Lung-kwong Lo: The biggest obstacle is power

Christians in Hong Kong wield influence beyond their small numbers, which is a blessing and a burden, says the dean of a seminary and president of the Methodist Church of Hong Kong.

The Rev. Dr. Lung-kwong Lo’s many roles as a Christian and institutional leader require him to navigate Hong Kong’s rich and diverse society, with its history of colonialism, its relationship to China and its delicate balance of power.

“We find it is so beautiful -- colorful,” he said. “Listening, understanding and then sharing form the base of a good collaboration. That is what happened in the last 30 years.”

For 18 years, Lo has been the dean of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The school’s name reflects its history: the college was founded as an independent Christian school in 1951, a few years after the Communist takeover of China. “Chung Chi” means “honoring Christ.” In 1963, the government created a new university in the Chinese educational tradition, called the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The college remains a private school within the state-funded university.

In addition to serving as dean of the divinity school, Lo, who is ordained in the Methodist Church, is president of The Methodist Church of Hong Kong, a role equivalent to a bishop. He also is the former chair of the Association for Theological Education in South East Asia and the Hong Kong Theological Education Association.

He received a master of divinity degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a Ph.D. from Durham University in the U.K., and has taught in the U.K. and the U.S. His current research projects include the church, politics and culture in Hong Kong and China.

Lo spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School for a consultation on Northeast Asia hosted by the Center for Reconciliation. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Describe your roles in the Christian community of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is so small, you have to wear different hats. [It has] various denominations and traditions.

We merged the British Methodist Church with the American Methodist Church to become one Methodist Church in Hong Kong. I serve as president, which is equivalent to a bishop.

There are many seminaries in a small city -- we have 18 seminaries. There’s a lot of competition.

But my divinity school is sponsored by five denominations: the Anglican, the Methodist, and then the Reformed Lutheran (called Basel Mission, from Switzerland); and then the Church of Christ in China, an indigenous denomination [consisting mainly of churches with Congregational and Presbyterian traditions]; and then there’s the Pentecostal Holiness Church.

So we have a very wide spectrum.

Q: A theme that recurs in your work is merging and collaboration -- multiple denominations, different cultures. As a leader, how do you negotiate that diversity?

Well, I think it’s in the Methodist tradition -- John Wesley’s “catholic spirit.” You have to embrace all different kinds of people. We can play that kind of role because we’re open-minded and we offset our differences. We’ve been friends with different church leaders with different church traditions and tried to understand them. Because the criteria for us is the quadrilateral.

The Bible and the tradition is so rich, we have to embrace all and then use reasoning and a sharing of experience -- open-mindedness combined with a commitment to the Bible and the tradition.

I think it’s good experience to listen to different ideas even when you’re not happy with them. But you have to try to learn and understand. At the end of the day, we have the Bible as our common book, common source and rich tradition.

We find it is so beautiful -- colorful. Listening, understanding and then sharing form the base of a good collaboration. That is what happened in the last 30 years.

Q: In so many places, what you describe has been difficult to achieve. Do you think the cultural history of Hong Kong makes it easier?

Well, I won’t say easier. For example, the Free Methodist Church refused to join us. But because it’s a small place, you have so many channels to meet, to share and to cooperate.

The issue of power -- that is the biggest obstacle, because you don’t want to give up your power. If you merge, then you have to share power and you have to accept that if someone is more senior or is better than you, you have to submit your power to him or her. But you accept it because you think unity, collaboration, is more important than one’s power.

Q: Have you had to do that yourself?

I saw my seniors when we merged the British Methodist Church with the American Methodist Church -- one of them gave up and went to a smaller church and let this young fellow take up a bigger church.

This is not our own power or authority; this is servantship. I think it’s a good tradition in our church. If you want collaboration, the biggest obstacle is power.

Q: You have studied and taught in the U.K. and the U.S. How are the challenges that the church faces different in Hong Kong than in the West?

Of course, the difference is that America and Britain have a very long history of Christianity. I was a visiting professor at Andover Newton in Boston, and I found that there are so many chances, so many resources, that the students are not so keen. But in Hong Kong we are a growing and flourishing church, and the people are more interested.

For example, my school, when I was there the first year in 1995, we had only 40 students. But now we have 317. We’ve gone from only three faculty members to 10 paid by the divinity school and another five paid by the religion department.

Q: Does the growth of your divinity school reflect a growth of the church -- the Christian community in general -- in Hong Kong?

Not exactly; we have more than 60 students from mainland China. The church in mainland China is growing. In the past, they didn’t have the chance to come to study. They were not allowed. But now there’s a more open policy.

It was more difficult to come to Hong Kong than the U.S.A. Also, in the past we were labeled as only [offering] liberal theology, and we seemed to be not really training ministers -- our graduates are so intellectual.

Q: So you had more of a reputation as an academic institution?

Yes, in the past, it was only academic. Those who graduated didn’t even know how to hold communion -- that was the accusation of an angry bishop.

But now faculty members have close contact with the local churches, and also we have opened up lay training. We opened up two new programs for the M.A., so many professionals -- medical doctors or lawyers -- and also housewives, they come to study in our M.A. program.

So on the one hand, it has opened up more chances for the people to come to study. And also we have a better reputation that we are not only training academics; we are training preacher-leaders and ministers who know how to minister the church.

Students from China include those from house churches, also from registered churches and also non-Christians. They’re just interested in Christian studies. Some of them are Communist Party members.

One of our graduates is an officer of the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong. He is a star there, but he’s under my supervision to write a doctoral thesis in Methodist Church history in Fujian Province.

Q: What does it mean to have students or laypeople or pastors who are coming from a younger tradition?

As you know, we are still a very small minority in Hong Kong. The government says we have only 8 percent, but my school conducted a survey, and we got a number of 18 percent, out of 7 million. But it’s better than in the past.

But we run more than half of the schools, and 70 percent of the social services. That is a big influence in the society. But still, of course, the Chinese culture is very strong.

Also, there is the background of the British -- they gave privilege to church. We have to face the resistance because we have been in power; we represent the powerful.

Q: And the colonial?

Colonial, imperialism -- all these kinds of accusations. Even in our college. It’s a Christian college; before we merged into the Chinese university, the missionaries in our college were the leaders. Now they’re gone. But the [current] leaders, most of them are non-Christians. They have that kind of mentality -- “You were Christians and missionaries in the past.”

Q: And what’s your response to that?

Well, since our school is a small one within the college, I kept a low profile, and then I tried to raise our own money and not depend on the college. They forget the college belongs to the church. But that’s history -- not a reality in the present reality. Although their financial income mainly comes from our church endowment, they try to avoid giving money to our school, so I raise our funds.

Q: Is that where most of your resources come from?

Yes. So we raise our own funds, including a new chapel, which cost us almost $8 million U.S. Power and money -- that would control you and hinder your relationship with others. So we tried to raise our own funding, and eventually they found out we don’t really depend on them.

I did not raise money from them, and also I humbled myself. We do our own job. We’re increasing students. We’re increasing our money, resources and the building, and they respect you, and then they can see [you] on a more equal basis. They’re not threatened.

You have to gain their respect -- and not just because you are the dean of the divinity school. You [have to] show that you have that kind of power, not only because of history, but because of what you contribute.

I think that is a servant leader -- a very basic way to become a leader, in Christian circles as well as in the public arena.