But the dimensions I find most interesting is that China has seen a repeat of a number of European ecclesiastical conflicts, but in new garb. I'll list two of them.
1) Pope Francis has recently met with leaders in Beijing over the question of Chinese bishops. The PRC has been locking horns with the Vatican over who has the right to appoint bishops of the Roman church. There are two overlapping hierarchies between bishops consecrated by the Papacy and those consecrated by the Chinese government. Francis has been the first pope to visit China and attempt to work this problem out. The list of overlapping bishops has shrunk, but still remains a sticking point.
This is nothing less than the Investiture Controversy from the Middle Ages. In Western Europe, ecclesiastical functions were complicated, ambiguous, and convoluted. As orthodox Christianity spread among the Germanic barbarians, conquering Arianism and tribal paganisms, the role and rule of the church was divided. According to a Roman Imperial model, Rome had an Apostolic warrant as chief see in the West. After 476, when Odoacer conquered Rome and ended the Western Roman Empire, the promotion of bishops was contested. In many areas, where churches provided the rudiments of government, ecclesial functions fused with civil functions. As barbarian chiefs gained in power, and kingdoms formed, the most powerful offices were filled by newly crowned kings.
However, the bishops of Rome were in a process of transformation into what we know as the Papacy, a monarchical figure who reigns over the entire Church catholic. The Holy Roman Empire, which was forged in 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans, countered this contestation to a rather standard practice. The war was over who had the right to determine filling episcopal sees, the Pope or the Emperor. This flared up into battles, but Francis and the Chinese government are replaying this same battle in cold war fashion. This is not merely an ecclesiastical affair, but attempting to increase the Vatican's geo-political weight. Of course, this is not done with halberds or armies, but with media clout and image. The Chinese government does not want to introduce possible subversives into influential positions. In addition, while Francis has been rather intransigent with the United States, there are powerful factions in the Vatican that certainly have a political agenda, and none look favorably on China's claim of imperium over East Asia. While this conflict has little spiritual weight to it, it's fascinating to see the same problems reemerge over two distinct and contrasting political authorities engaging in a complex dance of diplomacy.
2) The Three-Self church is one of the largest single ecclesiastical bodies in the world. It is broadly Protestant, having little distinct identity. Many consider it a tool of the Chinese government to monitor and harness China's rapidly growing Christian population. The major conflict is with the Underground, a somewhat diverse, indigenous network of churches. When the PRC gained ascendancy, Mao's ejection of all Westerners (especially missionaries) and legal persecution drove Chinese Christians underground. Some Christians emerged to submit themselves to the new government, arguing for a fully cooperative and patriotic church.
However, the Underground refuses to register with the Three-Self church because it does not want to fall under the government's thumb. Faithful to the bone, many pastors of the Underground cannot stomach the idea of censoring their preaching to government need. Submission of what may be a clear mandate of Scripture would be sin. It's clear in the Three-Self's creed, referencing "arbitrary" interpretations of the Bible, that it has a particular edge against the Underground's resistance.
This conflict is quite reminiscent of 17th England's ecclesiastical battles between dissenters and the Church of England, the established church by law. While in the early decades most Puritans, particularly the Presbyterians, wanted merely to reform the Church of England, after the disastrous Civil Wars, the Dissenters, as they were called, determined a new course. While some Dissenters still hoped for some sort of change of the established church, many grew hostile and skeptical of the established church. The Glorious Revolution created a reprieve from official hostility between the English state and Dissenting congregations, but did little to resolve the conflict. While some ecclesiastics on both sides hoped for Comprehension, a form of compromise where both sides could coexist with each other and maintain their scruples, the Revolution sunk this. The majority on both side wanted nothing of the sort. In 1689, the Toleration Act was anything but. It lifted official sanctions, but Dissenters still could not be office holders (the Test Act remained in force), they had to register with the English government, and keep their doors open when they congregated.
Many Dissenters complied with the English government eagerly. Post-1689, King William's Wars ushered in what some have termed the Second Hundred Years Wars, where English and French hostility sparked off-and-on in global, and extremely bloody, conflicts for global hegemony of European colonialist projects. The conflicts spurred English, soon to be British, patriotism. This was the slow transformation of English Christianity, from a state-church established by law to a general Protestantism marked by patriotic sentiment and anti-Gallican/anti-Popery. Of course, not everyone went along, but most English Protestants charged headlong into centuries of British imperial terror.
The Chinese Underground is akin to Dissent under Charles II, which generally remained hostile to the debauched, corrupt, and hostile policies of the Cavalier Parliament. However, if China changes tactics and foreign policy needs take a new turn, it's yet to seen as to what will happen. Will growing Chinese friction with the United States turn to a form of tolerance and patriotic fervor? As it is now, it's unlikely as many pastors in the Underground maintain friendly relations with American Evangelicals, but this could dry up. While the Voice of the Martyrs keeps this issue alive, it's easy to imagine this sentiment drying up among a majority of American Evangelicals. It's also possible to imagine a conciliatory Chinese government luring most through policy concessions and monetary benefits. The Church of England is very much like the Three-Self church with the exception that a lively Reformed on the Continent provided deeper wells of education. But beyond this, it remains a vaguely generic Protestant state-church with breadth to accommodate, contrary to silly myths of via media which was a rhetorical trick. It is yet to see whether the PRC will continue its present ecclesiastical policy, or try a new tack in the following decades. Like in England, the established church was powerful, but non-conformists grew in number and influence exponentially. Unless the Three-Self church has some sort of piety revival, its unlikely to keep those Chinese Christians who read their Bible and ponder the actions of their government.
It's really a fascinating time to watch God's work in China. It reflects the same problems that occurred in European ecclesiastical history. Obviously it's not identical, Christianity in China is a minority in a multi-confessional state. However, it warrants contemplation. Perhaps, the Church in China will offer a sun-ray of hope that all stories need not end like those in Europe, whether in England or on the Continent. Keep praying for Chinese Christians, their protection both physically and spiritually. Kyrie Eleison. Amen.