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Beacon in the Far East

18 October 2013

Martyn Percy reads of witness in the heart of Hong Kong

End of Empire: St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong, in the late 1990s

End of Empire: St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong, in the late 1990s

Imperial to International: A History of St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong
Stuart Wolfendale
Hong Kong University Press £34.50
Church Times Bookshop £31.05 (Use code CT577 )

THIS book is one of the first of a new series focusing on the study of Anglicanism in China. In focusing on St John's Cathedral, founded in 1849, we are given a unique window into how not only a denomination (Anglicanism) but also a nation has moved from being imperial to becoming international.

St John's, Hong Kong, is the oldest neo-Gothic cathedral in East Asia and China still in operation. Its current ministry includes outreach to migrants, many thousands of domestic workers who pour in from the Philippines and Indonesia, and a focus on AIDS/HIV. The cathedral is probably one of the most international in the Anglican Communion, with Sunday services in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Filipino (Tagalog).

Stuart Wolfendale's book is the fruit of meticulous research. But it is also written in a warm, fresh, and approachable style - at times bordering on an eyewitness account. The book traces the story of the cathedral from its origins as a colonial parish church and bishop's seat to being a truly cosmopolitan community, incorporating significant local and international ministries. As such, the book closely foreshadows the history of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui - the Province that came into being after the British withdrawal in 1997.

The Church of England Year Book - a volume not noted for its use of superlatives - describes that Province as "dynamic" (2010). It is indeed that. Inaugurated in only 1998, it dates back to the missionary endeavour of the mid-19th century, supplanting the Province of Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui (the Holy Catholic Church in China), which was established as a joint enterprise by Canadian, American, Australian, and British clergy and missionaries in 1912. Initially comprising Hong Kong, Macau, and other outposts, the Province of Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui ceased to exist in the 1950s when Mao's Communist party came to power. Nevertheless, Hong Kong and Macau continued as independent dioceses in communion with Canterbury until the 1990s.

After Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the Province was formed in 1998 as Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui. It is one of the smallest provinces in the Anglican Communion. Yet it is one of the most influential - serving eight million people, through a network of entrepreneurial welfare bodies, community centres, and projects, and through dozens of schools. It is one of the most remarkable and dynamic forms of Anglicanism today.

Wolfendale's volume complements Archbishop Paul Kwong's excellent Identity in Community: Towards a theological agenda for the Hong Kong SAR (2011). The great strength of Wolfendale's book is the historical detail and pen-portraits. Of particular note is the careful and moving account of St John's during the Japanese occupation, and the great tenacity and resilience of clergy and members of the congregation in caring for refugees, renegades, and resisters. The cathedral - like many Christian churches under Japanese occupation - was treated with contempt by its captors. The nave having been used as a canteen, the chancel as a cinema, and the sanctuary for fencing practice and ju-jitsu, the work of rebuilding after the reoccupation in 1945 was immense.

What Wolfendale's account gives us, memorably, is a history of hardiness and resolve: a triumph of faith, hope, and love. More than anything else, perhaps, it is this spirit that has helped transform a formerly imperial church into one of the world's great international cathedrals. But this is no standard history of past cathedral glories. Hong Kong is still the main gateway to China. Wolfendale shows that St John's now stands as a living sign of what Anglicanism does when working and praying for all whom it can touch, and all who touch it. In this - our 21st, and so far undeniably Chinese, century - St John's Cathedral's most pivotal and strategic role is surely yet to come.

Canon Martyn Percy is the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and Professor of Theological Education at King's College, London.

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