Bishop Kuang-hsun Ting, who was one of the most influential Christian figures in China as the longtime leader of the country’s government-sanctioned Protestant church, has died. He was 97.
Ting died Nov. 22 at his home in Nanjing, according to statements from religious organizations he led. A cause of death was not given.
For many years, Ting headed the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council, the two government-sanctioned Protestant organizations that together form the official Protestant church in China.
He was also the longtime president of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary and helped launch the Amity Foundation, serving as board president of that social service organization until his death.
Ting’s close cooperation with China’s Communist Party and central government earned him both praise and criticism throughout his long career.
Supporters said he had helped protect and promote the interests of Protestants in China, while critics accused him of being too close to the government and at times even joining in the persecution of unregistered or “house” churches.
“He has a positive legacy in many people’s eyes because he pushed forward Protestant Christianity and its interests in China, albeit under the scope of the government,” said Carsten T. Vala, an expert on Chinese Protestant Christianity who teaches at Loyola University in Maryland. “But he was also a lightning rod, seen by those in the house churches as having compromised by leading the Communist Party-controlled church.”
As head of the official church, Ting was often in a tough position as he balanced religious and political demands, said Fenggang Yang, director of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society.
“He had to make compromises, otherwise the Protestants could suffer even more,” Yang said. “Did he personally totally agree with the government or government policy? Maybe not. I think he also tried to help the government-sanctioned churches and some house churches. But many house churches don’t see it that way.”
Born Sept. 20, 1915, in Shanghai, Ting studied at St. John’s University in that city and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1942.
He served as mission secretary for the Student Christian Movement in Canada and later studied at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.
In the early 1950s, he was on the staff of the World Student Christian Federation in Geneva, then returned to China.
In 1955, he was ordained an Anglican bishop, a title he retained for the rest of his life.
Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and a friend, said Ting had helped create an indigenous Christianity in China.
“He tried to find a way in which the church could remain true to itself but be a partner to government and other cultural forces in China,” Mouw said. He was “a deeply Christian person coping as best he could with the demands of government, while keeping alive the essentials of Christianity in China.”