U.S. clergy to join Chinese seminary

Two American theologians expect to travel to China next month to become the first foreign clergy at a state-sanctioned seminary in a half-century.

The invitation — to the Rev. Carolyn Higginbotham, a Christian Church (Disciples) teacher, and Presbyterian Church (USA) educator Antoinette Wire — was announced at the end of a visit here by an official Protestant delegation from China.

As far as we know, this is the first time that foreigners have gone to China as theological educators since 1949, Ms. Higginbotham said in a phone interview from her home in Zanesville, Ohio.

She will teach the Old Testament at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary for a year as a foreign expert, and Ms. Wire of San Francisco will teach the New Testament.

Ms. Higginbotham, a professor of religious studies, will be joined by her minister husband, James, who will teach English. They still await visa approval, she said Thursday.

The overture to foreign Christians, made by the Nanjing seminary president, is one of the most significant since 1984, when a change in China's constitution allowed an official status for Protestants under the China Christian Council. Its delegation completed a U.S. visit on June 29.

Given China's hot-and-cold diplomacy with the United States over trade and human rights, the Ohio scholar said she has been asked by news media and church members, Is it all just about the Olympics?

Beijing hopes to woo the 2008 games to China, and improving its image with the United States is a key strategy, China watchers have said.

Ms. Higginbotham, however, traces the development to the leadership crisis of the aging and death of trained faculty at China's largest Protestant seminary, a widening of 20 years of exchanges with China's Christian officials — and her own heritage.

My family history is part of the 'why,'... said the granddaughter of American missionaries in China. Her mother was born there, and aunts and uncles also served in that mission. In Asia, there's a tradition of honoring long relationships, she said.

Though the two female teachers will be the first to arrive, another church scholar who is male will join them later this year. It simply had to do with who was available, she said of her and Ms. Wire's selection.

The request for faculty went out by e-mail through several mainline Protestant theological seminaries in the United States. Ms. Higginbotham knows only that her show of interest brought results. She will teach in English with a translator.

During its visit, the China Christian Council delegation emphasized a decade-old theme that mainland believers are experiencing a golden period, compared with the days after the 1966 Cultural Revolution.

Though China's constitution protects the religious freedom of a claimed 15 million Protestants, China being so vast, one can never expect all government policies to be implemented everywhere, Council President Wenzao Han toldU.S. church leaders during an Indianapolis visit.

He said the council asks the government for an investigation or rectification when local believers claim they are persecuted.

For their mission work, the Higginbothams have been commissioned by Global Ministry, the joint overseas agency of the Christian Church and the United Church of Christ.

American church volunteers also have worked in China under the Amity program, first set up in 85 to channel U.S. funds to print Bibles on the mainland. Next month, 18 Protestant volunteers will join 21 others already in China for a two years of teaching English under the Amity exchange.

The teachers are recruited by Church World Service, the charity arm of the National Council of Churches. Such cooperation with the government-sanctioned church in China also is supported by some evangelicals, including the Rev. Franklin Graham, the evangelist Billy Graham's son, who leads the relief agency Samaritan's Purse.

Critics, however, called the China delegation's visit the annual communist ploy to garner U.S. trade privileges. I'm sure that the liberal churches will take up their cause, said Nina Shea, director of religious liberty for Freedom House. It's a cyclical thing tied to the trade review.