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Sunday Schools Change and Death Penalty Concession Amongst 'Signs of Hope' for China

Tuesday 24th October 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken of his encouragement at the changing context of church life in China.

Speaking the day after he returned from a two-week visit to the country, Dr Williams said that there were enough signs of change and development to make him hopeful for the future.

"Even in the official context of church life there are real signs that things are changing. To have an official assurance that Sunday School teaching is now not opposed by the State represents a major development - something that church people from the official as well as the unregistered churches were surprised and encouraged to hear. Work with children, which has involved the risk of official disapproval, can now be properly developed. In addition, the fact that senior members of the State government are now using positive language about the potential for religion to play a positive part in the life of the country is a sign that the change is real and, we hope, here to stay."

"It was a visit that necessarily had limitations to it; we were shown quite a full range of official Church life in China, and despite the limitations, there were things about the official Church to be encouraged about. The high level of growth; the depth of the worship of congregations, the pastoral care and the social outreach being done, these are genuinely hallmarks of a Church which is seeking to preach the Gospel in its own context. It's also encouraging that we've been invited to help them develop theological life and with the training of pastors. This can be built on."

At the same time, he said, he was aware of the parts of the Church he was not seeing.

"Whilst we saw the official Church quite extensively. We knew that there were substantial parts of Church life in China that were not and could not have been open to us on such a trip, not least because a high profile visitor can't cover such territory without involving risks to other peoples' safety. We know though that the unregistered and underground churches have been aware of what has been done and said here and we also know that contributions like the university lecture in Wuhan and the exchanges which followed it, together with the engagement with the Academy for Social Sciences, have been appreciated in many more quarters than the official churches."

Raising difficult issues with senior leaders had, he hoped, been productive:

"I raised half a dozen of the most pressing human rights cases involving religious freedom; the response was more or less as expected, a request for further information, but there was at least a willingness to engage. More encouraging were the discussions we had on Tibet, where there seems to be some movement in relation to dialogue on the issues; and the death penalty, in which the leadership acknowledged some shortcoming in the legal process and the existence of real questions about its application in certain kinds of cases. Small signs in themselves, but an indication that the debates on freedom are now taking place within the structures."

"I hope that the visit has established a relationship that can be expanded and built upon and, despite the obvious limitations, will bear fruit for the future."

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