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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 October 2006, 14:17 GMT
China tour showed Christian growth
By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs correspondent

The Chinese rolled out the red carpet for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dr Rowan Williams - the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion - arrived at churches, schools and seminaries, to be greeted with flowers, choirs and delegations of officials and church leaders.

A Chinese hotel worker rolls out a red carpet in Beijing for the Archbishop of Canterbury
The archbishop was treated as an honoured guest

The show reached a peak at the village of Bao An, near Wuhan in central China.

Firecrackers erupted as Dr Williams' bus bumped down the track to the church - newly rebuilt to hold the growing congregation.

The local band struck up, and rows of young women, dressed in brilliant green, beat drums and swayed to the music.

Behind the barriers, crowds strained for a glimpse of Dr Williams, introduced wherever he went as the "honourable archbishop".

But among the ordinary people, municipal politicians, church leaders and intellectuals Dr Williams met, there were many different reasons for their interest in the visit.

Firstly, Chinese people are joining churches at an unprecedented rate.

Rural living standards have not improved as they have in many cities, but the all-embracing welfare of the communist era has eroded.

There are many people seeking the support, hope and a sense of redemption that Christianity can provide.

Even where there is wealth, traditional Chinese values and social codes have been undermined.

Christianity is providing many of the newly rich with a renewed sense of meaning and purpose.

"People are so busy making money, that they've lost sight of the most important things in life," said one churchgoer in Wuhan.

"They don't notice that they've neglected their families, until they suddenly find they need loving support and it's not there."

Secret churches

Church leaders were also pleased to have the explicit support that comes with Dr Williams' visit.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (L) is greeted by the president of the Chinese Christian Council, Reverend Cao Shengjie (C), in Shanghai
Dr Williams was greeted warmly wherever he want

But these, of course, are the leaders of the official government-sanctioned church - with big new buildings constructed on land often provided by the authorities.

This government-approved Three Self Patriotic Association claims about 16 million members, but an estimated two, three or even four times that number are in unregistered house churches, meeting in people's homes beyond government supervision.

They are the Christians the official church is keen to bring within the fold.

Another reason for the interest in Dr Williams' visit was for the government itself - anxious about the growth of uncontrolled Christianity, and its potential to become an alternative centre of moral authority, but in need of some set of guiding principles to maintain the harmonious society it wants in the absence of communist dogma.

The archbishop's visit to Dongzhou Children's Village near Xian neatly demonstrated the dilemma.

Dongzhou - partly funded by a Christian charity - cares for children whose parents have been either imprisoned or executed, and who would otherwise be on the streets.

Dr Williams crouched down to talk to several of the blue-uniformed pupils, and discovered happy, educated, well-adjusted children.

As Dr Williams put it, "Dongzhou recruits volunteers in a society not used to volunteering."

The charity also applies a Christian moral view to what Dr Williams described as "one of the most unreconstructed bits of Chinese society".

He said: "When you see a photograph of a child in tears, bidding farewell to a father, also in tears, about to be hanged, well."

Modern faith

But there is one final group that valued the chance to meet one of Christianity's leading theologians - the growing number of influential intellectuals and academics who see in Christianity part of the blueprint for China's modernisation.

Some of them believe indigenous religions, such as Taoism and Buddhism, with their pragmatism and assumption of human goodness, do not have the same ability as Christianity to produce the realistic, self-critical and long-term strategies that China needs in a globalised world.

Dr Williams said that for China to modernise effectively, it would have to relax censorship, and allow public discussion of issues as sensitive even as the death penalty.

"It's the next step which Chinese political culture is more or less going to have to take," he said.

"There are kinds of limitations on discussion that are not going to be enforceable in two, 10, 20 years' time. Chinese society is poised for great changes and those changes are going to have to involve a more robust civil society."

It used to be said by Chinese politicians of this Western faith, "one more Christian - one fewer Chinese". Now, they are more likely to say "one more Christian - one fewer criminal".

The approval may sound grudging, but it illustrates the official change in heart towards the Christian minority, and what could eventually be the largest national church in the world.

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