St John's is the oldest Anglican church in Asia, built in 1849. Yellow stuccoed and very well maintained. Architecturally it is Victorian Gothic Revival with a splash of colonial plantation thrown in as a nod to the elements, I imagine. For example: the windows, while pointed arches in true Gothic style, are long and narrow, practically floor to ceiling, with teakwood shutters to block the heat of the sun yet allow air to flow. There are rows of alternating lights and ceiling fans (about which more later) descending from the carved, timbered ceiling. All and all it is very pleasingly put together.
Like many churches in far-flung places, the cathedral has to serve many communities. There are services in both Cantonese and Mandarin as well as services for the English-speaking and Tagalog (Filipino) communities. Several ministries are mentioned on their website; I'll just call attention to CLARES (Care Love Action Response Effort Service), an outreach to the mentally and physically handicapped and the homeless that raises money by, among other things, running a second-hand clothing and linen shop.
The cathedral is located in what was once called Victoria City but is now referred to merely as Central, historically the administrative hub of British Hong Kong. Today Central maintains its status as home to the judiciary, legislative and economic arms of the government. There are few colonial buildings left, however, and Central now sports modern glass and steel towers, glitzy hotels, and air-conditioned shopping malls showcasing luxury brands. Sundays in Hong Kong are, by law, a day off for all domestic workers. Most congregate in the Central neighbourhood to meet friends, socialise, shop, wander through the malls, and generally get out of the house. There are literally hundreds of women camped out on every inch of public space (sidewalks, parks, walkways, and in some cases the street), with many of the older ones setting up private salons with large, broken-down cardboard boxes. A friend likened the scene to an enormous flock of parrots moving together in algorithmic patterns, chattering all the while. Because the cathedral is situated in a park, many congregate there for picnics, gossip and card games. Some also sit in the cathedral for a bit of quiet contemplation.
The officiant was the Revd Mark Rogers, priest-in-charge of Discovery Bay Church, the cathedral's daughter church. The preacher was the Revd Robert Martin, cathedral chaplain and coordinator of worship and music.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong.
How full was the building?
About 80. It was a bit hard to judge the actual attendance as there was much coming and going throughout the service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but for the sake of full disclosure, I arrived very early, long before they had fully set up for the service. There were greeters on hand later.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes at first, but then it was a bit of a trial for the long haul, with a particularly unforgiving board across the top of the back. Fine if one sits bolt upright, but not so much if one's posture is wanting. Despite the discomfort, I thought the teak pews were quite lovely, more like a connected row of individual chairs with arms, wide bottoms, and woven wicker backs and seats. There were thin needlepoint hassocks in a Chinese key design, shrink-wrapped in plastic, under each seat.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Busy but surprisingly quiet. I caught some of the choir practice. The director really put them through their paces. The choir of 20 were quite strong, and featured several very bright sounding sopranos.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to St John's Cathedral. Please stand for the opening hymn."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
New English Hymnal (Melody Edition), a service bulletin with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Order for Evensong, and a leaflet with the readings and collect.
What musical instruments were played?
Decent sounding electric organ. There were mechanical bells with Westminster chimes to mark the hours.
Did anything distract you?
During the service, many people got up and left and then a new batch came in. There was a lot of coming and going, and if I had known that I would have sat closer to the front.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
"Quietly dignified" probably best captures it, with nothing showy or over-the-top to take the focus away from the officiant, preacher and choir.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – While the sermon was very formally delivered from the pulpit with the preacher in full choir dress, I couldn't help but sense that his preferred delivery would have been something more conversational, delivered from the floor.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The preacher riffed on the second reading: Revelation 2:1-11 (John's message to the churches at Ephesus and Smyrna). Starting off by quoting that old chestnut, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" as a way of describing the church's first 100 years and what is profiled in Revelation, he said that that Revelation isn't likely to give anyone the warm fuzzies. Yet the message John gives the seven churches is important and relevant to us today. John is essentially providing a metric on which to base a healthy church, and we can apply his advice to our own lives. Ephesus, for example, is busy with the worldly church but it lacks love. Smyrna, by contrast, is persecuted, and John reminds them that their trials will be rewarded in the hereafter.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It has been eons since I've been to such a nice Prayer Book evensong, which are practically impossible to find now in London.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lighting! Not only was it exceedingly bright (no dim mysteries there!), but the originals have been replaced by what looks like energy saving bulbs. Honestly, they wouldn't have looked out of place in a diner on the New Jersey shore.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No real chance. Everyone headed out as soon as it was over.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee, just a friendly good-bye by the officiant and preacher on the porch.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – What isn't to like about such a dignified service?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The choir doing a bang up job on "Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem," one of my favourites that hardly ever seems to be sung anymore.