By Mark Michael
The Rev. Canon Titus Chung, a systematic theologian who serves at Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, was appointed on February 9 as the 10th Bishop of Singapore. The current bishop, Rennis Ponniah, will step down when Chung is consecrated on October 18. Through sustained growth and a vigorous program of missionary activity, Singapore has likely become Asian Anglicanism’s most influential diocese, and has played a significant role in Anglican realignment in recent decades.
Chung, 55, was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Singapore in 1997. Like three of his four predecessors, his family background is Chinese. Chung earned a doctorate in theology from Edinburgh University, writing a dissertation on the Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance’s theory of divine revelation. After serving for a time as a lecturer at Edinburgh, he returned to Singapore to teach at Trinity Theological Seminary, which trains Anglican priests for service throughout Asia. He currently serves as convener of continuing ministerial education for clergy and deaconesses within the diocese.
He has served at St. Andrew’s Cathedral since 2009, currently as priest-in-charge of the Mandarin congregation. The large neo-Gothic building in the modern city’s historic core was the first Anglican church to be built in the region, in 1835. It is now a bustling congregation, with 16 services offered each weekend. Most are conducted in either English or Mandarin, but the Cathedral also hosts congregations that worship in Tamil, Burmese, Cantonese, Tagalog, Hokkien, and Bahasa Indonesian. Under the leadership of a British missionary, Canon Frank Lomax, it became a center of charismatic renewal in the mid-1970’s.
The Diocese of Singapore has about 21,000 communicants, but only 28 parish churches, all located within the densely populated independent city state, which has a landmass of 280 square miles, about half the size of Nashville. Singapore has planted congregations in other countries across Southern and Southeastern Asia, and currently has deaneries in Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Nepal. Bishop Rennis Ponniah reported at the New Wineskins Conference in 2017 that the Nepal deanery had grown to 83 churches, and 10-15,000 members, especially after Anglicans provided valuable pastoral support in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 2015.
According to church statistician David Goodhew, the number of Anglicans in Singapore increased fivefold from 1970 to 2000, as charismatic renewal and an conservative evangelical theological vision swept a church that had been initially shaped by the work of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, a British high-church mission society. Singapore maintains active links with the Anglican Church of Australia’s conservative evangelical Diocese of Sydney.
Alongside its active evangelistic work, the Diocese of Singapore operates 10 Anglican schools, the Saint Andrew’s Missionary Hospital and Singapore Anglican Community Services. This agency, which incorporates 10 local centers around the city, is significantly focused on mental illness and the care of children with autism.
Singapore’s bishops, sometimes working in consultation with the Diocese of Sydney, have been influential in the Anglican realignment process. In 2000, former Singapore bishop Moses Tay joined with Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda to consecrate Chuck Murphy and John Rogers at St. Andrew’s Cathedral to serve as the first bishops in what became the Anglican Mission in the Americas. The Province of Southeast Asia, of which Singapore is a member, declared itself to be in impaired communion with the Episcopal Church following the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003. In 2019, the province recognized the Anglican Church in North America as a fellow Anglican province (a step the official Anglican instruments of communion have repeatedly refused to take) and declared itself in full communion with the clergy of that church.
Current Singapore bishop Rennis Ponniah has been an important leader in the Global South Anglicans group. He chaired the committee that prepared the Covenantal Structure document, known by some as the Cairo Covenant. The covenantal structure, whose drafters also included Singaporean theologian Michael Poon, was approved by the Global South primates’ council last November, and sent to the member churches of the body for study and potential adoption.
Ponniah commented on the covenantal structure in Singapore’s most recent Diocesan Digest, noting, “The Global South Fellowship of Anglicans is an orthodox grouping within the communion that seeks to limit diversity in faith and practice among its member churches according to the plain teaching of Holy Scripture. In this way it is poised to be a faithful servant-community for God to use in his church and in his world (Isa. 49:1-6). We rejoice in this breakthrough to establish a covenantal structure among orthodox Anglican churches and now we must follow-through with prayer and zeal that it may become an effective instrument of witness and mission for such a time as this.”
Bishop Ponniah has also been active in the GAFCON Moment, and was one of the principal speakers at the movement’s 2018 conference in Jerusalem. He stayed away from the 2008 Lambeth Conference in protest, but has not yet announced if he will participate in this summer’s Communion-wide gathering. The new archbishop of the Anglican Province of Southeast Asia, Datuk Melter Thais, is serving on the Lambeth Design Group, which has been charged with preparing the program for the meeting.