My decision to spend a couple of weeks in Hong Kong as part of my sabbatical was done on the basis of a whim and a prayer. Although I set out some aims, I had very little idea about how I would achieve them. As it turned out, the good offices of St John’s Cathedral and its clergy and people were integral to making this a deeply rewarding visit.
There is quite a clergy team at St John’s – though not of ‘Dean and Canons’ but of ‘Dean and Chaplains’. Cathedral governance is very different, but that’s rather too technical an issue for a blog. What’s much more interesting is what people do and what actually happens. Most if not all the Chaplains have substantial other responsibilities such as running a daughter church, being a school chaplain or a prison chaplain – or maybe all three.
Today, St John’s is Cathedral of one of the smallest dioceses in the world. Since 1997 Hong Kong has been a province of the Anglican Communion, with an archbishop and three very small dioceses. But when St John’s was built in the nineteenth century, it was the Cathedral of the largest diocese the world has ever known; the diocese of Victoria, which included the whole of China and Japan as well as Hong Kong.
One of the interesting features of diocesan life is that every Thursday morning the clergy gather for eucharist, breakfast and Bible study with the Archbishop, except, that is, on those Thursdays when the clergy of the whole province gather for the same purpose. Altogether in the province there are about 70 clergy, so this is a serious gathering. I attended twice and chatted with the genial Archbishop over breakfast on both occasions.
Dressed in a light summer shirt (32C and 85%+ humidity, remember), I was alone in not wearing clericals. Later I learnt that there is a clear code for clergy regarding dress and personal presentation. I was intrigued by this, as it seems to me that clerical dress, as well as grooming and adornment, is now almost entirely understood in England as a matter of personal discretion, and that many clergy, if not most, would expect to express themselves through such things, and for this to be part of their ministerial integrity, not to mention missionary charm and pastoral approachability.
I did wear a clerical shirt for my two preachments, and was provided with a cassock alb and stole. One Sunday I preached at Emmanuel Church Pok Fu Lam, a daughter church, and the second Sunday at the Cathedral itself. After the service at Emmanuel there was coffee and cake and then about 12 of us went for a magnificent lunch at a great restaurant near ‘Cyberport’ on the south side of the island. I find it easy to like Chinese food, but less easy to convey it to my mouth. But people were kind and I got the impression that the main rule of table manners is that somehow or other the food gets to the mouth and enjoyed. With that in mind I was able to relax and by and large the chop-sticks did as I intended – most of the time..
This was Trinity Sunday and I said that the Trinity, like the church, was all part of God’s ultimate strategy to overcome loneliness. That could sound trite (and probably does) but I don’t think it is. Loneliness (not isolation, you can be lonely in a crowd – and many often are) is a very deep psychological and spiritual problem and it is in serious need of a theological analysis. This is something I hinted at in ‘Barefoot Disciple’ and hope to develop further anon. It was well received by the very friendly congregation at Emmanuel.
Preaching at the Cathedral itself was a more dramatic business. Not least because there was a huge thunderstorm that morning, with 70 mls of rain falling in one very noisy hour. But equally because the 9.00am service, at which I was preaching, was followed at 10.30 by the annual St John Ambulance service, and there were vast numbers of St John’s people all over the place all wearing impeccable uniforms even beofre the 9.00am, service began. Also uniformed were members of the police band of bagpipes, which led the parade. Never before had I seen so many Chinese men in kilts.
The Cathedral Choir sang at the 9.00 am service, and was great. I was much impressed by two soprano soloists in the ethereal anthem ‘O salutaris Hostia’ by Eriks Esenvalds, but was even more impressed by the nine-year-old girl who played the french horn to accompany the choir in the Agnus Dei.
There were five eucharists at the Cathedral that morning, and a Taize service in the evening. That was probably the most thinly attended of them all, but there was still a good three-figure congregation. At 9.00am the place was packed, and many were standing. Well, not at 9.00am exactly, but before the 9.00am service ended, about half the congregation arrived during the service, though most before my sermon.
Something like a half or more of the congregation were women from the Philippines who famously gather in the ‘Central’ area on their day off. The afternoon service is conducted in Tagalog for their benefit, but they were present in good numbers at all services that day.
The spectacle of all these women in town on Sunday is famous. They gather after their long week’s unregulated domestic work, and some of the streets are closed to traffic to accommodate them. They sit and have modest but lengthy picnics, talk and laugh, play cards, check their phones, practice dance routines and while away their day of freedom in good-humoured conviviality.
Some people expressed concern to me about the lives of these domestic ‘helpers’. Others said they were better off here than at home, or doing the same thing in some other countries. The Cathedral has a well-developed ministry to them and is clearly a place they enjoy and find comfortable, whatever the language – or for that matter the denomination. These people are almost certainly Roman Catholic and possibly think the Cathedral is too. Apart from the fact that some of the clergy are called ‘Mother’ that is very understandable.
I preached on Romans 6; more specifically on the theory and practice of being ‘dead to sin’. Not an easy task, but using the game ‘snakes and ladders’ seemed to help. You can hear the sermon by clicking the link that follows. Yes, ‘hear’. They podcast all the sermons within a day or so of them being preached. And why, indeed, wouldn’t any outward-facing cathedral do the same? http://www.stjohnscathedral.org.hk/Sermon_Listen.aspx?lang=1&id=308&year=2014&month=&preacher=
After the service I had lunch with the son, daughter-in-law and grandson of the priest who was incumbent of the town where I grew up in Devon – Crediton. This was the six-foot four Anthony Bray, known to the town, and still referred to by his daughter-in-law, as ‘Vicar Bray’. This was certainly not something I had anticipated when I set off for Hong Kong and only happened because John Bray – another son – read this blog in Japan and made the connection. (Thanks, John, it was a lovely lunch and a great conversation, which left me with much to reflect on).
Vicar Bray baptised me as a baby, and, in an indirect way, inspired me to explore ordination. He was an austere, scholarly character and, while far too pastoral and diligent in visiting to be remote, was rather intimidating. Or so it seemed to me as a child and teenager. His wife, a full fourteen inches shorter, was, like the good vicar himself, often seen cycling around the town. She busily doing good works with a child propped on a seat behind the saddle; he sitting bolt upright on an outsize ‘sit up and beg’ as he glided between pastoral calls. Over lunch I heard that they had visited Hong Kong eight years in row before he died, and that Mrs Bray died the following year during her first and only solo visit. Whenever they came they attended the Cathedral.
Meeting the Brays has caused me to reflect more on changes in Britain than in Hong Kong. I wonder how Vicar Bray would have fared with the selection and training processes for clergy today, not to mention the advent of ecclesiastical managerialism in its many strategic and not-so-strategic guises. I have a feeling that it might not have been a happy encounter. He visited me when I was at Westcott House and wanted to know how long I would be there. ‘Three years’, I replied. ‘What a sentence!’ was his only response. However, no one needed to tell Vicar Bray what to wear as a priest. He wore a black cassock all day, every day, except when on holiday away from the parish. And at Easter, when the cassock was red.
Getting back to Hong Kong Cathedral … I had lunch with the Dean and on other days with others from the Cathedral, including Stuart Wolfendale, a lay member who used to write a column for the South China Morning Post. More recently he edited the best-selling books about Hong Kong by Mike Smith, who tells tales of his days in the police. I have started reading ‘In The Shadow of the Noonday Gun’ and am finding it compellingly vivid.
Even more recently, Stuart has completed a tremendously readable, as well as richly researched, history of St John’s entitled ‘Imperial to International’. I haven’t read the whole thing yet but I love the honesty and warm knowingness of the first few chapters. You really get a feel for the history of the Cathedral, and for the way in which values, practices and assumptions have changed over the last century and a half. You are also able, as through his words Stuart lends you his kind eyes and his sharp wit, to see how so much human history, reality and drama can be reflected in the life of one rather small institution, an Anglican Cathedral. Truly, the whole of human life is there.
For more information about the life of St John’s Cathedral do have a look at their new website: . http://www.stjohnscathedral.org.hk/index.aspx?lang=