Bishop David J. H. Lai of Taiwan paid his first official visit to mainland China this week, meeting with State officials in Beijing, exchanging information with new friends in Nanjing and Shanghai, and emphasizing the need for harmonious relationships, a message that motivates the country's Christian churches in its post-denominational era.
Senior representatives from the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), the China Christian Council (CCC) and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) were among those who hosted Lai, his wife Lai Lin, and the accompanying delegation during the historic visit.
The group also visited the celebrated 91-year-old Christian leader Bishop K. H. Ting at his Nanjing home, met with students and faculty at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, and learned about the social outreach work of the Amity Foundation and Amity Printing Company.
Ordained in 2000 as bishop of Taiwan, one of the Episcopal Church's 10 overseas dioceses, Lai went to China with the primary objectives of educating himself, establishing relationships with the Church, and helping the wider Church develop a deeper understanding of Christianity in the country. He also informed inquiring minds about his diocese and his work as president of the National Council of Churches of Taiwan (NCCT).
"I have gained the necessary knowledge that assures me the country is trying its best to offer people freedom of religion," he said. "I have also valued the opportunity to educate people about the Church in Taiwan."
China has experienced an explosion in Christian numbers in recent years and organizations such as SARA, TSPM and CCC are instrumental in developing worship customs in the country while protecting the freedom of religious belief.
The first bishop from Taiwan to visit SARA, Lai underscored the need to learn more about the Churches in China and to share that knowledge with Christians elsewhere. "I want to tell the people in Taiwan what I have experienced," he said, "in the hope that we can change ideas, eradicate misconceptions and, step by step, develop more cooperation."
Guo Wei, director of SARA's foreign affairs department, welcomed Lai to the organization's Beijing headquarters in a palace that was once home to China's last emperor of the Qing dynasty. Commending his objectives, Wei said Lai is welcome to visit China anytime.
In Nanjing, Ting expressed his hope that the Diocese of Taiwan and the Church in China could build a stronger relationship in the future. "We have good relationships with the mainline denominations," he said, "but we have very few visitors from Taiwan. I hope we can improve on that."
Lai, twelfth generation Taiwanese and first generation Christian, affirmed that the Episcopal Church is always willing to work with other denominations to further the gospel.
He explained that his main purpose in visiting Ting was to ask his advice. "Your vision; taking care of the poor -- we have been very moved by that," he said. "We have a lot to learn from your vision, wisdom and love."
Ting lauded Lai's humility and recognized him as an equal.
Chairperson emeritus of TSPM and former president of CCC, Ting served as China's Anglican bishop in the 1940s and '50s. He emphasized the important work of the Anglican Communion throughout the world. "Even though the Anglican Church is small in the world, it is very important," he said, praising the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, and his interest in the Church in China.
Williams paid a two-week visit to China in October and met with Ting, as well as the CCC and TSPM.
Lai assured Ting that he would report back to the National Council of Churches in Taiwan and work to deepen relationships with the Church in China in the future.
"With your wisdom and influence I am confident the Church in China will continue to grow," he said. During a discussion of other faiths, Lai emphasized the importance of faith, hope and love -- three values upheld by the CCC -- and truth, beauty and kindness as integral qualities for humankind. "When we hold this belief we will achieve harmony among all people."
Ting noted his appreciation on hearing the "good news" of the Episcopal Church's new Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and said that he looks forward to an opportunity to meet her.
Rationalizing the reality of China's post-denominational era, Wei explained that different churches are welcome to adopt their own patterns of worship, but insisted that through restricting the emergence of specific denominations "people develop a more harmonious way to worship."
She acknowledged that several misrepresentations exist throughout the world about China's worship regulations. Those who worship at home -- especially in rural areas -- do so because they don't know where else to gather, she explained, countering some theories that indicate they are worshipping secretly or as "underground" churches.
China's population of 1.3 billion includes approximately 100 million people of faith, Wei announced. To register a worship site in China, SARA's regulations on religious affairs require a petitioner to have a pastor, building, bylaws and a congregation, among other demands.
Lai asked what information he should deliver to the people of Taiwan in order to clarify SARA's position.
"We have religious faith freedom," Wei explained. "I cannot force you to believe, but I cannot force you not to believe. That does not mean that you have the freedom to do what you want.
"We respect each other and the history of the different denominations," she added. "In Hong Kong and Taiwan you have your own ways and we will not interfere. We respect you and you have to respect us too. Based on that thinking we will have a good relationship."
Wei emphasized the many good relationships SARA shares with other denominations, citing the funding support from international organizations and the assistance China's theological seminaries receive from visiting professors.
"Under this umbrella the Church in China is experiencing growth," she said. "If you have different experiences and can teach us something new, we are happy to learn from you."
Lai said he was encouraged to hear about the openness with which SARA operates. "With more transparency we can understand more and understand each other better," he said.
Finally, Wei noted that there are few obstacles between the Church in China and the Diocese of Taiwan and invited Lai to visit more often.
In addition to Williams' visit, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, recently completed a week-long tour of China.
Lai relinquished the opportunity to host Kobia on his subsequent visit to Taiwan, as well as mark the 50th anniversary celebrations of St. John's Cathedral in Taipei, in order to make the trip to China.
At Nanjing Union Theological Seminary November 29, Lai addressed students and faculty about the Church in Taiwan. He said that he hopes to arrange exchange visits and looks forward to an opportunity to welcome Chinese students to Taiwan. Founded in 1952 and reopened in 1981 after China's Cultural Revolution, the seminary is the largest of 17 theological institutions in the country.
Lai presented the seminary with copies of the Sung Eucharist in Mandarin Chinese, as used in the Diocese of Taiwan.
A new campus is currently undergoing construction, scheduled for completion in 2008, on land provided by the Chinese government.
Earlier in the week, the delegation met with Presbyter Ji Jianhong, TSPM's chairman, and the Rev. Dr. Cao Sheng Jie, CCC's president, and was welcomed to Shanghai November 28 by the Rev. Hua Yao-Zeng, chairman of the Shanghai Christian Council, who acknowledged his appreciation for the opportunity to exchange information and ideas about the Church.
Amity Foundation, founded by Ting in 1985 to advance social development in China, welcomed the delegation November 28 to its Nanjing headquarters, where staff presented an overview of its varied programs.
The delegation also visited the foundation's publishing arm, Amity Printing Company, which printed its 50 millionth bible this year.
"Having the opportunity to accompany Bishop Lai on this historic visit has been a truly galvanizing experience," said Canon Margaret Larom, director of the Episcopal Church's Office of Anglican and Global Relations, who also traveled with former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold as part of an Episcopal delegation that visited China in October 2005. "It was wonderful to see Bishop Ting and other Chinese Christian leaders again, and I look forward to exploring ways in which our Church can engage more fully in supporting their various ministries."
"This trip has made my dreams come true," said Peter Ng, AGR's partnership officer for Asia and the Pacific, who noted his appreciation for Lai's openness throughout the visit. "I look forward to the time 15 or 20 years from now when I can tell my grandchildren that we made this historical journey happen."
Lai said that the opportunity to have face-to-face encounters and mutual exchange with Christians in China has helped to build confidence on both sides. "The experience has expanded my knowledge and my spiritual wisdom exponentially," he said, "and I will do everything I can to build on this landmark moment and develop those relationships in the future."
In addition to Lai, Lai Lin, Larom and Ng, the delegation included Ng's wife, Annie L. H. Ng, and the Rev. Timothy Chiu, president of the New York Theological Education Center.