Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Syncretism and leadership

A passing reference to a famous debate by Patricia Buckley Ebrey [The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ch ina (Cambridge: CUP, 1996)] writing on the Qing attitude to Christians in the late 18th century raises important questions. The Catholics were divided among themselves as to whether or not ancestral rites should be followed by Chin ese Christians. The Jesuits (inspired by Matteo Ricci) were OK with it, but other Catholic orders (including the papal legate, Maillard de Tournon) were not. This hardline approach led to the emperor (Kangxi, 1662-1722) expelling all missionaries who would not support his stance of making Christians perform the rites (he otherwise tolerated their faith).

Presumably the repercussions of the wrangle among the Catholic leaders were significant for Christians on the ground, some of whom were harrassed (or worse) and who found themselves in some cases, presumably, without leaders (though on the plus side if a 'lay' leadership could arise in the vacuum after foreign priests were expelled then that could stimulate a deeper discipleship among the laity).

All this made me ask, Who should be in charge of that decision? Who is competent to make the ruling? Anyone? Just the legate from the pope? Just the more experienced leader who has imbibed plenty from both cultures? No one? Individual conscience? Surely the church needs protecting? But who precisely is implied by ‘church’, and protecting from whom? If the practice of seen as merely 'cultural' does it harm anyone? Was it, is it worth the hassle of making a stand on this issue?

What would an Orthodox priest have said to that ruling?
What do the varieties of Protestants say about it now?
How do the unregistered churches deal with that problem?
Is there one right answer!?

This is not just a question about cultural practices and their roots or present participation in pagan religion and false worship, this is about the leadership of the church and qualifications for binding the consciences of other believers.