The World Council of Churches has begun a year of celebrations to mark its 70th anniversary with a celebration in China. The general secretary of the WCC, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, preached in one of the oldest Protestant churches in China yesterday (Sunday) – Chongwenmen Church in Beijing – on the theme “Jesus Christ, the Joy of the World.” And he took with him a message of greeting from what the WCC describes as “the living fellowship with 348 member churches worldwide.”
Chongwenmen Church was built by American Methodists in 1870; but was destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. It was re-built in 1904 but was closed during the Cultural Revolution. It reopened in 1980 and is now a point of reference for thousands of Christians. They celebrate five worship services every Sunday with many young participants. Today came approximately 1 000 to the worship service to pray together.
Churches in China are in what the WCC calls “a post-denominational period.” In 1949 there were approximately 700,000 Protestant Christians in China. In response, Chinese Christians established the “Three-Self Movement”. Through the principles of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation, Chinese Christians set out on to build the church. Churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 to 1976; but began to re-open from 1979. Today there are more than 16 million Protestant Christians in the country.
“We are called to share the good news of God’s love and God’s peace for all people, whoever they are, whatever people they belong to,” Tveit said in his sermon.
“The ecumenical movement is built on the perspective for ‘all the people’. The joy of Christmas is at the heart of the work and the call of the World Council of Churches as we now, on this day of Christmas, and here, in Beijing, China, begin our celebration of the 70th anniversary of the WCC.
“This joy of Christmas can continue to bring us together as churches and as human beings, in a world that is both able to improve and still very divided and fragmented. Even if many have been brought out of poverty, like in your country, many people in the world are still suffering from poverty, uncured illnesses, conflicts, fear, loneliness, even hopelessness.”
Tveit spoke about the role of churches in China, saying: “We continue sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with all the people. Among the very good news in the family of the World Council of Churches has been the news about the life and the growth of the church in China.
“Your Christian witness, during and after very difficult times for your church, has given hope to many in the world,” he said.
Yesterday’s service marked the start not just of the WCC’s 70th anniversary year, but also of a WCC delegation’s visit to member churches in China, which continues until next Tuesday (16 January). They will meet with the WCC Asia President, Dr Sang Chang, and their programme executive for interreligious dialogue, the Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar. They will also visit Shanghai and meet with the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, as well as with the leadership and students at the East China Theological Seminary. The delegation will also meet with Chinese religious leaders and representatives from the State Administration for Religious Affairs in Beijing.
The WCC visit to China is “a historic journey in many ways, and comes as a follow up to the meeting of the Executive Committee in 2016,” Dr Tveit said. “I am eager to meet more representatives from churches, particularly students and youth who represent the church of the future.
“As we begin the year of the WCC’s 70th Anniversary in China, we show that the WCC is a living fellowship with a rich legacy now active and open for the calling of the ecumenical movement in the 21st century.
“China has the world’s largest population and is very significant partner in addressing the global challenges of our time,” he said. “The church in China has a very significant role in shaping the Christian witness and service in our time, both in China and in the global fellowship.”