St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore (Exterior)

St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Andrew's Cathedral
Location: Singapore
Date of visit: Thursday, 24 December 2015, 10:30pm

The building

Begun in 1856, consecrated in 1862, and elevated to the status of cathedral in 1870, St Andrew's is a large Gothic Revival edifice with an imposing tower. It was designed by Ronald MacPherson, Singapore's Superintendent of Convicts, and was built using unpaid convict labour (like other buildings at the time). It is the second (not third, as some sources claim) church to stand on the spot, legend holding that the first was destroyed by "unhappy spirits" (more likely lightning strikes). The central tower holds a ring of eight bells. The apse includes three very tall stained glass windows. There are several memorials to noteworthy figures from Singapore's colonial days. The walls are, however, covered by a form of white plaster called Madras chunam. This, combined with the modern closed-circuit televisions scattered across the nave and the drop-down fans, took away from what would otherwise be a remarkable example of Gothic Revival architecture in southeast Asia.

The church

They hold Bible study and numerous discipleship and discussion groups. Guided tours are conducted, and the cathedral is a popular venue for weddings. Weekday services alternate between morning prayer and holy communion. On Sundays, holy communion is celebrated in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Tagalog, Myanmar, and Bahasa Indonesia. It's perhaps best described as a communal space composed of many smaller congregations.

The neighborhood

The Republic of Singapore is a city-state at the southernmost tip of continental Asia. The seat of several local empires since the second century AD, Singapore became a British colony in 1819. It was occupied by Japan during World War II. Singapore became independent from Britain in 1963 and, along with North Borneo and Sarawak, joined the Malaysian Federation, from which it was expelled within two years' time. Today Singapore is a major global financial and commercial centre, being the only South Asian country to enjoy a rating of AAA from Standard & Poor, Moody's and Fitch. Singapore's government is widely regarded as being incorruptible, although the legal system imposes harsh penalties such as flogging for relatively minor offenses. While St Andrew's is near other British colonial-era buildings, one can't help but notice the contrast between the Gothic-style architecture of the cathedral and the ever-changing skyline of Singapore, which is awash in new buildings that dwarf it. Nearby are the historic City Hall (now the National Gallery of Singapore) and the Bugis Junction shopping mall. Directly across is the Padang, a landmark open space that was once a cricket ground. There is a Metro stop nearby.

The cast

The Rt Revd Rennis Ponniah, Lord Bishop of Singapore, preached, gave the absolution, and delivered the final blessing and dismissal. However, the celebrant, called president in the order of service, was not named. The bishop was vested in a tropical weight white alb and cream-coloured stole underneath his cope. He also wore his mitre and carried an ornate crosier. The celebrant wore the same tropical weight white alb but with a gold stole.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion

How full was the building?

It was standing room only with overflow congregants seated in modern additions off the transepts, where they worshipped via closed circuit television. My pew mates, all of whom said they regularly attend services here, said the cathedral itself has a capacity of about 750. That seemed a little high to me, but there were certainly several hundred worshipping inside the nave.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I engaged in some polite conversion while waiting for an hour for the doors to open. My pew mates were cordial and curious, but seemed puzzled when I tried explaining the spectrum of Anglican churchmanship to them.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews of St Andrew's contain individual chairs with arm rests and a wicker back that were without a doubt the most comfortable pews I have ever experienced. So much so that one could easily sleep through church, thanks in part to the generous amounts of legroom.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Extremely loud and social. If the organ prelude had started sooner than five minutes before the commencement of the service, the atmosphere might have been more solemn.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Please stand for the processional hymn: 'Once in Royal David's City.'"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A special service booklet, specific for Christmas Eve, contained everything: liturgy, readings, hymns. However, the ushers limited it to one per family, which had to have made it difficult for families to worship.

What musical instruments were played?

A stately organ from the loft above the great west doors of the cathedral. The original organ was an opus of JW Walker and was rebuilt in the early 20th century by Hill, Norman & Beard. Having become unplayable over the years, it was rebuilt and augmented in 2009 with a custom designed Rodgers digital instrument, all under the supervision of Modular Pipe Organ Systems Ltd of Swanton Morley, Norfolk, England. Additionally, there was a large massed choir with so many choristers that an accurate count was difficult. The choristers wore everything from street clothes to white robes and pennant-style stoles on top of white cassocks. The style of robe was similar to what I've seen in other Protestant churches, but did significantly depart from traditional Anglican choir dress.

Did anything distract you?

I was aghast when the Lord Bishop ended his sermon by calling up a trio of singers to the chancel steps, who sang an unlisted song that reminded me of Asian karaoke. Then there were the two moments where the congregation interrupted the liturgy with spontaneous applause – something I've never experienced before in an Anglican church.

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

Very low on the proverbial candle, as the Diocese of Singapore is evangelical in its churchmanship. The liturgy itself wasn't unfamiliar to anyone who has worshipped with the contemporary language of the American 1979 Book of Common Prayer or the Church of England's Common Worship, but there were some bits I hadn't heard before even in contemporary language liturgies.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

24 minutes.

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

8 – The sermon might have seemed a few minutes too long for such a late service, but prior to the start of worship I overheard many a congregant comment that they were anticipating what the Lord Bishop would say. He is a strong speaker with perfect English – unlike the celebrant, whose accent made it difficult at times to understand what was being said. No "Star Wars" references – just sound Bible-based preaching. It was a change from what one might experience in some cathedrals elsewhere in the Anglican communion.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Lord Bishop proclaimed Jesus as the light of God and reflected upon the congregation worshipping and singing carols in a fallen world faced with perils – specifically naming ISIS and climate change – while awaiting the return of Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The diversity of the congregation: white, yellow, brown and black. Young and old. All combined with solid, biblical preaching – nothing crazy, which isn't always the case at a cathedral.

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

Waiting for an hour outside the cathedral in order to get inside to worship – a complete and utter mess! When the doors were finally opened, the first couple of dozen people who entered the church did so in an orderly fashion, but it quickly became a free-for-all as every man (and woman) forged ahead for themselves. I actually witnessed congregants verbally fighting with each other as some pushed their way past others who had stood patiently for at least an hour. It was pure chaos! This could have been solved had there been more than one Christmas Eve service or had those lining up been allowed to enter earlier.

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

I didn't want to get trapped by the crowd, so I quickly exited – I was the first! – and managed to have a nice chat with the Lord Bishop, who kindly signed my service booklet.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none to my knowledge.

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

5 – It's too difficult to assess because Christmas Eve is such a special service in the life of St Andrew's. But the cathedral has to be one of the Anglican Communion's more vibrant faith communities.

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

The rich and heartfelt expression of faith from an incredibly diverse congregation was encouraging.

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

The pre-service chaos.

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