The last time I was in Singapore I went to Adam Road Presbyterian Church on the recommendation of a number of Singaporeans. However another friend of mine, before I left, suggested that I come here, however due to time restraints (and the fact that the Botanic Gardens are huge) I was really only able to go to church in the morning (though going to Church twice on a Sunday tends to take a lot of dedication from the person involved, particularly since most people these days will go to one service, and maybe a Bible study during the week, and consider their religious obligations fulfilled). Mind you, setting out a list of things to do while in Singapore does end up making it difficult for me to simply step back and let things happen, as was the case the last time I was over there – somebody I met at church invited me back with some friends of hers for lunch and all I could think about was missing out on the Botanic Gardens – mind you I’m still kicking myself over that.
Anyway, while Adam Road Pressie is a pretty large church in a five story building, Orchard Road Pressie seems to have a lot more history to it. In fact when it was originally established it was referred to as the Scot’s Church, which suggests that it may have been the first Presbyterian Church in Singapore. Mind you, the history of the Presbyterian Church is that it arose in Scotland through the work of John Knox, and despite having been to a couple over the last four years all I can reiterate is the small amount of knowledge that I garnered from Church History. However, what I did notice is that while Adam Road is in a modern building, Orchard Road still uses one of the historical, more church-like, buildings (not that there is actually a specific building that a church should be in, it is just there is a traditional style of building, and Orchard Road is one of them, though it does have it’s Singaporean slant).
Where There Are Scots
In a way Presbyterian Churches are like Irish Pubs: they seem to appear wherever the Irish roam. In a similar vein Presbyterian churches appear wherever there happened to be Scotsmen. The main reason for that, as I mentioned earlier, is because the Pressie church was originally formed in Scotland back before Scotland actually became part of England through the Act of Union in 1707, (the church was established by an act of the Scottish Parliament in 1560 based on the teachings of John Knox). The interesting thing is that while the church is referred to as the Presbyterian Church (the name which originated from the governing body of elders known as the Presbyter), they tend to refer to themselves as being a part of the reformed tradition. This actually differs a lot from the Anglican church, the church that I grew up in, namely because the Anglican church was never meant to be a reformed church (though I will leave the discussion on the origins of the Anglican church for another time).
This difference is not surprising because, as I mentioned, Scotland at the time was not a part of the United Kingdom, though they weren’t as hostile as they were in the past. This was due to a period during the 17th century they shared monarchs. However, during this period there was also a lot discontent amongst the population in relation to how far the English church should reform, though by the time of the Act of Union these issues had been settled to an extent (though one could not hold public office in England unless they were a member of the Anglican Church, though this had a lot to do with the ongoing struggles with Catholic France, and the Pope).
The interesting thing about the Presbyterian Church today is that it tends to be Scottish in name only. Okay, you still have a ‘Scots Church’ in many of the cities of the former Bristish Empire, which is generally the headquaters of the demonination (and you will also have a private school carrying the name of ‘Scotch College’) however in some places, such as Singapore, they have dispensed with that – Orchard Road Presbyterian was the original Presbyterian Church in Singapore, and also carried the name of Scot’s Church. I guess the main reason that it was dispensed with, especially in Singapore, was because culturally they were changing a lot.
Many of the former colonies of the British Empire are now becoming incredibly multi-cultural, particularly in the cities, though Singapore has always been like that. The main reason was because until the British arrived and established the Straights Colony there was basically nothing here. Sure, there used to be a city here (Singapura) back in the mists of history, but that had long since been destroyed. However, the location proved to be incredibly strategic for the superpower on the rise, and establishing a city here would effectively give them control of the straights of Malacca. However, the Empire itself was culturally diverse and stretch all around the world and including both China and India (and while Britain did have some major base in China, they didn’t necessarily control the entire country). As such, people from across the empire would find themselves passing through the colony.
Okay, the four major nationalities and language groups of Singapore are Indian, Chinese, Malay, and the English (and everybody in Singapore is taught English making it the main language of the city state), however it wasn’t until independence in 1965 that Singpore began to develop its own identity, which is why the church also needed to break with its colonial past (thus dropping the reference to it being a Scottish church). As such, these days the Presbyterian Church, at least in Singapore, doesn’t come across about being a purely British Church, but rather one that is attended by a vast range of people from different cultural backgrounds. What is quite interesting is that at least twenty percent of the population of Singapore are regular church attendees, and we aren’t talking about the three-time Christians – the ones who go to church to be baptised, married, and buried (and the occasional Easter and Christmas services) and while identifying themselves as Christian tend to live a secular lifestyle – we are talking about regular church goers. Mind you, Singapore is actually quite a religious country, though an incredibly diverse country at that.
While it is mostly an English speaking church it does have a number of over language services on a Sunday, including a German Service, which surprised me somewhat because I never thought that there would have been a huge German-speaking population in Singapore, and even if there were Germans here then I expected that they would be able to speak English since most Germans that I had known were all pretty bi-lingual. However, what I have come to understand is that just because somebody may have been taught a language since they were a child, and have been exposed to that langauge for most of their life, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are competant in that langauge. Even if I might be able to have a conversation with them doesn’t necessarily mean that they would feel comfortable worshiping in English if a service in their native tounge was available. The other thing that I found out when I was there was that this appears to be the only German Langauge service in Singapore.
The church also has a Mandarin and an Indonesian service, which isn’t surprising considering Mandarin is one of the major language groups in the city-state. Once again, while most of the citizens would have been trained in both English and their native tounge, there is no doubt a lot of the older generation that aren’t anywhere near as competant in English that the younger generations would be. As for Indonesian, well, Singapore does happen to be surrounded by the country on at least two sides (Sumatara is just across the straights), and I suspect that there are also a lot of domestic workers in Singapore that probably have an incredibly limited ability with understanding English (and I suspect that a lot of them are probably from Indonesia).
While I could continue talking about the church, everything that you probably need to know about it is up on their website. Mind you, a couple of things that stood out is that their website is actually pretty impressive. Not only can you find the notes for the weekly Bible Study up there, but you can also find the sermons (though most large churches these days put their sermons up on the internet to download), a daily Bible verse, a Bible reading plan to read the Bible in a year, as well as weekly reflections.
As for the service, or at least the service handouts (some churches still do them, though I suspect that maybe St Judes is the only church that I have visited so far that has decided to dispense with the weekly leaflets), but then again a lot of churches still have people who rarely, if ever, use a computer and the best way to advertise things has always been in the church newsletter. However, the interesting thing that I found in this particular newsletter was that they included a rehash of the previous sermons in the series (they were looking at Daniel), which meant that you could get a quick refresher of where the pastor was up to. Mind you, since I only came for one Sunday, it was helpful, but not hugely necessary, especially since I tend to take sermons as they are delivered (and have a nasty habit of missing them as well and not playing catchup with the sermons online).
Actually, the sermon series was on the Book of Daniel, which always tends to concern me a bit because a lot of fundamentalist churches use it as a means to predict the future, and in particular the end of the world. While I could go into details as to why I have basically become sick of these fearmongering positions, I’ll simply say that we are told that Jesus will return like a thief in the night, and that we shouldn’t be scared, or even listen to, these fearmongerers that are attemping to predict the future. As for this church, well it turned out that they were only up to Daniel 4, and that the sermon had nothing to do with these end times prophercies. Anyway, the sermon (and the notes) are up on the internet so I’ll leave it at that (though I will mention that the first part of the book of Daniel seems to run along the theme of Nebucadnezzar and God wrestling over who is actually king of the world, a wrestling match that Nebuchadnezzar eventually loses).
As for the service itself I attended the evening service, namely because I wanted to go to the Anglican Cathedral in the morning. It seems that the morning service is larger (as is traditionally the case) since they also have a youth group and a sunday school. Actually, in my experience, the families tend to prefer the mornings while the younger couples tend to come in the evening (especially if you are single like more, or even a married couple that doesn’t happen to have children). Anyway, I probably wouldn’t consider the service to be that small, though I certainly have been to larger ones. However, what did stand out was that they had a choir, which was something I was not really used to – most of the evening services that I have visited tend to have more contemporary music, and a church band.
After the service had finished, like a lot of churches that I have been to, Orchard Road had a congregational dinner (though the food was traditionally Singaporian, but then again the one thing that Singapore is really famous for is its food). Of course my brother was really keen to hang around for that, but it is also a great time to actually get to meet some of the locals. Mind you, one of the best places to actually meet locals is at the local church (as long as the locals happen to speak English that is), and it ended up being a great time just finding out things about Singapore that the average tourist wandering around the touristy areas aren’t going to discover.