Hind believed it was important that there should be a Chinese bishop to work in the diocese. The diocesan synod met secretly in 1927, and Archdeacon Ding Ingong was elected unanimously as Hind’s assistant. Ding was consecrated in Shanghai in November 1927, becoming the first Chinese assistant bishop in the diocese. Some weeks later, a new Anglican cathedral in Fuzhou was consecrated – it was built in memory of Archdeacon John Wolfe, an Irish missionary who worked for 53 years in Fujian.

Hind had an enforced and prolonged absence in England when he was rushed there for a major double operation in 1929, and remained for the 1930 Lambeth Conference. But he later reflected that his prolonged absence, when the diocese was in the care of a Chinese-born bishop for two years, ‘helped ... to forward the purpose which was one of the chief aims of my episcopate – namely, the development of a truly indigenous Church.’

While he was returning in 1930 Lambeth, he was told of the murder of two women missionaries who had been kidnapped. CMS in London blamed the Chinese government for indifference and inactivity, but Hind wrote to DUFEM: ‘God forbid that we should feel … wrath, or desire for revenge. Rather we are humiliated to feel that there are still so many who do not know the mighty power of God.’

In March 1933, Bishop Ding was captured by bandits during a confirmation service and was held prisoner for a month. As civil war spread, many inland missionaries opted to stay at their stations rather than risk the bandit-controlled roads. The General Synod of the CHSKH met in Fuzhou in April 1937. Within three months, bombs were falling on Fuzhou. Schools and hospitals were destroyed, newly-finished roads were ploughed up, famine was threatening, war brought normal life to a standstill, and the bishop realised the time had arrived to hand over to a Chinese successor.

Once again, however, illness struck severely, and he was in no state to make decisions when World War II broke out. Bishop Hind and Bishop Ding both retired in March 1940, and Hind was succeeded as Bishop of Fujian by Christopher Sargent. A week later, John Hind made their way to Shanghai for the return home to Ireland, bringing to a close 22½ years of a missionary episcopate in Fujian and 37½ years of mission work in China.

Back in Belfast, he retained an active interest in the Church in China, and in 1948 he hosted a dinner in Belfast for Sargent’s successor, Bishop Michael Chang. His Fukien Memories was published in Belfast in 1951,[4] and he died in Belfast in 1958.

John Curtis:

Bishop John Curtis, an Irish missionary bishop in China

John Curtis was the last Irish bishop associated from CMS and DUFEM to work in China. His career was the stuff of schoolboy adventure stories and comic strips: he was once an Irish soccer international; when the Japanese invaded China at the start of World War II, he became a prisoner of war in Shanghai; and he stayed on in China as a missionary bishop after the revolution, living in Hangzhou until he was forced to leave in 1950. His vision of a Church in China that was truly independent and truly Chinese was advanced for his day, and prefigured much of the thinking in contemporary Chinese theology.

Curtis was born in Dublin in 1880. His brother, Edmund Curtis (1881-1943), was a renowned historian. Following a curacy at Christ Church, Leeson Park, John Curtis opted to work in China, and left Ireland in 1906, working first in Fujian (1906-1928), and later as Bishop of Zhejiang (Chekiang) until 1950, interrupted only by a brief time in World War I, when he was an army chaplain with the allied forces in Thessaloniki, including the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

At one stage, Curtis wrote with insight from Funing: ‘The situation out here politically is more and more perplexing. It seems as if we are drifting nearer and nearer to some sort of a “Red China”.’ Undaunted, he stayed on in the region until 1926. The Diocese of Zhejiang (Chekiang) became vacant with Molony’s retirement, and Curtis was elected its new bishop. When he was consecrated in 1929, he was the first foreign bishop of the CHSKH to be consecrated in China, and his consecrating bishops included his predecessor, Molony, and the Chinese-born Assistant Bishop of Zhejiang (Chekiang), TS Sing.

As Bishop of Zhejiang, Curtis lived in Hangzhou, once described by Marco Polo as ‘the City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world.’ The diocese covered 36,680 square miles, and by 1950 had a population of 23 million, of whom 11,574 were Anglicans. The diocese was divided into three areas: Ningbo (Ningpo), Linhai (Taichow) and Hangzhou (Hangchow), where he lived. In addition, a special commission from the Archbishop of Canterbury extended Bishop Curtis’s jurisdiction to the 3,000 Anglicans in the so-called ‘English congregations in Shanghai, including Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai.’

In his first years in office, Curtis worked on bravely despite banditry, civil war and famine throughout his diocese. ‘In his long journeys about his diocese, mainly on foot, he was a hard man to follow,’ the Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai, later recalled. ‘In a New Year’s sermon in the cathedral, with an unconscious Irishness, he urged us to “advance in all directions”.’ [5]

During his time, there was real growth in Sunday schools and in the work of women missionaries. After 25 years of separate existence, the Chinese CMS was incorporated into the Zhejiang diocesan board of missions in 1930, making mission an integral part of the life and work of the diocese.

With the advance of the Japanese invading forces, large areas of the diocese came under Japanese control, all CMS secondary schools were closed, and ordination candidates were sent out of the diocese to Nanjing for training. On Christmas Day 1937, 90,000 Japanese troops entered Hangzhou. As living conditions deteriorated in the city, Curtis constantly visited the hospitals, medical camps and refugees, his overcoat pockets bulging with bottles of milk for the children. On what he called his ‘milk rounds,’ he also shepherded large numbers of frightened women and children to the safety of the refugee camps.

By June 1938, only three districts of diocese remained outside Japanese control. But Curtis spent six weeks touring the whole diocese that autumn. By 1940, the number of baptised Anglicans in the Diocese of Zhejiang was 12,000 – more than double the number in 1920. However, in September 1942 all the missionaries were called in for questioning. Curtis was arrested in November and taken to the Haipong Road Camp in Shanghai and then held in Stanley Camp, Hong Kong. On one occasion, the Japanese threatened to shoot him if he continued to criticise their treatment of his fellow prisoners, but it was said that in internment he was a great asset to the morale of the camp.

After World War II, some Irish missionaries began to return to China, but Curtis reported: ‘We are further away from self-help now than when I came here 17 years ago.’ At the end of his career, he appeared depressed about the prospects of the Chinese church surviving on its own. Yet he agreed it could be said ‘we are passing from mission relationships to Church relationships.’

Eventually, he was forced to leave China in 1950 at the age of 70. He died in England in 1962, aged 82. In an obituary in the Church Times, the former Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai, wrote of him: ‘He was a faithful father in God, a wise counsellor and a sympathetic friend … memories of him we shall treasure, and lives shaped by his influence and example will carry on God’s work which he loved and made so attractive by his own life and ministry.’[6] A CMS missionary in China at the time, WRO Taylor, recalled Curtis as a bishop with ‘distinctively Irish gifts’ that were valued in non-Anglican ecumenical circles which had little use for bishops.

Christian growth in China:

Seeking an authentically Chinese Christianity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There is no doubt that their Irish identity and the support they received from Ireland, gave these Irish missionaries an independence from colonial and imperial interests that were more difficult for their English and American Anglican or Episcopalian contemporaries to claim. This was first expressed by Russell at the end of the second Opium War, and by the Irish-born Magee in his demands for breaking the link between colonial and missionary expansion.

In addition, their experience of the benefits of disestablishment had brought to an independent Church of Ireland allowed them to appreciate the benefits of an independent, self-governing Chinese church with its own constitution and control over the activities of missionaries and mission agencies within its dioceses. Admittedly, the three self-principles of a church that is self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating, were first articulated by missionaries such as Henry Venn and Roland Allen.[7] But they were first applied by Hind, Molony and Curtis, and have since underpinned the ecclesiology of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which emerged in the 1950s, and the China Christian Council, which was formed in 1980. The most influential member in the formation of both these bodies has been Bishop KH Ting (Ding Guangxun, sometimes Ting Kuang-hsun), who was consecrated the last Anglican Bishop of Zhejiang in 1955, successor to both Molony and Curtis.[8]

When they left China, Curtis and Hind must have wondered about the future of the Church in China. In 1950, there was an estimated three million Catholics in China, and less than a million Protestants, divided by their loyalties to denominations and mission churches that reflected the divisions of the church in Europe and North America. Curtis and Hind may have felt dejected and fretted about the future prospects for the Church in China. But the changes that have taken place in China since then are stunning – it is said that three new Protestant churches are opened every two days in China.

This transformation is particularly visible in Hangzhou and Shanghai, two cities associated with Russell, Molony and Curtis. Curtis once described a mountainous area in his diocese as ‘a backwater of a backwater.’ But today Hangzhou, the bustling provincial capital of Zhejiang, is hardly a backwater, either for visitors or for the church. Hangzhou retains much of the charm that made it Marco Polo’s ‘City of Heaven.’ Chong-yi Church, opened early in 2005 in Qianjiang New City, now claims to be the largest church in China. At one Sunday morning service, I counted almost 2,500 people in the congregation, and almost all received Holy Communion.

As new churches are being built, older churches are being restored and reopened. The ‘Drum Tower’ Church in Hangzhou’s old historic quarter has been restored, with modern art and architectural details adding to its beauty. There are three regular Sunday services, with closed-circuit television relaying the singing and preaching to an overflow congregation in a ground floor chapel.

In Shanghai, the government has responded to the growth in Christianity, handing back Holy Trinity Cathedral, the former Anglican cathedral used by the Irish bishops, and the buildings of the former cathedral choir school on Jiujiang Street. The former school has been refurbished as the headquarters of the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the China Christian Council is restoring Holy Trinity Cathedral.


What motivated these four Irish bishops to work in China? Why did their supporting agencies, CMS and DUFEM decided to devote such considerable financial and personnel resources in China during that time?

Irish Anglican mission engagement with China long predates the formation of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission in 1885. When some of the early Irish missionaries, including RW Stewart and JS Collins, were murdered or drowned, the accounts of their deaths only helped to attract more missionaries from Ireland to China. The allocation of Fujian Province to the Irish missionaries by CMS helped to consolidate the sense of identification of the Church of Ireland with this work, among fund-raising easier. The work was supported by strong bases not just in TCD, but in parishes such as Christ Church, Leeson Park, and diocese such as Killaloe, where Charles Dowse was rector and bishop in turn.

The Irish identity of the four Irish bishops and the Irish clergy who worked with them in China had an independence in style and approach to mission that was in sharp contrast to both their Roman Catholic contemporaries from Ireland and to their Anglican contemporaries from England and North America. They were instrumental in the formation of the Anglican Church in China, the Chung Hua Sheng Hui, and because of its separate identity, outside the structures of the Church of England or the Episcopal Church in the US, Anglicanism played an important role in helping Chinese Christianity to survive the turmoils of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, including civil war and the Japanese invasion.

The missiology (mission theology) and ecclesiology (theology of the church) of these Irish bishops and their contemporaries among Irish Anglican missionaries in China contributed substantially to the vision of moving the Chinese Church from the control of mission agencies to being truly indigenous and independent. In this, they foresaw many of the values expressed in the ‘Three-Self’ Movement of self-governance, self-financing and self-propagation.

Three-Self principles in practice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A supplemental note on some Chinese terms in Christianity:

1, Names of God in Chinese:

Chinese-language terms for God have, since the introduction of Christianity to China, proved a point of contention for Chinese Christians and non-Chinese Christians in China, especially missionaries.

Shangdi (上帝, literally, ‘Sovereign King Above’) is one of the most prevalent terms for God in modern Chinese, used by non-Christians in conversations as well as Christians. The Catholic Church historically favoured Tianzhu (天主, literally, ‘Lord of Heaven’) over Shangdi, more commonly by Protestant Christians. 基利斯督 was an old term for Christ pronounced ‘gaylayseedok’ in Cantonese, which tries to capture the Greek (Χριστός, Christos) or Latin (Christus) pronunciation. The shortened form 基督 (Pinyin is Jidu) is used more commonly in both Catholic and Protestant circles.

In most modern Protestant Chinese Bibles, the word 神 (Shen, a reference to a godly supreme being or a spirit or spirit generally) is used widely as well as Shangdi. The space used before the character “神” is intentional, in order to demonstrate reverence.

The Protestant versions of the Chinese Bible use 靈 (Ling, which means ‘spirit’) to refer to the Spirit.

The Catholic version, in contrast, uses 神 (‘sheng,’ or spirit). When it is referring to the Holy Spirit, a word 聖 (sheng, holy) is used before the word spirit to refer to the Holy Spirit. An evil spirit will have a modifier ‘evil’ before the spirit.

In addition, the Hebrew word Yahweh is translated into 雅威 ‘yǎwēi’ by Catholics. This translation is used only by Catholics Church. It is only to capture the most sacred Hebrew pronunciation of the name of God, but 雅 means refined or graceful while 威 means might. On the other hand, Jehovah is translated into 耶和華 (yēhéhuá) by Chinese Protestants. Similarly, this term is used only in Chinese-speaking Protestant circles. Originally, 爺火華 (yéhuǒhuá) was used, which had a much more violent connotation than the modern translation.

Some versions translate this term as 上主 (shang zhu, Above Lord), similar to the translation decision made as capitalised ‘LORD,’ used by both Catholics and traditional Protestants like Anglicans and Lutherans, especially in the Eucharistic prayers. However, the term 主 (zhu, Lord) is used by both Catholics and traditional Protestants in formal prayers, and always by contemporary Protestants.

2, Chinese for the three main types of Christians:

The modern Chinese language typically divides Christians into two groups, believers of Protestantism Jidu jiaotu (基督教徒, a term that sometimes refers to Christianity), and believers of Catholicism Tianzhu jiaotu (天主教徒).

Orthodox are referred to as 東正教徒 ‘dongzheng jiaotu,’ but more correctly 正教徒 ‘zhengjiaotu,’ because there is only one Chinese term for both Eastern and Oriental which is 東 ‘dong’ and simply means the east. The latter term is more correct also because the Eastern Orthodox Churches are not in communion with the Oriental Orthodox churches.

3, Chinese for Christianity:

基督教 has traditionally referred to Christianity. However, to reduce confusion and for ecumenical movement, 基督新教 is used to denote Protestant churches, while 基督宗教 represents the religion of Christianity.

Footnotes and References:

[1] See the supplemental notes at the end of this paper.
[2] For fuller biographical accounts of these bishops see my From Mission to Independence: four Irish bishops in China (Dublin and Shanghai: DUFEM, 2006); and Jack Hodgins, Sister Island, History of the Church Missionary Society in Ireland 1814-1994 (Belfast: CMS Ireland, 1997).
[3] Molony’s wife was a sister-in-law of John Brown Ost from Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, a missionary for 33 years with CMS and DUFEM in China, and her uncle, John Shaw Burdon, was the Bishop of Victoria, Hong Kong (1874-1898).
[4] John Hind, Fukien Memories (Belfast, 1951).
[5] The Church Times, 20 July 1962.
[6] The Church Times, 20 July 1962.
[7] See Max Warren (ed), To apply the Gospel: selections from the writings of Henry Venn (Grand Rapids, 1971), p. 26, and Roland Allen, Missionary methods: Saint Paul’s or ours? (London, 2nd ed, London, 1927), passim.
[8] See RL Whitehead, No longer strangers: Selected writings of KH Ting (Maryknoll, 1989).

The Revd Canon Patrick Comerford, BD, Dip Ecum, FRSAI, is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College, Dublin (Braemor Park, Dublin 16.) He is chair and former secretary of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission. This lecture was prepared for the Inaugural International Conference of the UCD Confucius Institute for Ireland and the Irish Institute for Chinese Studies, 16-17 August 2007, Conference session 2: Friday 17 August 2007, Chinese Culture & Language.

Introductory note:

The Revd Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College, Dublin, where he lectures in church history and liturgy. He is chair and former secretary of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission. He studied theology at the School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, Kimmage Manor, the Pontifical University Maynooth and the Church of Ireland Theological College. He first visited China in 1979 when he was a journalist with The Irish Times, and has since travelled regularly and often through East Asia. In recent years, he has visited many theological colleges in China and Hong Kong.

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