The last set of pieces have been on figures little-known to most Western Christians. We know our Christian history – it begins in Jerusalem and then moves ever west, with us wondering whether St Paul ever got to Spain (and hoping he did). We know that St Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, and that it was there that followers of Jesus were first called ‘Christians’, but we tend not to think too much more about the eastward movement of our faith. Some of us (Lyn and Rebecca take a bow) worry about the fate of Christians in the Middle East, but how many of us know anything about the histories of those churches – or that Christianity reached China in the seventh century?
The picture here is of the Neopian Stele (also known as the Nestorian Stone, Nestorian Monument, or Nestorian Tablet) is a Tang Chinese stele erected in 781 that documents 150 years of history of early Christianity in China. It is a 279-cm tall limestone block with text in both Chinese and Syriac, describing the existence of Christian communities in several cities in northern China. It reveals that the initial Nestorian Christian church had met recognition by the Tang Emperor Taizong, due to efforts of the Christian missionary Alopen (Chinese: 阿罗本 ) in 635. When the Jesuits arrived in the area nearly a thousand years later they were surprised to see they weren’t the first Christians there.
The stele is in Syriac because its creators had travelled east with the Silk Road – they were monks from what the Jesuits called the Nestorian Church, but which is more properly called the Church of the East. From Antioch, Christianity spread eastwards to Edessa, which became the centre for missions to India (by St Thomas himself), Persia (including the Gulf, where St Isaac flourished) and,eventually China and Japan. These achievements, just like the church itself, have tended to be forgotten in the West, which although it came to see itself as Christendom, was in fact only part of it.
I want to say something about the history and theology of the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church in the next few posts, but here, in this introduction, I want simply to say that there is in that history a lesson and a warning. The lesson is that the boundaries of God’s church are not set by us; the warning is that even the greatest missionary efforts can come to naught if they are not properly supported.
Both these churches – the Syriac and the Church of the East – exist to this day, and one of the wonders of the Internet is that it is easy to find out more about them. I have been fortunate enough to have attended a Syriac Liturgy, but never an Assyrian one. These Christians have suffered much, sometimes from their fellow Christians, more often from Islam or other hostile regimes.
It is easy enough for us in the West to think that the adoption of Christianity by Constantine and his successors was something of a mixed blessing, not least because it was, and because the struggle between church and state has been a staple of our history. But, without the protection of a state, the church is, as these two have been, vulnerable to the whims of hostile powers. Even two-edged swords can be useful, if handled with care.