St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Andrew's Cathedral
Location: Singapore
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 February 2020, 11:15am

The building

St Andrew's is a neo-Gothic wedding cake. It is a beautiful, bustling place, serving as the cathedral for the Diocese of Singapore, encompassing the city-state itself and a substantial swath of South East Asia. In addition to the original structure, the church has expanded into additional buildings on the same site for additional worship space, office space and classrooms.

The church

The diocese just elected a new bishop in the last week: Canon Titus Chung, who is a staff member at the cathedral. The number of Anglicans in Singapore has increased five-fold from 1970 and the cathedral led the way. The cathedral itself has sixteen services each weekend conducted in seven different languages.

The neighborhood

This was the original Anglican church in Singapore and a full city block was provided in the original plan for the city, situated among government buildings and substantial residences. Paved drives extend from each of the corners of the block to form a St Andrew's Cross with the cathedral in the midst of it. Toward the bay there is a large park with a cricket ground, but instead of the original substantial residences there are the towering skyscrapers of Singapore's central business district. The coronavirus COVID-19 is at the top of the news in Singapore, and the Roman Catholic bishop had cancelled all Sunday masses on 16 February. The Presbyterians cancelled for the next two weeks, then put up a large poster urging people to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ despite the virus. The Ministry of Health has the country at an Orange Alert level (next to the most serious, which is Red) and everyone is asked multiple times a day to wash hands, to use hand sanitizer, to wear face masks if they feel unwell, and to avoid crowds. As of the latest news on Sunday morning there were 67 confirmed cases.

The cast

With a large staff, various members were responsible for leading the service. The vicar of the cathedral preached.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

It was well filled, not packed, but almost all pews had someone in them, and it is a sizeable building.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We arrived about 15 minutes before service began and found the main entrance roped off. We were directed to the north side of the building. There was process to get admittance to the service: First, we were required to fill out forms to the effect that we had not been to China in the last 14 days and had not been with anyone who had; that we did not have any symptoms of the coronavirus and were not on some sort of medical leave from a job. Finally, we had to provide our e-mail address and phone numbers. Next, we had our body temperature taken. (This has become common here now – banks, many restaurants, and retail establishments require the temperature check before allowing one in as well.) After passing that, we were given a spritz of hand sanitizer. Once we completed this procedure, we got a little blue adhesive label to be affixed to our clothing, which was what we needed to be admitted to the cathedral building. Although this sounds awful, the process was well staffed and moved smoothly, and the forms could be completed by scanning a QR code on your phone or on paper. The entire process was carried out with courtesy, grace, compassion, and a smile. But the rules were firm, and those without the blue label were not admitted. When some folks wandered in without the blue sticker after the service started, according to Mrs Eye in the back row, they were promptly ushered out. We are all in the same boat here – and it is worrying. Once admitted, we were handed a bulletin with a smile and a ‘Good morning.’

Was your pew comfortable?

I have never seen such remarkable pews. This is a tropical city (70 miles north of the Equator) and it is perpetually hot. The cathedral is not air-conditioned. But these pews have individual seats that include a rattan back to keep the tropical air circulating. Very comfortable. There are individual wooden kneelers with the cushions done in needlepoint encased in heavy duty plastic.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

After going through the screening procedure, most folks were quietly sitting or praying in the pews, waiting for the service to begin. There was a very brief prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Beloved in Christ, you are welcome here.’ Then the opening hymn was announced and the service proceeded.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Diocese of Singapore Service Book 1995 and Common Praise. The entire text of the service and hymns was displayed on video monitors on the pillars on both sides and, for those on the side aisles, on overhead video monitors visible there. There was a monitor in the sanctuary for the altar party.

What musical instruments were played?

A very fine pipe organ integrated with and augmented by some electronic Rodgers stops, updated in 2019. There was nothing at all that sounded electronic about it. There was a small choir who sat in an area behind the altar, but the organ is positioned at the back of the church in the gallery.

Did anything distract you?

I was sitting along the main aisle about halfway down the aisle and noted a fair number of late-comers, likely due to the screening process to get in.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This was a broad-church service in the finest tradition. One of the hymns was unfamiliar to me, but the congregation clearly loved it and the organist led it well. There was an alternate harmonization on the last verse of every hymn. The only anthem was during communion and was simply a communion hymn sung quietly. The service included bits and pieces from a number of Prayer Books from across the Anglican Communion, but it felt familiar and everything worked well together. They got the confession and absolution out of the way early in the service, but otherwise it was exactly what I would expect. Nothing stuffy about it, but nothing really high church either. Several of the coronavirus cases in Singapore were known to have been spread in two separate non-Anglican churches, so we were instructed to pass the peace with a brief smile and a bow – a ‘contactless’ passing of the peace. It was announced that due to the health situation, communion would be administered only by intinction, that the clergy or altar servers would do the intincting, and that the congregation would receive the intincted host on the palm of their hand. Those with concerns about the virus who chose not to receive would be welcome to come forward for a blessing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

29 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — The vicar was well prepared. He had been given the task not only of preaching on the lessons for the morning, but also of addressing the circumstances facing the city at the moment. I believe English was his second language, but I did not find it difficult to hear or understand him. He used humor and even a bit of old video shown on the monitors to make his points.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

From the text of the epistle, Romans 8:18-25 (our suffering is nothing compared to our future glory), he drew three threads: That of civilization longing for a better time and the glorious future we had in store; the groaning of civilization as it looks toward the portent of calamity in the future; and the unceasing prayer that will be needed to get to the goal. Dark days are ahead and it cannot be known with certainty when and how things will turn out. But this virus will be beaten! There have been dark days in the past in Singapore as well – but we’ve gotten through them. Life might be different for a while, but don’t lose heart. Continue to meet, perhaps in smaller groups, and remain faithful.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I am not sure just what heaven is like, but I’d like to think that it is a place like this church, which genuinely welcomes all. When you sit down, you are confronted with a plethora of hymnals, Bibles, service books and prayer books, in a variety of languages. I confess that I did get choked up singing the hymn ‘For the Healing of the Nations.’ Another heavenly bit occurred when the vicar demonstrated the hand-washing process that is apparently being taught in schools here. I have thought of it every time I have washed my hands since.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Nothing. Despite the sense of impending gloom (not doom) there was a certainty and a confidence that ‘this, too, shall pass.’

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I got a smile and a nod from the celebrant (wearing appropriate vestments and his little blue sticker), but the after-service lunch, which apparently is a weekly occurrence, was cancelled due to the health situation. After communion I joined Mrs Eye near the rear of the building and we were among the first to leave. As we have been repeatedly told to avoid crowds, we took the advice of the Ministry of Health and left. There being no air conditioning in the cathedral, rattan seats or not, it was warm in there, so we sought out some place air-conditioned for lunch.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Cancelled due to the health situation.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — This is an amazing place. With 16 services in this cathedral every weekend (most are conducted in either English or Mandarin, but the cathedral also hosts congregations that worship in Tamil, Burmese, Cantonese, Tagalog, Hokkien, and Bahasa Indonesian) the vision of the 'countless host' referred to in the text of ‘For All the Saints’ is brought to mind. There are three sessions of Sunday school each week in addition to the services (cancelled today due to the health issues.) They even have a special Sunday school on Saturday for autistic children, which is a more peaceful experience for them.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. This cathedral is very much about what it is to be a Christian.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The gentle competence and efficiency of the folks doing the health screenings and the faith of these Anglicans that there are better days ahead.

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