Author: John C England
Publisher: Indian Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge, Delhi, India/Association for Theological Education Myanmar, for Programme for Theology and Cultures in Asia, 2020.
Reviewer: Gary A Clover
Rev Dr John Carol England’s insightful, small, pioneering work, The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia – the Churches of the East Before 1500 (1998) first introduced me to the neglected history of Asia’s ancient, much enculturated, “Churches of the East”. Cranes Ever Flying is an important, much fuller, inspiring overview of Christianity in Asia that “can inform” today’s faith, and help us understand the richness of its history and the variety and depth of its theology. It’s also opportune as Asia’s Christian minorities today face much persecution and pressure to conform to non-Christian national agendas.
Dr England has a long and respected scholarly involvement with the East Asia Christian Conference as Secretary for Education and Ministry. He has spent his life immersed in the practice, study and teaching of Christianity in Asia. In New Zealand his formative theological education was with Knox College, following two years at Trinity College in 1950-51. Cranes draws upon his extensive documentary sources assembled for the Asian Journal of Theology’s “Research Guide to Asian Christian Theology”, and recently re-discovered Christian material remains, inscriptions, sculptures, crosses, tombs, frescoes, paintings, buildings, ruins, coins and seals.
Asian Christianity has deep roots going back to the beginning of the Common Era. One learns that Syrian Orthodox, Eastern “Thomasite”, and “Nestorian” Christians reached South India and East China in the 1st century CE. By the eighth and ninth centuries 18 Metropolitans and scores of bishoprics governed the Eastern churches which by the 11th century CE outnumbered the West’s Latin and Byzantine churches combined. Also that it has preserved an older, still accessible, “exciting symbolism and language” which many of today’s Methodists might appreciate: Creation is “an arrow kept in flight by the power of God”. God’s name is the “Lord of Heaven” constantly present everywhere. The Holy Spirit is the “pure cool wind”. Salvation is the desert’s “saving dew”; or from Buddhism, “the safe raft on a sea of fire”. Jesus’ earthly life was “for the sake of all humankind”. The relation of the earthly to the life hereafter is that of “what a mother’s womb is to the child”.
England’s summation will be “startling” to some. It’s that Western Christianity’s emphasis on the salvific theology of the cross, sin, and the redemption of creation, is “not normative” Christianity. More normative is Asian Christianity’s spirituality and religious consciousness centred “upon ‘The Way’ rather than upon the Logos; upon ‘Life as a whole’ rather than only works of reason”, all espoused within contextual theologies embedded in national struggles for independence from Western colonialism, political oppression, and post-colonial social and cultural re-construction. But Western Christianity has consistently disregarded the “Churches of the East” because of long-standing suspicions of Asian churches established by so-called “Nestorian heretics” who rejected the ontological mysticisms of Nicaea and Chalcedon.
Cranes, is structured in two parts. Part one is eight chapters that present a text book overview of Asian Christianity’s history, theology, ecumenical inter-faith movements, and the art of the early Christians who from Persia penetrated along the silk routes to south India and Sri Lanka, and through “inner Asia” to China, Japan, then South East Asia and Java. It concludes with biographical sketches of eight innovative “Watershed theologians”. Part two is an introductory selection of studies that chart “basic approaches to living our theology” centred on the “life-of-Jesus-with-others” theme.
I found reading this erudite, substantial, scholarly work heavy going. Roughly a quarter of the text in each chapter is “Endnotes”, and “Select Bibliographies of works cited”. The sole, fold-out map, even when magnified, remains unreadable. Nevertheless, this monograph of exquisite scholarship is highly commended. But I advise: tackle in small doses.