Imperial to International
  • Friday, May 16, 2014

This important new book is the first title in a proposed series, Sheng Kung Hui: Historical Studies of Anglican Christianity in China, published jointly by the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (HKSKH) and Hong Kong University Press. It is fitting that the first installment in this series should focus on the oldest surviving Anglican Church in China still in operation, St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong. This neo-Gothic cathedral in East Asia is one of the oldest churches in all of Hong Kong. Its roots in the colonial history of British settlement in China — the “imperial” from the title — and its current life as the center of an independent province of the Anglican Communion provide a kind of capsule history of the wider communion during the last two centuries.

Stuart Wolfendale traces the history of the earliest chaplaincy to British traders and their families, gleaning gems from newspaper accounts and colonial reports along the way. He locates the beginnings of real parish life in the period from 1850 to 1873, when Hong Kong was the center for all Anglican missionary activity in China, and a vast colonial administration formed the core of strong lay leadership.

Some of the most inspiring and interesting aspects of the book deal with the cathedral’s life during the Second World War. The author recounts, for example, that

Major General Christopher Maltby, general officer commanding, had only just sat down in his pew from reading the lesson on the morning of 7 December 1941, when a messenger slipped down the nave and handed him a note. [...] The Japanese were not yet invading.

A History of St. John’s Cathedral,
Hong Kong

By Stuart Wolfendale.
Foreword by Paul Kwong, Archbishop of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui.
Hong Kong University Press.
Pp. 368. $45

Wolfendale finds the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and appropriation of the cathedral “a catharsis in the congregation’s history” during which colonial parishioners grew in “awareness of a world in which they were simply a part rather than controller.” This is a gentle approach to the history indeed, especially given the very real suffering of many cathedral parishioners in Japanese interment camps, but the author is right in pointing to a movement “out of darkness” after the war, and in locating a major shift in the cathedral’s ministry in the wake of its war experiences.

Several photographs add to the narrative in a tasteful way, offering faces to go along with the myriad names of cathedral staff and colonial officials. Readers follow the cathedral through the creation of the Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao in 1951, and through the creation of the Province of Hong Kong in 1998, as well as the appointment of a first Chinese cathedral dean only in 2005. The Archbishop of the HKSKH commends the book, and hopes that it will “encourage readers to visit the cathedral for a quiet moment, a service of worship or a musical performance, for these all have been part of our history.”

Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
New Haven, Connecticut

Photo of St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong, by Elisa Rolle, via Wikipedia


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