Last month I was teaching at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary – the national seminary of the Chinese Protestant Church. This stint of teaching was part of the unfolding relationship between the Uniting Church and the China Christian Council (CCC). Below are a few observations, reflections, learnings etc., prompted by the experience.
17 seminaries throughout the nation: 16 of them regional, and the one national seminary in Nanjing. The Nanjing seminary is the only one which teaches for postgraduate degrees – although only to Masters level. There are 400 students at the Nanjing seminary, all of them residential, and nearly all of them aged in their twenties. Some are in their late teens having come to theological study straight from school. Of course, the age profile of the student body reflects that of the church at large: it is a young church which is generating and attracting committed and energetic leaders. Nevertheless, there is an acute shortage of theologically trained pastors: present figures suggest that on average there is only one theologically-trained pastor for every 18,000 Christians.
My teaching was part of a four week-intensive for 45 pastors doing Continuing Education. They hailed from all parts of China, including Mongolia and a city on the border with Vietnam. In this final week it was my lectures on Doctrine and Pastoral Ministry in the mornings and in the afternoon a course on the history of Chinese Christianity (starting in the 8th century) with my UCA Colleague Rev Dr Ji Zhang. The Chinese church is exercised by its lack of a common confession of faith as well as by both the pastoral and regulatory roles of doctrine in church life. The pastors were very engaged and I learnt much from them about some of the doctrinal discussions and disputes presently at play in the Chinese Church.
I was interested to see how the discipline of contextual theology was being appropriated. I was struck by the nuanced attitude towards the relationship between developing Chinese theological traditions and those of the West. The Chinese church desires to present itself as an indigenous church, free from divisions of Western Christendom. It speaks of itself as a postdenominational church. At the same time, it wants to learn from the great theological figures of Christendom: the Chinese church knows it is not starting from scratch. Then, on another flank, contemporary China is otherwise being Westernised in so many ways. At least as I heard the theologians and students speaking, they were wanting to nurture a Chinese Christian identity shaped but not determined by Western Christianity whilst simultaneously wanting to keep their distance from the more negative westernising trends in China.
It is hoped that there will be further exchanges between the UCA, CTM and the CCC.
A longer version of this article together with a video of the Nanjing campus is available at Geoff’s blog