The Prayer Book in Mandarin
(Two young Chinese people, James Liu and Morning Wang, have started Mandarin fellowship groups in Toronto Anglican churches. And they are enthusiastic users of the Book of Common Prayer! Diana Verseghy, the president of the PBSC Toronto Branch, interviewed them to find out more.)
Can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds and your journeys in the Christian faith? How did you become Anglicans?
James: I am from the city of Tianjin, in the north of China. I have a B.Sc. degree with a major in information technology, and worked for a while at a telecommunications company in China. I became a Christian in 1998, when I was sixteen. There are no denominations in most areas of the Christian Church in China, but many churches have denominational backgrounds from before. I was drawn to a church that had beautiful music and a very good choir. I joined the choir, and in later years, in churches in different cities, I became a choir conductor and took on teaching roles. For a long time I wished to enter a Christian seminary. In China, to enter the seminary you have to write an examination. So I had to learn about church history, the Bible, and theology. And that really opened my eyes. Before, I didn’t know anything about denominations – Methodist, Anglican, and Baptist etc. And I found out that the Anglican Church is amazing! I love this church! We have the best theology. We have the benefits of being a reformed catholic church without the extremes of some churches. Also, when I learned more about music, I found out that most of the hymns that had I loved so much were Anglican hymns! After that, I was active in church leadership until 2012, when I came to Canada to study for an M.Div. degree, at Tyndale University for two years and then at Wycliffe College since 2014. I officially started the Mandarin Ministry at St. James’ Cathedral at the beginning of 2015. My wife and daughter have visited me here for the first time after such a long separation, and they’ve enjoyed every minute. As I am about to graduate this May, I hope that I can serve God with my family here.
Morning: I am from the city of Shanghai. I came to Canada to follow my husband Sam. He landed a year earlier than I did, in 1998, in Montreal, where he was studying at McGill University. When he graduated in 2001 he found a job in Toronto, so we moved here. One day I was watching a Chinese TV show called “Showers of Blessings”. It has testimonies of how people have come to Christian faith, and says that if you are touched by these stories, to call a phone number. So I did, and that started my Christian spiritual journey. I was baptized in 2002, and Sam was baptized in 2004. In 2011 I started studying with the Chinese ministry programme at Tyndale University, and that is where I met James. The Chinese teachers at Tyndale are mainly from the Chinese non-liturgical evangelical churches, which are very popular and influential in the Chinese community in the GTA. They often don’t have a very positive view of Anglicans or of any kind of liturgy! In the fall of 2012 my father-in-law became critically ill, so Sam and I had to go back to Shanghai for several weeks. When I came back, all my classmates already had placements for internships in various churches – all except me. I had nowhere to go. I told James about this problem, and he said he would see if he could arrange for me to come to the parish where he was doing his placement, St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux. My husband wasn’t enthusiastic about this idea – he is still a member of the local Chinese Evangelical Free Church, and shares their view of liturgy! But at last he agreed. James succeeded in getting me a placement at St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux, and that was the beginning of my journey in the Anglican Church.
You have started Mandarin fellowship groups in four Toronto churches. What does that ministry do?
James: On Sundays we have two Mandarin gathering services of BCP Morning Prayer, one at St. James’ Cathedral and one at St. George’s on Yonge. We also have a service for the children at the Cathedral based on the BCP Service for Young People. On Mondays we have a fellowship liturgy for students based on BCP family prayers at St. Thomas’s Church on the University of Toronto campus. On Tuesdays we had a service of BCP Evening Prayer at St. Bartholomew’s in Regent Park last summer. The groups are doing very well. This year we are about to have around 15 people baptized at the Easter Vigil at the Cathedral. Last year we had 11. And last year we had six people baptized at St. George’s. Last fall after the huge explosion in Tianjin, we used the BCP penitential liturgy at a bilingual prayer meeting, “Pray for China, Pray for Tianjin” with an outdoor procession, and over 130 people came!
Morning: Most of our people don’t have any religious or Christian background. And in our international history books in China, usually anything related to Christianity is portrayed as bad, because it is associated with nations that occupied our country. So our people need to have the faith explained to them.
James: The liturgy is our teaching tool. When Chinese people come to the main service at the Cathedral, they may not understand English, but the liturgy teaches them. Anglican liturgy is really, really beautiful.
Morning: And very different from worship in the Chinese non-liturgical evangelical churches. In those churches, the first thing you usually see when you enter is a large screen with a Powerpoint sign saying, please silence your phone, do not keep chatting, prepare yourself for the worship. (But people keep chatting anyway!) And when I came to St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux (the first Anglican church I got involved with), I found it amazing – there was no Powerpoint on a screen at all! Nobody was chatting, and everyone would sit quietly in the pews or the chairs, waiting for the service to start. And at the end of the service, usually, in the non-liturgical evangelical churches, after the preaching, people would get up and leave! They would rush to get out into the parking lot – like the end of a movie! But in the Anglican church everyone would sit still, because we still have the blessing at the end. And after the blessing, people are sent out. So it would be very, very awkward, even for the first time visitor, or newcomer, to leave during the middle of the service. Even if they don’t understand it, at the same time they pay attention to it. They respect the liturgy. The beauty of the liturgy speaks for itself.
Of course, we teach them too, as James has been teaching me, about the significance of the liturgy – for example, when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel, and so on. Once they understand that, they do it wholeheartedly. They become interested and involved, and engaged in the service. As Canon David Brinton, the Sub-Dean and Vicar of the Cathedral said, “Our faith is not only personal but public and corporate!” We have a leader, and congregational responses. It’s not like other churches where there is just the preacher. There, it’s like we are just watching a show. We have nothing to do! And then we start to judge – this one is a good preacher and that one is not. Because we are not involved!
Another example. Once I tried to set up chairs at St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux in a theatre-style seating arrangement. James made me undo it all, and he explained the reason for it. There are some elements that are very important in Anglican churches, and almost universal. There usually is a centre aisle, which leads to the altar. If we placed the seating like theatre seats, then the centre aisle would disappear – it would not be a straight road. And the reason it has to be a straight road is that this is the road that Jesus made by his body, which leads to the Communion table. The altar is the centre of our worship. It’s not the pulpit! I didn’t understand that. Everything I learned from the very beginning, I found very interesting. You can imagine, when I was studying at Tyndale University I didn’t learn all this!
James: At Tyndale University, one of our courses required us to write a paper that would be a contribution to renewal across denominations. We decided to focus on mainstream liturgical churches – Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist. (Some of these churches use large parts of the BCP in their liturgies.) We wrote a survey and interviewed lots of priests, seminary professors and so on, to get their advice and to find out what was needed to revive the liturgical churches. We called our project “Liturgy in Action”. It was a blueprint for using the BCP to share the Gospel and do disciple training. At the same time, we wrote a basic catechism course called “Essential Faith”, containing 25 lessons. Our aim was to show people how to share the faith. Often people are not comfortable sharing the Gospel – they don’t know what to say. So they will refer people to their priest; as if sharing the Gospel was only the priest’s privilege! But liturgy is something that every regular worshipper is familiar with. Most of them can recite from memory over half of the Sunday service. We can use this as a means to teach people about the faith.
Morning: And this teaching method works! There was a lady of the St. George’s fellowship group before I officially came. One summer her parents came from China for a visit, and they decided to attend a Chinese charismatic church. But then, when she went there, she felt that something was wrong. And she was able to pinpoint where and why it was wrong. She said, there is no confession! If there is no confession, certainly there will be no absolution. And it is not right, because the issue of sin is not properly dealt with. How can we have peace? It’s not enough to shake hands – there is no peace! So this lady felt it was incomplete. And she came back, and brought a friend from that church. And she said to James, this is the right church!
So your liturgy of choice is the Book of Common Prayer – why?
James: I had already developed a fervent love of the BCP while I was in China. Back then, I was involved in editing the unofficial BCP of mainland China. The Prayer Book is our great inheritance – it is the most precious treasure of our Church. It gives us our identity as Anglicans. It is not just a book to be read, but a way of life. It is a gift from God to us in this generation. Not only do I use it for Sunday Mandarin Fellowship worship, but we have edited our own version of the BCP Daily Office based on the BCP family prayers, which is distributed to our groups every week. So every day, we are literally on the same page in our spiritual life! And then at different Bible study cell groups we come together to study the Word of God, by using the Scriptures that we read from that same Daily Office booklet during the week.
Morning: Only two hours in the church building for Sunday worship is not nearly enough. Actually, the BCP teaches us that we should have a daily spiritual life. Most of us work, we find it hard to pray the full BCP daily offices. That’s why we have our family prayer booklets. The service takes just ten minutes – starting with a psalm, then the lection for the day, meditation, then a canticle, the Apostles’ Creed, personal and corporate intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer, and then the Collect of the week. Each booklet covers Monday to Saturday. It’s a good practice for a family! I was amazed one time by James’ daughter. She is just past her fifth birthday, so still of kindergarten age. She has not gone to school yet for various reasons, or had much reading. But she picked up one booklet and she started to read to me, because she learned reading by following these family prayers! And I told our parishioners, you know what? This can keep your family together. And you can share something really profound and meaningful.
James: We have spent a lot of time compiling our Mandarin-language BCP services. There have been several translations of the BCP into Mandarin in the past: from Taiwan in 1928, from Sichuan in 1932, from Shanghai also in 1932, from North China in 1937, from Singapore in 1956, from South East Asia, and from Hong Kong in 1998. We are comparing all of these translations, word by word, and choosing the best one in each case. For example, “Open thou our lips” is not well translated. Most of the translation versions say rather “Let us open our lips”, or simply “Help us open our lips”, which are quite different! “Open thou our lips” needs to be translated quite exactly, since it is from the Bible, like so much of the Prayer Book is. With the support of Bishop Patrick Yu, we have started a Theological Studio at St. Leonard’s Anglican Church. This studio is designed as a research centre for the ministry field, just like a factory that produces tools to support our existing ministries. We hope that we can produce a Canadian version Chinese BCP, which will be a true blessing to our Chinese people.
Morning: And we want to make our translation a truly Canadian Prayer Book. For example, the Taiwanese translation is mostly from the United States. And they don’t pray for the Queen! There is a Hong Kong prayer book, but they don’t pray for the Queen either. So we compare all of the versions in detail, to find the best translation. We go back to the Latin, or to the Hebrew Old Testament, or to the Greek New Testament. It takes lots of time! Father Walter Hannam at St. Bartholomew’s has been very helpful in this. We are inspired in this work by the thought that our research has a meaningful purpose – we have a tangible ministry.
James: The Prayer Book is a living tradition, and shapes us spiritually. As the Lutheran theologian Jaroslav Pelikan commented, tradition is the living faith of the Saints; it is not traditionalism, which is “the dead faith of the living”. We believe that the use of the BCP can be a force for revival in this post-modern society. The BCP shows us how to share the Gospel, and how to teach disciples.
Morning: We have nothing against ecumenism. But different denominations have different strengths. Our strength, our grounding and framework, is our BCP liturgy. James and I are focusing on this, and it’s working! We can learn a lot of good things from the non-liturgical evangelical church side, which is really good. We can learn from their passion! But it doesn’t mean we need to tear down our own strong framework. If we do that, we don’t know any more who we are!
James and Morning: As our faith continuously unfolds, it needs to be built upon our tradition. We are on our way. Being newcomers on the Anglican faith journey, we need lots of help and support from the people before us. We would like to thank all of those who are helping us through this great opportunity.
(From the PBSC newsletter, Easter 2016)