with Bishop Ponniah at St. John’s- St. Margaret’s, Singapore
Stephanie, Sam, and I set out on June 24 for our Asian adventure on an Air Canada flight bound for Shanghai. For me the trip had the dual purposes of a family vacation and a chance to learn about the settings, and meet some of the leaders, in the Asian cities whence some of our students come. Shanghai at the time of our arrival was, like most of the places we visited most all of the time, very hot and humid! After an evening walking through the hawkers in the Bund and enjoying dumplings, we were off on the high-speed train to Nanjing (this, like all the mass transit we experienced, was very efficient and well-run). Nanjing, we were informed, was a moderate-sized city of seven million inhabitants!
Our visit to Nanjing Union Theological Seminary was very ably and hospitably led by our own Yanling Meng. The student body, roughly the size of Wycliffe’s, was mostly in their early 20’s and quite devout. I preached for the students in the morning and then attended a Three-Self congregational service (at St. Paul’s, originally an Anglican parish, though such distinctions vanished with the establishment of the Three Self Movement). At both one had a sense of a strongly evangelical piety and worship (our only contact was with the official Church and so cannot comment on the unregistered churches). On our first Monday, we had an informative and helpful meeting with the president of Nanjing (and another seminary as well), Yilu Chen, a number of whose duties and concerns seemed familiar to me in spite of the cultural divide. The school has an expansive new campus (including piano rooms and sports fields) near the universities, though a large and unfinished chapel (the price of the bronze to complete the design being too dear) was a worry. The school clearly has many guests- another was arriving as we left. From our conversation I learned that the main strategic goal is to have more of their own faculty attain doctorates so as to be able to offer their own advanced degrees- hence the importance of the kind of advanced training Yanling is receiving. On subsequent stops on our trip I learned that the number of `suitors’ coming to Nanjing from the West was considerable, and sorting them out was an important goal for their leadership.
Two days of sightseeing in Nanjing ensued, a good deal of which had some underlying connection to the history of the Church in China. We visited the palace where Sun Yat-sen briefly presided, but this same place was also the sight of the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taiping rebellion, with its passionate but off-kilter eschatology; Yanling mentioned the critique some have offered that the rebels never read the New Testament. We also visited the remarkable site of the Confucian examinations, where 20,000 young aspiring bureaucrats would take the nine-day tests which only 1% would pass- no more complaints about the Wycliffe comps permitted!. The connection to mission here is the help that the early Jesuits gave to aspiring Confucian scholars in mnemonics. The Ming-era imperial tomb included a walk called the `mystical way’ that had a series of statues of traditional, mythic Chinese beasts; a picture of the dragons who guarded sacred doctrine before the king’s residence is included.
From Nanjing we travelled back to Shanghai, where I had an opportunity to meet the officer for external relations at the China Christian Council, Mr. Ou-Enlin. He commented that thoughtfully evangelical schools in the West such as Wycliffe had a special contribution to make in helping to build up the Church in China. At the conclusion of our conversation he gave me a tour of the church next-door. It was formerly the Anglican Cathedral of St. John. After the Revolution it was turned into a cinema, and during the Cultural Revolution its organ was destroyed. More recently the church was turned back over to the Three-Self Movement for use, and it is being beautifully restored to resemble in some measure its former days. I should add at this point that my principal predecessor, James McElheran, preached in that church during his China visit of 1928 according to his diary provided for me from the archives of the College by Tom Power (he also preached at the Cathedral on Hong Kong Island, where we later visited). I feel a kinship in one other respect for my forebear in that he spent nearly a month recuperating from travellers’ distress, though mine lasted a paltry four days. He exceeded me in another area, interviewing three or four prospective students, while I met up with only two! Because of ill health, I missed the early morning dash to Tiananmen Square en route through Beijing.
One thing I shared with McElheran was a sense of the great beauty of Hong Kong, not least from the height attained at the top of the tramway at the Peak. One can feel of course its vibrancy, and the wealth of such a financial hub is not hard to see. We stayed at the YMCA in Kowloon, though little of its former evangelical purpose remains. We visited the Cathedral of St. John Sunday morning, where I was warmly welcomed by the Dean (and Bishop-elect of West Kowloon) Andrew Chan. The music was beautiful and the congregation a rich mixture of expats, Chinese, Indians, and Filipino workers, the last of whose women have a tradition of taking the clergyman’s hand and clasping it to their foreheads in a sign of respect at the Church door. Like the College it is on the edge of the government buildings. That evening I attended an anniversary Eucharist for a parish in North Point followed by the parish banquet. The Archbishop himself, Paul Kwong, an honorary doctor of Wycliffe, gave me a running commentary on the banquet courses, beginning with jellyfish. His kind hospitality continued in a dinner with Church leaders the next evening, at which Sam devoured a considerable number of the Peking duck course. It was good to see here Ian Lam, the head of their seminary, whom I had met recently in the conference in Canterbury. Throughout the two days, I had a strong sense of the importance of the Church in Hong Kong, not least as a kind of translator and counsellor to the Church in the mainland.
The final leg of our journey was Singapore, where we stayed in the guests’ hostel of Trinity Theological Seminary. It is a ecumenically evangelical seminary with many parallels in ethos and makeup (and size) with Wycliffe. It was good to see again Simon Chan, the senior statesman of the faculty, who spent a semester’s sabbatical with us in 2003. I was also very happy finally to meet Wycliffe alum Michael Poon, who heads up the Asian church history initiative and helps to oversee the Chinese program at TTC. (See pics). I gave two reflections for the student retreat for the beginning of the school year. Parallel to our scavenger hunt was their Great Food Race through the city’s Chinatown. The delicacies included New Year’s pork, half-cooked egg with toast, chicken rice, dumplings, and frogs’ legs. We also visited a Hindu temple and a Buddhist temple claiming a relic of the Buddha’s tooth. The pluralistic nature of the city in also found in its ethnic makeup, which includes Indian and Malay sections. The school has a wide cachement including Vietnam, Myanmar, India, and the Mainland. It is a impressive place, and I hope that exchanges can grow out of my visit. On Sunday, at the advice of our own M.Div. student Melvin Tai, we prayed at the large, vital parish of St. John-St. Margaret. It is a charismatic parish with a plethora of outreach ministries. Its rector, who is also the suffragan bishop, is Rennis Ponniah, whose warm and energetic style helps to explain the parish’s growth. (See pic). Sprinkled amidst these churchly activities were a five-hour walk in the nature preserve, a visit to the Botanical Garden, lunch in Little India, and last but not least, a half-day at Universal Studios (globalization lives!) We completed our trek of the whole globe with flights to Frankfurt and on to Toronto. I do hope and believe that acquaintances and new friendships made on this journey will enrich our ministry in the years to come.