Shanghai restores cathedral to Church

Shanghai's former Anglican cathedral, spiritual home of Britain's colonial classes in the Far East for almost a century, has been handed back to the Church after years of communist neglect in response to a surge in support for Christianity in China.

The China Christian Council and leaders of China's officially sanctioned protestant Church were allowed to place wooden signs bearing their names on the front wall of the cathedral last week.

They intend to clear the debris of half a century of official occupation and, they say, re-install mahogany fittings to the interior to match Sir Gilbert Scott's original design. They even hope to rebuild the spire.

Situated in old Shanghai's international settlement, the Anglican church has a red brick and white stone frontage, which would not be out of place in an English suburb.

For 90 years it gave spiritual solace to Britons and others a long way from home as Shanghai grew into one of the world's largest port cities. For many, it was a prosperous but uneasy period, with the new wealth of Chinese trade being made in the midst of a collapsing empire and consequent civil war.

Much of the Shanghai world of colonial garden parties, gangsters, warlords and Chinese and White Russian prostitutes has been described in novels. The most famous, Empire of the Sun, by J G Ballard, opens with the 11-year-old protagonist wearing his chorister's cassock and being shown Second World War films in the cathedral crypt.

Like him, many of the colonial children were educated at the cathedral school, set up along the lines of a London cathedral choir school.

The cathedral was closed after the city was "liberated" by the communists in the civil war in 1949. For much of the time since it has been a police station and latterly a visa office.

It will now become the local headquarters of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the official title of the state-approved protestant Church in China. According to Ding Guangxun, chairman of the organisation's national committee, the government is showing its support for freedom of religion.

In fact, the government is increasingly alarmed by the growth in Christianity in China, mostly in "underground" or non-approved Churches, either protestant evangelical or Roman Catholic, which are subject to state persecution. There is also an official Catholic Church but its adherents are not allowed to recognise the Pope's authority.

It now seems to be reacting to this by bolstering the officially sanctioned Churches, which up to now have been tolerated but not encouraged except when they serve a political purpose. In addition to Holy Trinity, major publicity was recently given to an order to build two new churches in Beijing.

Richard Chilvers, of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which campaigns against the persecution of Christians in China, said there were 80 million church-goers in China, mostly underground. "There is a massive divide between the Three-Self Patriotic Church and the majority of Christians, who are not prepared to be told what to talk about and how to worship."

Tess Johnston, a former US diplomat and expert on the city's colonial era buildings, said: "If you know what a Victorian 'high church' looks like, that's what the old photographs show - all dark mahogany, altar railings, the lot. I hope that the authorities have the wood and the know-how."