St Stephen's, Santa Cruz, Manila

St Stephen's, Santa Cruz, Manila, the Philippines


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Mystery Worshipper: Saint Hedrin
Church: St Stephen's
Location: Santa Cruz, Manila, the Philippines
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 June 2006, 7:00am

The building

The building is a modern looking edifice of predominantly geometric patterns most evident in the facade, windows and awnings. Its light, airy interior, all in blue and white, belies the solid exterior. The building strikes a balance between the practical and the spiritual.

The church

St Stephen's ministers to a predominantly Chinese-Filipino congregation, with services both in English and Chinese. There are fellowship groups for adults, children and the youth, and some Bible study groups as well. The church also sponsors a school, St Stephen's High School, which primarily serves the Chinese community in the Manila area.

The neighborhood

The Santa Cruz district of Manila is home to several churches of other denominations not far from St Stephen's. The district also features a merry mix of shops and apartment buildings. The church and school are themselves landmarks for the commuters in the district.

The cast

The rector, the Rev. Dr Patrick Tanhuanco, officiated, assisted by the Rev. Paul Tanhuanco. Also taking part were the verger, Mr Luisito Lim, and two lay readers, Mr Kerwin Tan and Mrs Susan Ngan. The preacher was the Rev. Dr Tessie Chua.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Prayer

How full was the building?

Judging by the attendance this morning, I'd say it was more than half full, with more backbenchers than frontliners.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher smiled, wished me a good morning, shook my hand, and gave me a service sheet. At the offertory, another of the ushers shook my hand with a polite greeting, and a parishioner said hello as I was leaving at service's end.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pew was wooden, slightly lower than at my regular church. It was comfortable enough as far as pews go, with padded kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Alas, I arrived a little late, just as the Jubilate was being sung.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The first words I heard were, "For our responsive reading, let us turn our pew Bibles to Psalm 104." This was said first in English and then in Chinese.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A service sheet, a Book of Common Prayer in English and Chinese, a hymnal made especially for this congregation, The Holy Bible, New King James Version, and a Chinese language Bible.

What musical instruments were played?

A lovely pipe organ, with the pipes flanking the cross in the sanctuary.

Did anything distract you?

Although I confess to being late, there were others who came in later than I. And of course a cell phone (mine, I'm afraid) went off during the sermon. But the sudden bang of exploding firecrackers from a procession passing by outside was the clincher.

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

It was a traditional low church service – no smells and bells here. Conservative, smooth-flowing, and slightly more relaxed than expected.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes in English. A shorter address in Chinese followed.

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

8 – Dr Chua spoke well, making good use of examples familiar to the congregation. She appeared equally comfortable speaking in both languages.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was taken from Philippians 2:1-11, Paul's admonition to like-mindedness and unity. Dr Chua expanded on three ways we could be of the same mind as Jesus: being unselfish, not being boastful, and acting in all humility.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The morning light that bathed my side of the church somehow conspired with the choir's singing of a Haydn anthem to transport me to heaven, whilst the overall solemnity of the service lent a celestial glow to the proceedings.

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

The procession outside marched to the accompaniment of drums and gongs as well as the aforementioned firecrackers – all during the prayers of the faithful. And I regretted not knowing exactly what was being said in Chinese – I could only assume it was more or less the equivalent of what had been said in English.

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

I was not permitted to feel lost. Someone handed me a special issue of the church's magazine and made me promise to return when possible. Unfortunately the magazine is primarily in Chinese, but I'll cherish it as a keepsake.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There may have been tea, but I couldn't determine where it was being served if at all, and so I didn't stay.

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

7 – It would be quite a distance to travel from my house, but I basically did enjoy the service.

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

Yes! It was good to worship with people of a different heritage and yet still feel one with them in faith.

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

The bilingual magazine and service books.

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