Summer 2017 Vol. 37 - No. 185 Reflections on 500 Years of Religious Reformation

A Brief History of, and Research on Hong Kong's Ecumenical Movement

Jackie Foo
Translated by Ann Fung


        2017 marks the fifth centenary of the posting of Martin Luther's“95 Theses”on the door of the Wittenberg church. Christianity in the West split into the Catholic and Protestant Churches 500 years ago. Both Churches were in a state of confrontation and indifference. It was not until the Second Vatican Council during the 1960s that the Catholic Church took the initiative to engage in dialogue and cooperation with Protestant denominations. The Catholic Church and Protestant denominations in Hong Kong also followed the trend, and started to contact and cooperate with each other. Thus, the ecumenical movement in Hong Kong got underway.[1]

        After the passage of more than 50 years, the Center for Catholic Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong launched a study of the ecumenical movement among Hong Kong Christians (hereafter cited as the HK Ecumenical Movement) in late 2015. Its aim was to analyze the past cooperation between the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Hong Kong, and to explore the views and understanding of the believers towards each other's Church. This was done in order to find out the characteristics of the local ecumenical movement, as well as to assess its gains and losses. The team for the Hong Kong Ecumenical Movement Research Program (hereafter cited as the Research Team) collected data through questionnaires distributed during the first half of 2016, which used a quantitative method to explore Hong Kong Christians’ awareness of the HK Ecumenical Movement.[2]

I. The involvement and vision of the Hong Kong Catholic Church in the early years

        In 1960 the Holy See began work through what would become the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The Second Vatican Council took place during 4 sessions in Rome, from 1962 to 1965. During the Council, the Holy See promulgated the Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam and the Decretum De Oecumenismo (Unitatis Redintegratio) in 1964, granting the highest official recognition of the movement, thus promoting dialogue actively with the Protestant denominations regarding church doctrine.[3] Unitatis Redintegratio, the decree on Ecumenism from Vatican II, stipulates that the ecumenical movement should work to eliminate stereotypes, deepen understanding between parties, and promote self-examination and renewal reforms. Believers on both sides should have wider cooperation for the common good, according to the call of their consciences. The document also emphasized that "when the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning.”

        The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong (hereafter cited as the Diocese) in response to the appeal of the Holy See, formally established a Commission for Christian Unity in January, 1966 to offer guidance on ecumenical affairs and to coordinate ecumenical activities in the diocese.

        At that time, Catholics in Hong Kong generally held a positive view towards the ecumenical movement, and gradually began to get along with the Protestants in a more open and friendly manner. Some believers even pointed out that there was growth in mutual understanding and respect on both sides. However, some believers expressed doubts and worries regarding the movement. First, they pointed out that some Protestants criticized Catholic history, and that many doctrinal differences still existed—especially on mixed marriages and birth control—which would easily lead to arguments and contradictions, and thus most believers did not want to take an active part in the movement. It was also difficult for the believers to understand why there were more than 60 Protestant denominations among the 520,000 Christians in Hong Kong. (At that time, the total population was four million).

        An Ecumenical Committee of the International Association of Alumni of Catholic Universities pointed out in an article published in March 1968 that Catholics in Hong Kong were cautious about the ecumenical movement. The faithful thought that the movement could only be promoted“among [Protestant] believers and clerics who were ready for it.”The committee said in the article that such an attitude did not help the faithful to get involved in the movement; and that indifference and a lack of concern among Christians became the biggest obstacle to the HK Ecumenical Movement, while inconsistency in translations of the Bible and liturgies also deepened the gap between the two sides. In the opinion of the committee, the HK Ecumenical Movement should first enhance mutual contacts so as to establish a relationship between the two sides; then strive to "eliminate an unnecessary exclusion mentality" and "enhance care among Christians.”It recommended that both sides could hold ecumenical services during Easter or other common feasts, translate liturgical prayers and the Chinese Bible together, and unify religious terms and terminologies. In addition, some Catholics appealed to both sides to put aside a competitive mentality by allowing articles to be published in columns in each other's publications, giving lectures in each other's venues and conducting comprehensive cooperation in social welfare.

II. The Ecumenical Movement in Hong Kong since the 1960s

        Since the mid-1960s, the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations have undertaken ecumenical work on doctrine, liturgy, pastoral care and social affairs. Here are some examples:

A. Liturgy/Doctrine

        * The Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and the Hong Kong Bible Society agreed to sell each other’s edition of the Bible; and to start discussion on work to unify the translation of names in the Chinese Bible. (1968)

        * The Diocese and the Anglican Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao (Sheng Kung Hui) signed an "Agreement on Baptism between the Anglican Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong”that mutually recognize and respect the baptismal sacrament administered by the other party. (1974)

        * The Diocese and the Sheng Kung Hui drafted an "Agreement on intermarriage pastoral cooperation for laypeople of the Anglican Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong," to relax norms for intermarriage between believers of the two Churches. (1977)

        * Catholic and Protestant members began to use the "Eucharistic (Holy Communion) service”(also known as the Lima Liturgy) for Eucharistic worship in an ecumenical context during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The liturgy had been compiled by the World Council of Churches. (1983)

        * The Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation signed the“Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”in 1999. The document pointed out that the Doctrine of Justification is a core belief of Christianity, and brought an end to the argument between the two Churches on the relevant issue. In 2006, in conjunction with the Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation, the World Methodist Conference signed a “Statement of Association with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”The Diocese, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong and the Methodist Church in Hong Kong jointly translated the two declarations into Chinese. The three parties signed a statement recognizing the Chinese ecumenical translation and the respective versions of the two Churches later on (2014).

B. Pastoral Activities

        * The Diocese and the Hong Kong Christian Council (HKCC) jointly organized the Prayer Week for Christian Unity January 18-25 each year. Activities include ecumenical worship, Eucharistic holy communion service, breakfast meeting, lecture exchanges and so on. (since 1964)

        * Catholic and Protestant college students and alumni organizations organized an "Ecumenical concert" at City Hall. The concert invited different Church groups to perform, during which it also raised funds for the HK Ecumenical Movement. (1967)

        * Catholic and Protestant university students and alumni organizations organized various seminars on ecumenism intending to deepen the understanding of young people from the different Churches and denominations on the ecumenical movement. (1967, 1968)

        * Catholic and Protestant Biblical experts jointly taught in a diploma program on the Bible offered by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (1969)

        * The Diocese and the HKCC co-organized a pastoral work study program for their pastoral staff, so that they could master new pastoral methods, and share experiences with each other. (1969)

C. Social Affairs

        * The Hong Kong Christian Service joined hands with other Catholic and Protestant youth and welfare organizations to form the "Ecumenical Social Services Commission" to provide short-term social service programs for the young people and to encourage Churches and groups to share resources. (1960s to 1970s)

        * The Diocese, the Sheng Kung Hui, the Methodist Church and the HKCC co-organized the "Citizen’s Festival" to remind Christians to follow Christ and serve the people of Hong Kong in good faith and in a spirit of self-restraint. (1967)

        * The Catholic Apostleship of the Sea and the Anglican Mission to Seafarers jointly operated the "Mariners’ Club" to provide religious and recreational services to local and visiting seafarers; later, the Protestant Danish Seamen's Church and the German Seamen's Mission joined the operation. (since 1969)

        * The Diocese and the Sheng Kung Hui jointly managed the“Hong Kong International Airport Chapel” at Kai Tak International Airport to provide religious services to airport staff and travelers. (1979 – 1998)

        * Catholic and Protestant pastoral ministers organized community organizations in the name of district church organizations or individuals to serve residents of the city. These included the "Ecumenical Social Service Center" (1973-1977) and the Society for Community Organization. (since 1972)

        * In response to social needs, pastoral ministers and laypeople of the Catholic and Protestant Churches formed coalitions or concern groups in the name of church organizations or individuals to make appeals to the government or relevant institutions on certain issues, like “the Joint Committee for the construction of Eastern Hospital" (1986), and "the Coalition against the building of the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant” (1986), “the Joint Committee on the Promotion of Democratic Government” (1986), “the Hong Kong Human Rights Commission” (1995), “the July 1 Link” (1995-1999) and “The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China” (1997-2002).

D. Other Ecumenical Gestures

        * Churches from both sides sent members to take part in each other's important events. Examples of this were: the presence of the Anglican and Methodist bishops at the installation of Catholic Bishop Francis Hsu Chen-ping in 1969, and the presence of Cardinal John Baptist Wu Cheng-chung of Hong Kong at the ordination of the Anglican Archbishop Peter Kwong in 1998. Also, the Diocese sent members to sit in on the HKCC's Church Mission Consultation (since 1970), while the General Secretary of the HKCC and leaders of the other denominations were invited to be present at the Diocesan Synod (2000).

        As seen from the above, the HK Ecumenical Movement has been carried out at various levels. It was not limited to exchanges and cooperation between leaders of different denominations. Pastoral ministers and even the faithful also made exchanges with each other. Both sides also sought to cooperate or implement visions and values that they had mutually agreed upon.

        However, differences between the two sides did not vanish along with the developments of the HK Ecumenical Movement. In 2001, Father Stephen Tam Kun, chairman of the Diocesan Commission for Christian Unity, pointed out: "Now more than 30 years [since Vatican II], the HK Ecumenical Movement might have made some achievements, but the path is bumpy. There were many obstacles from individual clergy, parishes and laypeople." "Some pastors and ministers might not object to the direction of unity but it would be hard for them to persuade the other clergy and believers. A Catholic priest once told me that he worried that if the parishioners got in touch with the Protestant denominations, they might come and rob our flock.” The then HKCC General Secretary Reverend Eric So Shing-yit held a similar view. He said, "We still could not say that the ecumenical movement is successful in Hong Kong…The road to unity is really not easy. Most of the Churches are still seeking their own success first, and giving priority to their own survival. For the ecumenical movement, it is still in the stage of cooperation, and [Churches] sometimes are even reluctant to be a long-term partner but would only consider cooperation in specific ministries." Rev. Dr. Daniel Chow (周天和牧師), former chair of the HKCC's Church Unity and Relations Committee, said "the ecumenical movement has been promoted for several decades already. But till now the result has not been ideal. Everyone admits this." Looking at these issues from the stance of Unitatis Redintegratio, these remarks seem to point out that before the Millennium, there was still a certain distance between the vision and the status of Hong Kong’s ecumenical movement.

III. The Findings of "Hong Kong Ecumenical Movement" Research Program

        To explore the current understanding of the ecumenical movement by Christians from both sides, the Research Team designed a questionnaire in the first half of 2016. The survey consisted of 11 questions, divided into two parts (see appendix). The first part sought the respondents’ personal data, including age, gender, denomination, year baptized, position held in the church and the degree of involvement. The second part queried their understanding and perception of the HK Ecumenical Movement carried out by local Christians, including their knowledge, recognition and advice to the movement. The questionnaire was dispatched in May 2016 through the Kung Kao Po, Christian Times, Christian Weekly and The Sunday Examiner as well as on the Internet. [Editor's note: the author cited KWONG Denis Chi-wing & TONG Kar-wai,“A Preliminary Exploration of the Ecumenical Movement in Hong Kong,”a paper presented in“Christianity and Religions in China: Past-Present-Future”at the Tenth International Gathering of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, (Unpublished Paper) (Hong Kong: Centre for Catholic Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2016). It is hereafter referred to as“The Report”; the content of this section comes from page 5 of The Report.]

        The Research Team received 5,121 returned questionnaires within one month after distribution. Among them, 75.79% were from Catholics and 18.43% were from Protestants. More than half of the respondents were female and 80% of the respondents were over 35 years old. (The Report, pp.5-6) At the same time, more than half of the respondents had been baptized for more than 20 years while 4% of the total respondents were pastoral ministers in their own Churches. (Pastoral minister is defined as pastors, deacons, preachers, bishops, priests, permanent deacons, religious men and women.) Seventy-five percent of the respondents participated in church activities at least four times a month. (The Report, pp.7-8)

        More than half of the respondents (65.8%) were in favor of carrying on the ecumenical movement; 19.9% of them said they did not know about the movement; and 10% had no comment. (The Report, p.7) Further dividing the respondents into four groups—Catholic and Protestant pastoral ministers, as well as Catholic and Protestant laypeople—to discover their identification with the ecumenical movement, the findings showed that there was more identification with the movement among Catholic and Protestant pastoral ministers (93% for Catholic Church and 75% for Protestant Church) than for the laypeople (71.4% for the Catholic Church and 48.4% for the Protestant Church). (The Report, pp.10-11)

        If the Protestant respondents were further divided into whether they were involved with the HKCC, the result was 90.7% of those who belonged to the HKCC affirmed the ecumenical movement, whereas only 68.8% of those who did not belong to the HKCC supported it. On the other hand, 60.2% of the laypeople whose denominations are involved with the HKCC were in favor of the movement, whereas only 43.1% of those whose denominations are not involved with the HKCC were in favor of the movement. (The Report, p.11) The result showed that there was a significant difference on recognition and knowledge of the ecumenical movement between Protestant respondents whose denominations were involved with the HKCC and those which were not.

        The main reasons given by those who favored the ecumenical movement included: “There is no difference between the groups; it is a joint witness”(2,856 persons);“Unity is better than a split”(2,110 persons); and“We complement each other in church services” (2,036 persons). However, fewer than 600 respondents thought that Christians had high expectations about taking part in the movement, showing that a considerable number of respondents did not think that the faithful on two sides were optimistic about promoting the ecumenical movement in Hong Kong. (The Report, p.7)

        The main reasons for those who disagreed with Hong Kong's ecumenical movement included: "the difference is too big among different Churches on their understanding of the Bible, dogma and sacraments”(162 persons);“different Churches stress different core beliefs in their faith and ministries, it is better for each to work on those beliefs that they are good at” (120 persons). More than 1,900 respondents knew about the Christian Unity Prayer Week and joint worship services; the establishment of ecumenical organizations, such as the HKCC and the Catholic Diocese’s Commission for Christian Unity; as well as past and present ecumenical activities and measures. They also knew about pulpit exchange visits between Church leaders from the two sides, or their joining important events of the other party. At the same time, about 1,200 to 1,500 respondents knew about ecumenical activities, including lectures, mutual recognition of liturgy, and joint pronouncements for social justice, academic exchanges and joint statements. (The Report, p.8)

        Regarding expectations for the future of the HK Ecumenical Movement, the respondents believed that it should strengthen cooperation between Churches or between Christians from the two sides to support the disadvantaged, and to actively speak out for social justice (2,415 persons). Some also thought that there should be more joint prayer meetings, worship services, lectures, spiritual activities and seminars, and that believers should be encouraged to join in (2,267 persons). A considerable number of respondents also thought that the future of the movement should be committed to promoting the mutual recognition of religious liturgies among the Churches (1,997 persons); a joint drafting of a Chinese edition of the Bible (1,591 persons) and an ecumenical edition of the daily prayer (1,474 persons). (The Report, p.9)

        From the respondents’understanding and expectation towards the ecumenical movement, more people showed support for cooperation in evangelization/pastoral affairs, as well as in social affairs. Certain respondents thought that the two sides could start ecumenism in the liturgy while fewer respondents mentioned unity in church structure, in catechetics and in theology.

IV. The Revelations and Limitations of the Survey

        From the above data, we know that more than half of the respondents support Hong Kong Christians participating in the ecumenical movement. The respondent group of pastoral ministers has a higher level of recognition of the ecumenical movement than the respondent group of laypeople. More respondents believed that both sides could cooperate in evangelisation, pastoral and social affairs. However, a certain number of respondents—regardless of how long they have been baptised—did not care, and even did not understand the movement.

        It should be noted that, as a statistical narrative, this survey and its results had the following limitations. First of all, compared with almost 860,000 Christians in Hong Kong, this survey collected data from only a little more than 5,000 Catholics and Protestants. Therefore, the above conclusions might not accurately reflect the mainstream opinion of believers from the two sides regarding the ecumenical movement. Secondly, the Catholic respondents were four times more than the Protestant ones. Thus the Research Team could not objectively compare the understanding and recognition of ecumenism by the two sides. We could only describe individually the opinions of the respondents from the two sides towards the movement.

        It is worth noting that some believers refused to complete the questionnaire on the grounds that they refused to receive any information about the movement. At the same time, some research groups or believers sent out the link of the online questionnaire via other unofficial channels, such as Whatsapp, to boost the lacklustre response in the initial period of the survey. (The Report, p.11) This showed that the survey might have the chance of underestimating the situation in which believers on the two sides opposed, were indifferent to, or did not know about the movement.

        From the data alone, we could not point out with certainty the mainstream opinion of the believers from the two sides towards Hong Kong's ecumenical movement. However, we could deduce what past and present Christians have in common regarding their perceptions and opinions of the movement. Those opinions and perceptions include: 1) seizing the opportunity to work together to translate liturgical prayers and a Chinese edition of the Bible, as well as to unify religious terms and terminology; 2) the need to "promote care and concern among Christians" and to hold joint ministries on a regular basis; 3) pointing out doctrinal differences that remain on both sides; 4) a considerable number of believers do not take the initiative to participate in the movement; and 5) believers think that the two sides can cooperate in social affairs.

V. Conclusion

        Since Vatican II, the Hong Kong Catholic Church has shown goodwill to different Protestant denominations in Hong Kong. Since then, both sides have carried out the ecumenical movement at all levels, achieving certain results and gaining support from believers on both sides. This was reflected in the survey. However, some leaders of the ecumenical movement pointed out that the achievements were not as good as expected. There are still many difficulties and crises, such as both sides were only willing to cooperate on occasional matters. Some even worried that the ecumenical movement would trigger“conversion”of believers to the other side. The results of the survey show that a number of mature believers did not care, nor did they even know about the movement. At the same time, some past worries about the ecumenical movement, or about other denominations persist today. These all seemed to show that the effort of both sides over the past 50 years did not make the concept of unity take root in the hearts of believers. This was also far from the vision and goals proposed in Unitatis Redintegratio regarding ecumenism.

        Indeed, it was not easy to repair a rift of 500 years of history. For the denominations which have been influenced deeply by past confrontations, it is more difficult for them to make a breakthrough in their historical views and beliefs. Thus, different denominations have a completely different definition and attitude towards "ecumenism" and "the ecumenical movement." Although many pastors have advised that implementing the HK Ecumenical Movement is like starting“a journey of a thousand miles from the first step,” it is not easy for many denominations’leaders or believers to take the first step forward. On the road to unity, some people will walk forward with bravery while some will advance carefully. Some fear that they are slavishly imitating other's steps and would rather stand still than take the first step. Whatever choice one makes, it hinges on one's own mentality.

        Besides continuing with the existing achievements, I believe that the future direction of Hong Kong's ecumenical movement is to place more focus on changing people's minds, and to let the ecumenical spirit, such as openness, respect and acceptance, take root in every believer's heart. Each should renew oneself, so that ecumenism will become a matter for every believer to undertake, rather than a matter for some individuals only. As such, the ecumenical movement in Hong Kong can be sustained, no matter how external conditions change.

Endnote :
  1. Academic definitions of ecumenism vary. In this article, the“ecumenical movement” refers to the collaboration or communication at different levels among the Catholic and Protestant Churches. In these activities, there is mutual acknowledgment of one another as Christians, descending from the Church of Jesus Christ. Despite some accommodations with one another, each Church retains its own identity.
  2. Grateful acknowledgment is due to Fr. Louis Ha, director of the Center for Catholic Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and coordinator of this research project, for permission to cite part of the Research Program’s preliminary findings published on July 22, 2016.
  3. The Chinese version of this article includes copious citations to references in Chinese which are not reproduced here. However, we include the questionnaire used in the survey in an appendix.

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