China being China, the state has officially sanctioned Protestant and Catholic churches and maintains control of the clergy
The officially sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association appoints its own bishops and is not allowed to have any dealings with the Vatican, though Catholics are allowed to recognise the spiritual authority of the Pope.But underground churches are springing up in private houses, which the state appears to be tolerating as long as worship does not spill out into the public forum.
It’s difficult to know what to think about this. The suggestion has been made that it is a reaction to growing capitalism and greater freedom from the ideological atheism demanded by the communist party structure. Whatever the reason, the scale appears to be immense
It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China today, but no-one denies the numbers are exploding.That religion has been suppressed for so long and is now fighting back may not be surprising, but why Christianity? China has its own religious traditions such as Buddhism and Confucianism and you may think that the first shoots of revival would be from amongst these.
The government says 25 million, 18 million Protestants and six million Catholics. Independent estimates all agree this is a vast underestimate. A conservative figure is 60 million. There are already more Chinese at church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe.
My guess is this is an unconscious homage to the U.S. The protestant work ethic that built the mighty economic engine that the U.S represents is the lure for the commercially aspiring modern Chinese citizen and they are seeing the Christian religion as a key part of this.
How much of a threat to secularisation this will be is not easy to predict. State control of religion will certainly fail and that is all to the good. Maintaining the party’s ideological atheism may also finally appear futile, which is also as it should be. But as China’s economic reach expands will we have another front on which to combat religionist superstition and bigotry, or will Chinese Christianity turn out to be a different animal altogether? Watch this space…