In August 2013 in Oxford, England, the 6th Annual Forum for Chinese Theology on ‘Christian Faith & Ideological Trends in Contemporary China’ brought together a significant group of Christian, Confucian, Leftist, and Liberal Scholars from China and around the globe.
It produced two notable outcomes:
1. ‘Oxford Consensus 2013’
The Christian, Confucian, Leftist, and Liberal scholars from China produced the Oxford Consensus 2013. Though these scholars represent differing and often antagonistic ideological backgrounds, the Consensus committed these key leaders to work together in mutual respect and shared concern to address the various challenges facing China and the world.
In sum, the Consensus, signed by the 28 scholars, echoed the spirit of the conference: that academic engagement at the highest level can nurture deeper understanding and greater appreciation of differing ideological positions addressing shared concerns.
2. Christian relevance
The conference served notice of the relevance of global Christianity when it engages secular academic scholars to address issues impacting civil society. This unique gathering brought together Christian and non-Christian scholars to address the issues surrounding current ideological trends in China.1 It produced relevant and insightful engagement across academic disciplines as political, philosophical and religious perspectives intertwined. Indeed, it was fitting that at the conference the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS) announced its new endeavour to develop a new research centre in Oxford devoted to research on global Christianity and its impact on civil society.
Why is this significant?
The conference and its outcomes are already being reported on widely in China. News outlets from various ideological perspectives have expressed general approval of the Consensus. Further, some have noted that having the conference overseas in Oxford lent gravity to the conference and opportunity to discuss issues with scholars from Asia, North America and Europe openly.
Pre-conference concern that bringing together secular and religious scholars to discuss Christian faith and ideology in China would create friction and stifle productive discourse proved unfounded. Indeed, the opposite held true. The cross-disciplinary nature of the conference enhanced dialogue that served the production of the Consensus.
Of great significance is that this conference represents an important step towards understanding the relationship between Christian faith, ideology and civil society:
- It served to bring out points of tension between various ideological perspectives in China and Christianity. This helped Christian scholars to understand and address those concerns.
- Further, because this was an academic conference, it represented an academic inquiry seeking clarity and consensus and was thus not regarded by the delegates as an inappropriate meddling in China’s internal affairs. The academic tenor of the conference led to careful listening, response, dialogue, recognition of difference and potential consensus.
The conference created significant connections between leading Christian and non-Christian academics and institutional leaders from China and the West. This should open a path for research scholars from China to pursue related matters raised at the conference. Further, the conference built and strengthened ties between leading Christian academic and mission institutions with representatives from 11 global research centres, 29 Chinese, Asian, European and North American universities and 12 NGO, Christian ministry and mission organisations attending.
Though not without risk, it was novel and fruitful to bring together Christian and non-Christian Chinese and Western scholars in a joint conference to air views on Christianity and ideology in China. The favourable reception this approach received from non-Christian delegates at the Conference should suggest ways going forward to foster understanding, appreciation and even some amelioration of tension between Christianity and its religious and secular critics. It provided an alternative way forward for informed faith and secular perspectives to address the question of Christian faith in China outside traditional religious institutional frameworks that are too often fraught with bureaucratic and diplomatic hindrances.
1 See article by Thomas Harvey and David Ro entitled ‘Current Ideological Trends in China: How Should the Church Respond?’ in the March 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.