Learning from Asia how to be church in the world

by Bishop Steve Lane

Bishop Steve and Gretchen Lane in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Taipai
Bishop Steve and Gretchen Lane in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Taipai

Until the recent trip of the House of Bishops to Taiwan, I had never been to Asia. In fact, I had never considered going there, and, frankly, wasn’t interested. I had been warned that Asia would be more foreign for a westerner than anywhere else in the world, and, given the limits of my travel budget, I was much more interested in the lands of my own heritage – England, Ireland and France. I also wasn’t eager to face the 13 hour flight from the US to Taiwan.

So it was with no little trepidation that I joined the pilgrimage to Taiwan. I went because I believed it was important to show support for a small diocese which is part of our church.

Having now been to Taiwan and Japan, I am happy to report that the trip was a very good experience and that I learned a great deal that is relevant and important to us here in the US.

The reason for our trip was to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Episcopal Church in Taiwan. The current Bishop, David Lai, has never missed a meeting of the House of Bishops in 17 years. So the House of Bishops went to Taiwan to honor the Diocese and David. The hospitality we received from the Diocese was thoughtful and gracious beyond all imagining. Our every need was anticipated, and we were accompanied by interpreters and guides whenever we ventured beyond the walls of our hotel.

The Grand Hotel, Taipai
The Grand Hotel, Taipai

I have never experienced such warmth and support, and I think we were all humbled by the care we received. For their part, the members of the Diocese felt deeply honored that we would make the journey and reveled in the opportunity to share what their church is doing.

Here in the west, we struggle with the increasing secularization of our culture. At one time, we claimed that our culture was a Christian culture. Now, considerably less than 50% of the people are active participants in any faith community. And yet our public values retain the imprint of Christendom, the co-mingling of faith and culture which began with Constantine.

In Taiwan, the culture has never been Christian. Adherents to Christianity number no more than 2-3% of the population. The predominant cultural norms are a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, and ancestor worship. Christianity is received with indifference until it is perceived to violate norms for family unity and for respect of ancestors. When that happens, Christianity is harshly rejected.

Nearly every Christian in Taiwan is a convert or a family member of a convert, and the choice to become a Christian is fraught with difficulty and the likelihood of rejection by one’s family. The church community becomes not only a faith community, but, in many ways, one’s family.

As a result, many newcomers to the church hold off on baptism for years. They do so out of respect for parents and fear of rejection. They participate fully in the life of the church, but may not tell family members. It takes a lot of courage to break with culture and family. “Open communion” permits them to participate and opens the door to fuller inclusion later.

Bishop David Lai of Taiwan celebrates the Eucharist at St. John's Cathedral. (Photo by ENS/Mary Frances Schjonberg)
Bishop David Lai of Taiwan celebrates the Eucharist at St. John’s Cathedral. (Photo by ENS/Mary Frances Schjonberg)

Worship in the Episcopal Church in Taiwan was very familiar, even if in Chinese. Worship at the Cathedral on Sunday included familiar hymns, sung in English and Mandarin. Bishop David chanted the liturgy using a familiar tone. A personal highlight for me was singing the Gloria with great gusto in Mandarin and English.

Mission and ministry are critically important in this context. Nearly all the recipients of the church’s ministry are non-Christian, and there is no expectation that they will become Christian (although a few do). Yet the ministry of the church is the means by which the church connects with the larger society and demonstrates its importance to the community. The churches of Asia are passionately committed to their ministries and are leaders in addressing issues of poverty, justice and peace. The voice of the church balances the sometimes passive acceptance of social ills that can be a feature of Asian culture.

We found the churches in Taiwan to be small but mighty. For example, Advent Church in Taipei ministers to the 7,000 students of St. John’s University (an Episcopal university), and a small church in southern Taiwan has planted 12 churches in the Philippines.

This commitment to ministry and to proclaim the Gospel was a primary feature in the testimony of each of the Asian bishops who addressed the House of Bishops. We heard from the Bishops of Taiwan, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Each was passionate about ministry in their context. And each diocese was doing significant work with what I think we would consider limited resources. It was humbling to hear about the risks that these churches were taking to serve the poor and advocate for justice, in many cases being lone voices for compassion.

The most Christian nation in Asia is South Korea, with a Christian population approaching 30%. In a dialogue between the Bishop of Korea and the Bishop of Japan, it was said by both that the reason for Korea’s success in evangelism is that the Korean Church stood as voice against war during a period when the Japanese Church collaborated with the aggression of its government. The Korean Church thereby expressed a willingness to “walk the talk” about peace and earned considerable respect among the Korean people. The Japanese Church has since repented of its collaboration with the Japanese war effort and has publicly apologized to Korea and others. But the damage to its image has been done, and it continues to struggle.

Ten bishops, including me, also visited the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (the Japanese Holy Catholic Church) following the House of Bishops’ meeting. It was a whirlwind visit, riding the bullet train, and seeing the church in three dioceses. The first stop on our visit was the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima (which means “wide island” – central Hiroshima sits on an island in a river). The Peace Memorial is a stunning museum in the style of the Civil Rights Museum and the Holocaust Museum. It is deeply affecting. The museum makes clear the costs of war on all sides, and the continuing costs to the nation of Japan in terms of guilt, shame and leukemia.

A building that survived the blast at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima
A building that survived the blast at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima

Viewing the museum made my spirit sore, and I think there is no conclusion other than that death on such a scale, while perhaps a military necessity in some minds, is unjustifiable both humanly and religiously. We will all be judged for the taking of life on such a scale. Along with the church in Japan, we can only ask God to forgive us.

The west is not Asia, and our values here will continue to be connected with our Christian inheritance. Yet, there are many things we can learn from our Asian brothers and sisters. One is that witness doesn’t depend on numbers. We can have our say and make a difference even if there are very few of us. And we can support our churches to do God’s work even with slim resources. The issue isn’t size – it’s passion. If we are devoted to the cause of Christ, we can make a difference.

Visiting St. Andrew's, Kiyosato (Photo by ENS/Mary Frances Schjonberg
Visiting St. Andrew’s, Kiyosato (Photo by ENS/Mary Frances Schjonberg

Ministry isn’t meant to serve only Christians or those who might become Christian. Evangelism is part of our work, but ministry is to be offered to all God’s children. The value of that ministry isn’t measured by the credit the church gets (or doesn’t get), but by the well-being of God’s people.

The church needs to be a voice for compassion and peace – because that’s who we are, that’s our identity. And when we have failed to serve as voices for peace and compassion, then we need to repent. There is no reconciliation without repentance.

By the end of our time in Taiwan, I felt – strangely – at home. Despite a complete inability to communicate in Chinese, despite dependence on cabbies and tour guides, despite the pervasive Buddhist culture, the Episcopalians I met were, well… Episcopalians. Their worship and their ministries felt very much like mine. And their aspirations and hopes are of the sort that we share. That they minister so passionately with far fewer resources than we have is inspiring and encouraging. I am hopeful that such inspiration will help us do the ministry that we are called here to do.

One thought on “Learning from Asia how to be church in the world”

  1. Yes! This too describes the ministry, devotion, courage and spirit of the church in Myanmar, yet with the additional challenge of living within an economy debilitated by over 50 years of neglect under the harsh rule of a proactivly Buddhist military junta.

    To be among Christians in places like these, where all is so different yet crackling with live in the Spirit, is to see the burning bush that is not consumed, and to be moved to take off one’s shoes in awe and reverence.

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