Where the Canes come From

AS I DISCOVER to my delight, the Archbishop of South East Asia and Bishop of Singapore, Moses Tay, who has been so much in the news as the bad boy of the Communion, is, in fact, a Melaka (Malacca) boy, brought up at Christ Church, Melaka – the first Anglican Church east of India.

The General Secretary of the Anglican Communion (no prizes for guessing how many questions that title begs), one Canon John Louis Peterson, DD (57), sought in a recent press release to denigrate the good archbishop by suggesting (which is hardly news in the case of archbishops) that he is dangerously close to his sell-by date. It seems, then, appropriate to celebrate (as they say in Anglican Communion circles) the wonderful Christian heritage from which the archbishop comes (and which is assured a firm continuance, long after Moses Tay’s retirement).

I do not know precisely when Christianity first reached Kalamazoo (of which Fr Peterson is an honorary canon). Indeed, I know of Kalamazoo at all only because of its appearance in the lyrics of the popular song. But the Faith reached Melaka in 1545, through the preaching of the Apostle of the Indies and of Japan, St Francis Xavier (whose body later rested there on its journey from Changchuan – where he died – to Goa, where it now lies in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, gloriously enshrined a reliquary of marble, jasper and silver provided by a Grand Duke of Tuscany).

In an increasingly fundamentalist Islamic country, Melaka is a largely Christian town.

The sound of bells summons the faithful to Mass and to Sung Eucharist every Sunday morning; and in the Christian cemetery on the furthest reaches of the famous Bukit China repose the bones of the baptised of many generations. There is a buzz of insects among the fangipani trees, and many of the graves are freshly painted, testifying to the continued faith and devotion of the families of the deceased.

The churches too are full. The white-painted Goan-baroque church of the ‘Portuguese’ kampong to the south will be crowded with those who claim some distant connection with the Iberian sailors and officials who ruled this merchant city when St Francis first came. They dance Portuguese dances still; and have a fierce devotion to the saints of the counter Reformation.

St Francis Xavier’s Church is a curious neo-gothic construct of, I suppose, the eighteen fifties, whose crenellated twin towers have taken a decided list to the right. Under its groaning electric fans they will be packed in for Sunday Mass four times over; for celebrations in Mandarin (twice), English and Tamil. On his feast day (December 3) – it is 32 degrees on every day of the year in a town only three degrees north of the equator – the communicants of St Francis lead the Christians of the town to the ruined church on the hill, within the old Portuguese fort, where his body lay on the journey to its final home. There they give thanks for the life of one who brought to their people the hope of salvation.

The principal Mass at St Peter’s (colonial classical with unsuitable stained glass) is in English – with the ordinary sung beautifully, in Spanish, to the accompaniment of soft guitars, by a Filipino ensemble which may well also be appearing at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel.

In the historic heart of the town, in front of the Stadthuis, and appropriately alongside the memorial to Queen Victoria, Christ Church looks what it is: a Dutch import Anglicanised over several centuries. The monuments are (not quite equally) divided between subalterns of the Indian Army (like Australia, Melaka was once part of the diocese of Calcutta) and wealthy Peranakans. The parish priest is Chinese, his assistant is a Tamil, and the Sunday celebrations range from Prayer Book sedate to enthusiastically charismatic. Since my last visit they have probably had an Alpha Course – but I cannot swear to it! The throb of the (largely Tamil) ‘music group’ at 10.00am is not entirely to my taste (or to that of the Nyonya ladies who also prefer an English language liturgy); but in a spirit of Anglican compromise, known the world over, we put up with it.

I do not know, of course, how long it is since the Archbishop was last in the parish church of his youth. But I have every reason to know that his cathedral church (St Andrew’s, Singapore) echoes Christ Church’s commitment to the faith ‘once delivered to the saints’; and its enthusiasm for the diversity and vitality of modern Anglicanism.

Readers of New Directions will not be surprised that I myself prefer the (always packed) 8.00am Sung Eucharist, with its meticulous serving, spirited preaching and developed musical tradition. Others may well feel more at home in some of the less formal services, or at the preaching and praising sessions in the Victoria Theatre across the Padang. There on Sunday evenings a lively congregation of thirty-somethings challenges the fierce air-conditioning of that huge hall with their burning enthusiasm.

In a Communion dominated (as a well-known religious columnist remarked to me at the ’98 Lambeth Conference – the notorious Bishop Joe Doss was enjoying an expansive supper at an adjacent table at the time), ‘by a bunch of over-noisy Yanks’, Archbishop Tay represents a face of the geographical South with which the liberal West will have to come to terms. His is a Christianity wholly indigenised, faithfully practised over long centuries, and still recognisably Anglican. It is quiet, intelligent and formidably tenacious.

I do not suppose that the Archbishop is any more likely than I am to visit Kalamazoo (which, for the geographically pedantic, is a manufactory of paper and pharmaceuticals about fifty miles south of Grand Rapids in the state of Michigan); but it is sad that he will not be visiting Dundee (appropriately situated on the eponymous Firth), and making the acquaintance of its remarkable Provost, its forward-looking Bishop and its publicity-conscious Primate.

The loss, one is inclined to conclude, will be entirely theirs; but it would, nevertheless, have been an event. One which Bill Beaver will no doubt already have concluded, he is well off without.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.