I immediately accepted the kind invitation from the Principal to speak on the theme "Being Anglican: perspectives from Asia," because it is an honour and privilege to be able to do so in a theological community that has fired the imagination of generations of young people to consecrate their lives for mission overseas. Here, I think especially of the Cambridge Seven, and George Evans Moule and Arthur Evans Moule, brothers of Ridley’s first principal. There is also another reason. The subtlety of the proposed title fascinates me. It invites me to approach the topic synchronically, to take ecological snap shots of the state of Anglican churches in Asia. As it is popular in some circles, there are "many Asias, many Christianities," so there are "many Anglicanisms." Along this line, my task is to highlight the multiple ways in which historic Anglicanism, as it is expressed in the Church of England’s trajectory, is mapped and transformed in culturally diverse contexts. One can then end by underlining the many faces that make up Anglican-being at the start of the twenty-first century.
The title also invites us to approach the task diachronically, that is, to reflect on the spiritual journeys of Anglicans in Asia as one would in an Ignatian daily examen. Here, the focus is on recalling and therefore in re-imagining in our time-space the journeys of forebears, to engage in their intensely personal and spiritual task of living out the calling to ‘be'. Along this line, clearly, therefore, there is no final word to perceptions of "being Anglican". Perception and understanding of this gifted vocation are always tentative, and open to be purified and revised as the Spirit leads God's people to connect their experience more deeply to God's saving purposes. To talk about ‘being Anglican', in this sense, is more like a conversation between fellow pilgrims around a camp fire, to share what they have seen along their way, to leave behind signposts to alert and encourage those who are to follow, and indeed, to reflect on the marks that those before them have left behind. Accordingly, to speak on being Anglican is to deepen the theological nature of what is seen, heard and sensed, to put them in their true relations. It is a traditioning task. The strength of any narrative of ‘being Anglican', it follows, lies in its openness to other accounts across time and space, its power to develop and to be purified by them, and its capacity to provide a theological language by which pilgrims from all nations can discern better their moral and spiritual tasks of the present time.
Later in this presentation, I shall reflect on the spiritual journey of two persons: the first is an Episcopal priest Dong Jianwu in Shanghai, China in the early twentieth century; and second, Bishop Chiu Ban It of Singapore in the early years of his episcopate. I shall end by outlining what their ways of being Anglican have to say to Anglicans in the present time.
Anglican Asian Realities
But I shall begin with a clarification. What are the Anglican and Asian realities I am describing? In the present time, Anglican communities are spread across seventeen countries or political regions along the Asian Pacific Rim: from Japan and South Korea to the northeast, then sweeping down to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, the Philippines, Brunei and East Malaysia in northern part of Borneo island, the Indonesian islands, and up to Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malay Peninsula, Indochina, Nepal. They add up to 800,000 Anglicans, according to the World Christian Database. On closer inspection, the World Christian Database figures are not accurate. They overestimate in some instances, as for Vietnam, and grossly underestimate in others, as in Nepal. Nonetheless, the statistics show Anglicans are a small minority: they make up of less than half a percent of the total Christian population, and less than 0.09 percent of the population at large. In contrast, Roman Catholics account for nearly 63 percent of Christian numbers. To compare, the number of Anglicans in Burundi is 25 percent more than the entire number of Anglicans in Asia. Anglicans in Asia gather around six autonomous ecclesiastical provinces, except for the Diocese of Taiwan, which is part of The Episcopal Church, and The Church of Ceylon, which is extra-provincial within the Anglican Communion under the metropolitan authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
This calls for two comments:
- This account immediately reveals a glaring absence. South Asia, except for Sri Lanka, and China are missing in the picture. Anglican churches in South Asia and China, which were a focus of Anglican mission in the nineteenth century, pursued different paths in the mid-twentieth century. South Asian Anglicans evolved to become part of the united churches in the subcontinent, while the Anglican Church in China effectively stopped to function by the mid-1950s, in the wake of Communist victory in 1949 and the re-organisation of churches under the banner of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in China in 1951. These absences, however, can perhaps also be understood to be a transformation of Anglican identity in Asia under two powerful movements of thought in the early twentieth century: a nationalist movement, that often defined itself in terms of anti-imperialist sentiment, and the modern ecumenical movement, which saw church union schemes to be a positive way forward for the 'younger churches' around the world. In any case, in practice, huge social, political, and ecclesiastical realignment in the late twentieth century meant the remaining Anglican churches in Asia needed to create or rebuild their infrastructure. This was a daunting task. The remaining Anglicans in Asia were numerically weak, and poorly resourced amid mission strategy that was largely focused in British India and China. Social dislocation in times of war and nation-building also resulted in memory loss of the rich intellectual heritage that Chinese and South Asian Anglicans had accumulated for over a century. Imagine how Indian and Chinese Anglicans could draw from the strength of their philosophical tradition to contribute intellectually and spiritually to the life of the Anglican Communion, and how much we are poorer because of their absence.
- Anglicans in Asia also have another unique feature. Japanese, Korean and Chinese Anglicans strictly-speaking do not call themselves ‘Anglicans’ or ‘Episcopalians’ in their own language. They call themselves the ‘Holy Catholic Church’ (e.g., sei ko kai in Japanese, sheng gong hui in Chinese, and seong gong hoe in Korean), and attach the same term to Anglicans around the world. For instance, the Church of England becomes the Holy Catholic Church in England. Briefly, the term surfaced in the course of an intentional mission policy of both British and American missionaries in the nineteenth century not to reproduce the structure of the sending churches and mission societies among peoples of high culture in eastern Asia. Instead, the aim was to evangelise and convert the ‘natives’, teach them to read the Bible and to pray, and leave church structure matters to the ‘native’ church. Bible and prayer book translation became a primary task. The first ‘Anglican’ prayer book in Chinese translation, consisting of the daily office of the Church of England, was published by Robert Morrison in 1818 in Malacca. The ‘holy catholic church’ in the third article of the creed caught the imagination of the Anglican and Episcopalian missionaries. In 1877, George Evans Moule, published a commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles under title Sheng Gong Hui Da Gang (Principles of the Holy Catholic Church). This is the first self-reference of the Anglicans in China as the Holy Catholic Church. In 1887, American Episcopalian Frederick Graves published in Chinese an outline of Joseph Bingham’s Origines Ecclesiasticae: the Antiquities of the Ancient Church, with the title Sheng Gong Hui Gu Gui (Tradition of the Holy Catholic Church). American Episcopalian missionaries in fact were the main carrier of the 'Holy Catholic Church' vision in China. They too needed to define their identity in relation to the Church of England across the ocean, and against the Puritan majority in the New World. Arguably they mapped their own journey in the mission situation in China. The Oxford Movement also contributed to this awakening of the Holy Catholic identity. When the English, American and Canadian Anglican missionaries merged their churches in China into one ecclesiastical body in 1912, they named it "Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui," Holy Catholic Church in China. The American Episcopal magazine The Spirit of Missions explained the term in an editorial:
There was no desire to assume an exclusive attitude or to make ill-considered claims. As a matter of fact, the conference did nothing more nor less than preserve, as it alone could, for the future united Christian communions of China, the name of the historic creeds. (July 1912, 493)
To underscore this, the new Church's constitution consisted in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui began with this high hope. The Chinese Republic was founded in the same year. Arguably, Chinese Anglicans were buoyed with a spirit of good will and optimism. In practice, they were unable to work out this high ideal. Strictly speaking Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui did not develop a formal provincial structure until after the Sino-Japanese War. Nationwide social dislocation made this impossible. The new nation immediately plunged into civil war. War with Japan followed, and ended with Communist victory in 1949. The bishops of Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui met officially for the last time in 1956. To be sure, the name survives in Chinese Anglican communities. But in fact, ethnic Chinese Anglicans in Asia largely identify themselves as a Protestant denomination. The same applies for Anglican churches in Asia at large. They were faced with the daunting and urgent task of redrawing the ecclesiastical map of Anglican churches in Asia amid the rapid rise of independent nations in the Asia Pacific. Creation of autonomous provinces became a major undertaking: Burma, 1970; the Philippines, 1990; Korea, 1993; Southeast Asia, 1996; and Hong Kong, 1998. Except for South East Asia, which consists of nine nations, the other provinces are national churches. As a result, longer-term theological and intellectual tasks were set aside.
What has being Anglican mean for those who have lived in these turbulent times?
We turn first to the spiritual journey of Dong Jianwu, an Episcopal priest in the early twentieth century. Dong was born in 1891. In 1912, he entered Saint John’s University, Shanghai, a leading university and theological college run by American Episcopal missionaries, where the best minds of young Episcopalians were groomed to become future leaders. There, he became a close friend of a fellow student Pu Huaren, one year his senior in the university. Now, the first general synod of Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui in 1912 had resolved a first task of the new church was for Chinese Anglicans to form a new missionary diocese without recourse to personnel and material help from overseas. The second synod met in 1915 and confirmed Shaanxi to be the proposed mission field. The choice carried huge significance. Not only was it one of the poorest areas in China. Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi province, was the old capital of the Tang Dynasty, and the first entry point of Christianity in China in the seventh century. It was also the legendary cradle of Chinese civilisation. This choice, which was imbued with cultural and missionary significance, captured the imagination of young Anglican clergy.
In 1916, one year after Pu graduated, he immediately volunteered to serve in Shaanxi. There, he experienced his baptism of fire: he and many idealistic young Anglican clergy among his peers came face to face with poverty, social injustice and other forms of human deprivation. They had to ask, "In what ways could the formation in Saint John's Shanghai be replicated in Xi'an?". Xi’an was then a breeding ground of the rising Communist radicals in China. Pu Huaren eventually became a Communist Party member in 1927. Back in Shanghai, Francis Pott, president of Saint John’s University, had identified Dong to be his successor. To prepare him for this task, Pott sent him to serve as Principal of a church school in Xi’an Shaanxi in 1920. There, Dong rejoined his classmate Pu. In 1924, Dong returned to work in Saint John’s, Shanghai. One year later, he was embroiled in the May 30 Incident. Chinese in Shanghai staged a mass protest against maltreatment of Chinese workers in Japanese owned factories. This developed into an anti-foreign protest, in which thirteen Chinese died. Saint John’s students were also involved, despite strict orders by Pott to stay away. On 3 June 1925, Dong led the students to hoist down the American flag from the flag post on campus and burnt it; they then hoisted the Chinese flag. This act of defiance made Dong lose his career. He was immediately posted to Saint Peter’s Church, Shanghai. During his tenure from 1925 to 1931, Saint Peter’s became a shelter for outlawed Communists in Shanghai. He eventually also resigned from the priesthood and became Communist. In 1936, he led Edgar Snow to visit Mao Zedong in Yan’an, Shaanxi. Snow’s publication Red Star over China became one of the first sympathetic treatments of Chinese Communism in the West.
Pu and Dong ended their lives tragically. Christian contribution to the rise to power was an inconvenient truth for Chinese Communists. Dong died in abject poverty in 1970, disowned by both Christians and Communists. Pu also suffered during the Cultural Revolution and died in 1974. Saint Peter’s Church was, incidentally, the church where two senior leaders of the post-1949 Protestant church in China --- Bishop K. H. Ting and Cao Shengjie --- grew up.
Listen to what Ronald Hall, the longest serving bishop of Hong Kong from 1932 to 1966, had to say about Communism in 1950 in an essay "China: Anno Domini 1950":
I believe, [with reference to F. D. Maurice], that a correct analysis of the happenings of our own days is more likely to be achieved by using the yardstick of Anglican or Orthodox experience, because our two Churches have traditionally refused sectarianism, and have accepted the way of identification with the community in which we live. Identification is a prerequisite of Redemption.
The President of a Christian university in New China told me last month that he finds the real Communists with whom he has to deal, able, disciplined, and reasonable. . . .
The Commissioner of Education is a converted and practicing Communist. He has welcomed the fact that our theological college is attached to the University and that our ordinands are to take the full arts course at the university. "That will open their minds: they will be less superstitious."
A week after that conversation one of our ten ordinands came back heartbroken to Hong Kong. He cannot bear to continue to study the Marxist teaching in his history and sociology lectures because it is arrogant materialism. Brought up in a Christian home and a Christian middle school he finds the suggestion that his religious faith is superstitious more than he can bear.
I did not attempt to tell him of my own experience with my tutor in philosophy and how I had to fight to maintain my own position that once one knows that God has revealed the truth in Jesus Christ one can only approach all thought as well as all life from that conviction. I did not tell him of my distress to find that when I was a university student in England so many regarded my devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ as something rather unusual and a little extravagant, as if somehow the dignity of a great university suffered from meetings for prayer and for evangelism. I did not tell him these things because his problem is so much more extreme an example of my problem or of any Christian in the secular environment of the universities of the western democracies. But it is well to remember that Marxism is a lineal descendent of that secular and scientific mind.
And in China perhaps, Christians have been "spoiled." We have been for so long respected and looked up to as the leaders in moral standards that it is devastating to be faced by men and women living on a quarter of our income, with a devotion to Marxism both in thought and practice which makes our Christian living seem comfortable and tepid beside it.
Chiu Ban It
Fast forward two decades to the late 1960s in Singapore, an island-nation which was left fending on its own after it was ousted by the Malaysian Federation in 1965. Around the same time, the British also announced their military pull-out of the island as part of the general retreat East of Suez. Chiu Ban It became bishop of Singapore in 1966. He was the first Malayan-born diocesan bishop. In 1985, he looked back to those years:
And yet [despite my public status]… I knew I was the most useless Christian there was, because there was nothing I could do. I had all the trappings. . . .We ourselves were dependent, very much, on the churches in Europe and in America for our financial support … This is why I felt so much like a most useless Christian.
… According to protocol, you may not realise it, but the Bishop of Singapore was next to the Governor of Singapore, [both] therefore Very Important People.
Unfortunately, for me … Singapore had become independent. And [now] I was nobody. My predecessors flew a little flag on their car. But I wasn’t allowed that privilege at all. In one way, I was very glad, because my predecessors had at least one committee to attend every day of the month, sometimes two or three. By the time I arrived all these official [functions] were out. However, that didn’t worry me too much, but the loss of status was a [problem for the Church and me]. . . .
But it was extremely good for us that our standing, as far as the country was concerned, now depended, not on the status of the church in England, but on who we were and what we were doing. It [could also be a] very depressing thing, I can assure you, particularly when we were so short of money. . . .
Another thing I discovered, too. While my predecessors were able to come to England or go to America and Australia, they managed very well because money came in from the different missionary societies. But when I came to England and went to ask for support … I felt I was a beggar which, in fact, I was.
… Our churches were not growing at all. We had tried a period of evangelism. . . . Now, when I went out to the diocese, we had hardly any Bibles in the churches. The reason was this; our prayer books had all the passages which were needed. So we didn’t need any Bibles…
So, they said, "Well, we must then do something to educate our people in the Bible, and help them in their evangelism". So, five years of "Know your Scripture Campaign", two years of prayer, three years when we brought experts in from other countries. After two years of prayer, the first year we brought Bishop Stephen Neill, . . . The next year we thought, we must have somebody from the East, and we had Dr D. T. Niles, a great Sri Lankan Methodist theologian. He came. . . .
After all that effort, we said, "Now you have been educated in the Bible, taught how to read the Bible, and how to use it in evangelism, go out and evangelise".
So, it was a failure.
I thought it may be because we are not doing things right. I was afraid that we had not been following Anglican traditions close enough. We had a marvellous choir at St Andrew's Cathedral, We had to see to it that all the ceremonial, was done in the right order. It did not do much good either.
And so, by 1972, I was very discouraged. … There was hardly any money coming in. We were in the red. There were not enough clergy to man the different parishes, and we didn’t have very many parishes. As far as the church was concerned, it was a very good Anglican diocese, in spite of having very few people. What was I to do?
. . . I went to the [WCC] conference [in Bangkok] and asked the Lord, "Please, Lord, will you send me at least two or three people who might help me and advise me how to get over these problems". Nothing happened. . . The conference was a pretty long one, so we decided that in the middle we were going to have a day off in Bangkok. . . . So, as we went on [in a coach], and this young man had dished me up I Corinthians 12 – and with the Holy Spirit. I thought to myself, who is this young man, anyway?
He’s a priest, and I am a bishop. And, as he tried to explain, expound more and more to me about I Corinthians 12, I thought to myself: he has only had his theological education in New Zealand, I had mine in one of the best universities in the world, Cambridge. So, everything he said went in one ear and out the other. I just wasn’t listening to him at all.
He must have noticed this because, at the end of the journey, he suddenly said to me, "Bishop, I have got two books, which I would like to lend to you. One is 'Revival in Indonesia'. . . The second book is a much longer book. It's got a ridiculously long title: ‘Nine o’clock in the Morning’ by Dennis J. Bennett. Have you heard of it? Some people have."
I had committed myself, so I said, "All right, I’ll borrow that one [too]".
He said, "It’s all right, you [can] read it, because it is written by an Anglican".
And I thought to myself, If it is written by an Anglican, then it can’t be too bad.
. . . I read the book and finished it just before lunch on the Feast of the Epiphany.
And I decided that I would go to bed, to have a siesta … before I had gone off to sleep … I only said, "Lord, if you can fill Dennis Bennett with your Holy Spirit, can you please do the same for me?" That was all. I didn’t expect anything.
But when I woke up from my siesta I knew something had happened.
Instead of being depressed right down at the bottom, as I was, because of what was happening in the diocese and the churches around us, I suddenly felt a joy. I couldn’t understand that. Previous to that, God was so far away …
[Back in Singapore]
Our Cathedral, which had been empty for a long, long time, suddenly was filled with people [in healing services]. I wasn't able to get to the first meeting, but I was determined to go to the second. [Edgar Webb] was staying with me and he said, "Bishop, I need your help".
I said, "Right, Edgar, I will help you. I will pray for you". Now this was wonderful!
So, he said, "OK"
On the day of the service, I went to the side chapel and prayed for him, earnestly, as sincerely as I could. But just before the service began, as I was praying, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned round. It was Edgar Webb.
"Bishop, I need more than you prayers. Will you come and start laying hands on people".
Well, I had been chaplain of Selly Oak Hospital, but at that time I was praying we knew our place. We were only there to give comfort to the patient. We didn't expect anything at all. And so, when he said, "Come and help me", I said, "Yes", but didn't what to do.
When the time of ministry came, he had people all coming up and kneeling on the altar rail - ours is a horseshoe-shaped one - he said to me, "Will you look after this end, this leg of the horseshoe. I will look after the curved part, where all the people are coming, and we will ask the vicar to minister the other side". And, you know, I was absolutely scared. I didn't know what to expect. But I had to do this, because, as Bishop, I couldn’t let him down. . . .
I have found this: whenever I try to offer myself [and] ask if I can pray with people, [it] doesn’t [always] work. But when people come up, amazing things happen. I am no longer ever surprised, I am only amazed, at what God does and what He can do.
This was the beginning of charismatic renewal in Singapore. Anglicans in Singapore were the first and arguably the only historic church in Singapore to embrace it institutionally. Methodist leadership dismissed it despite students of a local Methodist school being the first to experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in 1972. There was no looking back. The Diocese became a main hub of charismatic renewal in Asia and worldwide. Anglicans in Singapore grew in numbers, in stewardship and mission. Of the present Anglican churches, more than half owed their beginning to the charismatic renewals. Under Bishop Tay, the diocese challenged every parish to become a Church of Antioch, to plant churches in the neighbouring countries. Some churches were assigned to take responsibility of an entire Southeast Asian country. This led to the formation of deaneries in Indonesia, Indochina and Nepal.
What do we make of these two accounts of being Anglican? Their stories may disturb us. Neither Dong nor Chiu followed their script. In comparison, Ronald Hall’s decision to priest Florence Li in 1944 for ministry in Macao during wartime was less unsettling. At least, historic Anglicanism has provided us the theological language to discuss the matter. But Dong, Pu, Hall and Chiu were faced with situations where the nature and form of Anglican being are fundamentally questioned. That deep questioning of identity did not take place in academia, but instead amid desperate human situations. Being Anglican, for them, is an act of faith, to live out the life-giving and yet vulnerable vocation to be the holy catholic church amid peoples who are experiencing huge social dislocation and upheaval. Being Anglican is an intensely personal undertaking. They have the freedom and responsibility to work out their vocation. As Stephen Neill put it: In the strict sense of the term there is "no Anglican faith. . . . It is confidence in the truth that makes Anglican Churches demand so much of the faithful." This also makes Anglicans run the risk of being institutionally untidy or even subversive.
Their stories engage us to ask a host of questions: How did they discern? Is there anything particularly Anglican or Asian about their way of discerning? What would they ask about our own spiritual journey? What have they to say to the presenting issues of the Anglican Communion in the present time?
In 1993, Pope Benedict XVI, at that time the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, made an astute observation, to the bishops in Asia that met in Hong Kong, on the difference between Asia, Africa and Latin America:
The situation of Asia vis-à-vis Christianity is different still from the situation in either Latin America or black Africa. For here we are not dealing with pre-literary tribal cultures, but with high religious cultures which also have produced a great legacy of sacred texts and writings of philosophical and theological reflection. … Christianity could not be experienced here as it was in the Mediterranean region or even in black Africa as a new stage of life in its own pilgrimage already pointing in the same direction. Rather Christianity appeared more as a foreign culture and religion establishing itself next to one's own and threatening to supplant it.
Anglicans in Asia are a fragile and numerically insignificant community in such a mission context. Southeast Asia's topography underscored this. Peoples of Southeast Asia build their home and get on with life under the constant threat of volcanic eruption, earthquakes, and tsunami. To accept loss, welcome grace, and make do with make-shift solutions are part of the art of living. The vision of being part of a holy catholic people speaks powerfully to peoples whose social identity is violated, forgotten or dismissed amid constant volatility. To incarnate the presence of the holy catholic society therefore goes into the heart of being Anglican. If this recalling of the spiritual journey of being Anglican makes our hearts and minds more alert to this gift of God for the Anglican family of churches worldwide, perhaps then we can see each other beyond geopolitical blocs and binaries, and become freed to strike new paths with fresh graces of the Spirit for the present day. The ecclesial deficit of the Anglican Communion, our fellow pilgrims we have engaged this evening may say to us, lies beyond institutional matters that have absorbed Anglican energy for the past five decades. The deficit perhaps is a loss of memory and of a sense of history, which therefore makes us less able to gain a truer perspective of the new things that God has freely given us (1 Cor. 2: 12).
I end with the prayer of a Ridleian:
Lord of the church, we pray for our renewing:
Christ over all, our undivided aim.
Fire of the Spirit, burn for our enduing,
wind of the Spirit, fan the living flame!
We turn to Christ amid our fear and failing,
the will that lacks the courage to be free,
the weary labours, all but unavailing,
to bring us nearer what a church should be. (Timothy Dudley-Smith)
The text of a lecture given at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, on the Feast of Charles Simeon (13th November) 2014.
Michael Poon is canon of Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore, and former director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College. He is a member of the Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order of the Anglican Communion, and Anglican member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission.