|334: St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong|
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Mystery Worshipper: Pax Britannica.
The church: St John's Cathedral, Garden Road, Hong Kong.
The building: Cream-washed, heavy, squat, colonial Gothic of 1849, a massive tower at the west end with full peal of (real) bells the 1953 coronation gift of the Hongkong Bank. The interior is surprisingly wide, spacious and airy, and very well proportioned. No air-conditioning, but many ceiling-hung electric fans create a good breeze despite the sweltering heat. The building has great potential, but is alas rather bland (and badly lit), the result apparently of a 1960s reordering. The arrangements and the decor now look distinctly tired and dated. The Royal Arms on the front pew, battered Union Jacks hung from the walls, and books of remembrance speak of the church's noble colonial and military past.
The church: A good half of the congregation are Filipina maids who throng central Hong Kong on their weekly day off, and who are happy to sit in the relative cool and worship God away from their demanding Chinese mistresses. The other half is made up of prosperous expats British, Australians, Americans and prosperous Anglophile Chinese, all with children in tow. In addition to a full daily worship schedule, the cathedral operates many worthy social programmes, some targeted on the territory's numerous foreign domestic servants.
The neighbourhood: Garden Road‚ in the centre of Victoria, is on the lower slopes of the Peak just below Government House, the former governor's residence. It is also on the edge of Hong Kong's vibrant financial district, surrounded by gleaming glass office towers. The cathedral is in a small, rather dusty and shabby garden, with adjacent cathedral offices, a hall and a well-stocked bookshop.
The cast: Rev. Dr Erik Kvan, celebrant, with deacon and subdeacon-type clergy assistants. The preacher was Rev. Frank Nelson, and there were also about eight servers, plus ushers and sidesmen in short sleeves. The eucharistic ministers included one most distinguished gentleman in dark jacket and tie surely the only appropriate costume for church parade, even in the tropics?
What was the name of the service?
9.00am Sung Eucharist (Sixth Sunday in Easter).
How full was the building?
Completely full around 500 seated, and many more standing at the doors. The service was also said to be broadcast.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A diffident "good morning" from the man half-hidden behind the wall of prayer books, as he handed me mine.
Was your pew comfortable?
Luxurious rattan-upholstered pews with individual armrests, which are de rigueur in the Anglican tropics. Of ample width, and of two sizes to accommodate different widths of white man's burden, no doubt. Or perhaps the narrower ones are for the Memsahibs?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Rather busy‚ with chatter and the background flutter and hum of the fans. But at 15 minutes to the hour the peal of bells crashed into action, first with traditional change ringing, then tolling, and finally striking the hour with the Westminster chimes. Gloriously English, and quite deafening through the open windows.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
After a rather mumbled greeting and the introit hymn covering the procession: "Our Lord Jesus Christ said..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Alternative Service Book 1980, Hymns Ancient & Modern New Standard. Plus a leaflet with many coloured inserts that were not easy to manage under those fans.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, a new Allen computer instrument inaugurated only the previous evening. 8 out of 10 for verisimilitude to the Real Thing, and expertly played. A fine choir of 20 men and women, although after a perfunctory congregational gloria they had only an anthem during communion to sing: Stanford, and excellently done. A CD of the choir was on sale.
Did anything distract you?
Those fans, and wondering if they would blow the candles out. They didn't and I noticed that they were selectivesly turned off to accommodate the moving of the acolytes' candles.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Reasonably dignified and smoothly efficient, though the clergy and servers looked a bit dowdy in polyester robes. This was in contrast to the choir, who were in smart blue Anglican cassocks and full surplices. The ceremonial was modest, with the sign of the cross. There was hearty congregational singing in the fine, classic English hymns and their well-known tunes (though perhaps not well-known to the maids).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was not clear until the end. This was a valiant attempt to link all three readings Paul's call to Macedonia, John's vision of the Holy City, and our Lord's, "I am going to the Father". Articulate and interesting, there were references to the Old Testament antetypes, but it was a ramble nonetheless and had the material of at least four sermons. The theme turned out to be "The presence of God with us". I uncharitably wondered what many of the congregation made of it.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
English worship on the edge of China, and singing great C of E hymns full of sound doctrine: "Light's abode", "Dear Lord and Father of mankind", "Ye choirs of new Jerusalem", "Ye holy angels bright" all familiar words to familiar tunes that must have been sung in that place throughout its 150 year history by other homesick English.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The heat, obviously, and the incongruity of praying "for Jiang Zemin, our President".
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
In true British fashion I was left to wander round the building during the excellent organ playing, but I didn't mind. All the regulars knew each other and wanted to gossip.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Sorry, but the shops and Hong Kong bargains beckoned. However, a light breakfast in the adjacent hall was offered.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 Probably the most dignified and traditional Anglican service in Hong Kong: in a fine setting, with good pastoral leadership and good (potentially superb) music. Greater intensity of worship in a less bland interior, and more focused participation by the cast is needed to get over the distractions the ambient noise, and the brutal heat.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Completely. God was worshipped in this place with a dignity in which I readily joined.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Those hymns. And those bells.