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CHINA: Williams describes China's spread of Christianity as a 'watershed moment'

By Matthew Davies

Lambeth Palace photo
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on the steps of Chaoyang Church, Beijing.   (Lambeth Palace photo)

[Episcopal News Service]  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has described a two-week visit to China as having exceeded his hopes and expectations, and recognized the country's recent boom in Christian numbers as a "watershed moment."

Speaking at a news conference at the British Ambassador's residence in Beijing October 24, Williams said: "We have had a vivid sense of what a watershed moment this is for the whole country. The astonishing and quite unpredictable explosion in Christian numbers in recent years is clearly connected to a widespread sense that the equally extraordinary explosion in the economic life has left many huge questions about personal and social values unanswered."

The October 8-24 visit was intended to gain "a better understanding of the Christian Community in China (Catholic as well as Protestant)," and to explore deeper relationships, Williams said, announcing Bishop David Urquhart of Birmingham as the overseer of any collaborative work moving forward.

"It struck me with considerable force that in some regions in China the percentage of the population ... attending church on Sundays is at least as large and in some cases larger than that in the probably most western European countries," Williams said.

A range of projects on children's welfare, rural health care, aid and advocacy for migrants and many other concerns were discussed during the visit and Williams applauded the willingness of the government to support such initiatives.

"If China is to develop the kind of civil society that will guarantee both stability and harmony, the Church is a vital partner," he said. "The opportunities for the Church are enormous and its energy is enviable; but its capacity needs urgent building."

Williams met with local and national government officials and discussed broad issues of civil society and civil liberties.

"We had a long discussion on the environmental challenges of modern China (evident to us every day), and noted with interest both the eco-city project in Shanghai and the evolving plans for coping with the environmental overload in Beijing when the Olympics approach," he said. "We raised a number of specific cases of reported harassment of religious personnel, Roman Catholic and Protestant, and of lawyers defending them, and were invited to discuss these further."

Several conversations explored the aspiration of strengthening the rule of law, and its bearing on the exercise of the death penalty, he noted.

"In these and other contexts, we were struck by the willingness of responsible people here to acknowledge challenges, difficulties and unresolved differences, and believe that we can look forward to further and useful exchanges," he said. "The climate towards religion has undergone and is still undergoing great changes -- in the context of the whole changing climate regarding society here. We are confident that the C of E and the Anglican Church worldwide can continue to build a really fruitful relationship with the Chinese Church and people. We shall go home with many new questions as well as many answers, but with a strong sense of privilege at being able, however briefly, to share this moment in China's growth and self discovery."

After his opening remarks, Williams responded to questions about persecution; organized and regimented religion; the Catholic church; international development; Islam; the death penalty.

The full text of the news conference is available here.