Carey delivers parting sermon to empty pews

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The Independent Online
PEKING - On the last leg of his tour of China, the Archbishop of Canterbury arrived yesterday at the capital's Chongwenmen church, bearing a gift, writes Teresa Poole.

Dr George Carey told a congregation of more than 300 that it was a piece of stained-glass window from Canterbury, showing Jesus entering Jerusalem. Planned or otherwise, it was an appropriate gesture. During the Cultural Revolution, many decorative windows in the 19th-Century church were smashed.

In the last sermon of his 12-day visit to China, Dr Carey alluded to the difficulties Chinese Christians have faced in the past. 'Sometimes that change has been violent and repressive,' he said. Referring to the church in China today, he added: 'I do not want to leave you with the idea that I consider your problems in the present are paltry and minor. Of course not . . . You have colossal challenges to face. You are a small and growing church in a populous land.'

Under the wooden-vaulted ceiling of Peking's largest Protestant church, about one-third of the seats remained empty. Western and Chinese hymns were sung in turn. The previous day, on Sunday, more than 1,000 people had packed the former Methodist church and spilt over into the courtyard where the service was relayed on closed-circuit television. No one, however, had thought it appropriate to tell the congregation that the following night the head of the Church of England would be preaching. Nor had the event been advertised elsewhere. People had been alerted only by word of mouth.

'We just heard about this by accident at college,' one student said. 'In China it's very difficult. Being a Christian can be a hindrance to one's future career. You can't always show openly your faith.' Asked which part of Dr Carey's sermon had meant the most to them, another student said: 'When he said God loves you and does not have a favourite, that we're equal. In China it's very different. People have prejudices.'

In his address, the Archbishop dwelt on the 're markable story of God and faith' which has seen the official Chinese Protestant community expand from only three churches in 1979 to more than 8,000. As a guest of the official Protestant China Christian Council, which has allowed him to inspect the rapid growth of Christianity, he has trodden carefully around the sensitive issue of church-state relations.

Last night he said nothing specific about the persecution still experienced by some Chinese Christians. Before he leaves China on Thursday, Dr Carey is expected to meet a government leader and is likely to be pressed afterwards on whether he raised the question of China's human rights abuses.