16 January 2022
For much of the last three years (2020–2022), the world has been roiled by the sudden appearance of the COVID-19 virus. Work was disrupted, relationships impacted, and lives changed. It would take us years before the social, economic, medical and psychological consequences are fully understood. Serving both as a lecturer at Trinity Theological College (TTC) and as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore (PCS), there are a few lessons that I learnt, which I would like to share briefly here.
When the covid measures required TTC to move all its classes online, I was forced to adapt the pedagogy (or the method of instruction) for my courses. Notwithstanding all the initial inconveniences of getting everyone ready to use the software for online lessons and having to get used to communicating through a computer screen instead of face-to-face interactions, the key issue was how the learning goals could still be attained by way of using a different mode of course delivery.
The result was instructive. At the end of the semester, when all the assignments were submitted, I took a special interest to analyse the learning outcomes, in terms of the growth in students’ knowledge, skills, understanding and aptitude. Compared to all my previous nine years of teaching the same modules, the “covid cohort” showed the greatest disparity between the desired learning outcomes and where the students were at after the courses. It was most pronounced among the first-year students, because they began their theological studies with different levels of pre-condition (prior knowledge).
In an online setting, something is missing during the communication process. In addition, students would often interact among themselves outside of the classroom during non-covid times. They share their views over meals, over tea breaks, in the student lounges, wherever and whenever they sit down to have informal interactions. This is a valuable component of the TTC or any tertiary institution’s learning environment which even the online discussion groups cannot replicate. The covid measures disrupted it.
Prior to covid, I was actively exploring the use of online courses for TTC’s EQUIP ministry, which seeks to provide theological education for lay Christians. While it does not mean that we should completely do away with the online model, we should be cognizant of its severe limitations when it comes to Christian formation, and the equipping model needs to take all this into consideration. The same can be said about the discipleship ministries in our churches, but space does not permit me to elaborate on this here.
Another interesting lesson is how the church responds to the challenges posed by the covid pandemic. I would just share one example, coming out of the Theological Review and Response Committee (TRRC) in the PCS where I serve.
When it became apparent that physical meetings in our churches (worship services, fellowship meetings, bible classes, etc.) would be disrupted for an unknown length of time, one of the urgent issues was the administration of the Holy Communion, which is an important sacrament in our Presbyterian tradition. The practice and the mode of administration are based on our particular understanding of biblical teaching, and codified in a document known as the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Prior to the covid, there was no question that the ordained minister in each church would be responsible for presiding over the Holy Communion, from saying the words of invocation and consecrating the elements to overseeing its proper distribution with the help of elders and deacons. The partaking of the Holy Communion is possible only to members who are physically present during the church service. Only in exceptional cases would the elements for the Holy Communion be brought to members who are sick and resting at home. Even then it is usually administered by the same presiding minister who visits the home to conduct the Communion after the church service.
All these aspects of the Holy Communion underwent some serious re-thinking by the TRRC during the pandemic, because of the urgent need to administer the sacrament in some churches. We carefully discussed the biblical teaching, the Westminster Confession, the Presbyterian tradition, and the theological underpinnings of the Holy Communion, in order to understand what is appropriate or not appropriate as we propose crucial changes in the way the sacrament could be administered to Christians who are not meeting in church, but following the worship services online.
I shall not reiterate what was finally included in the guidelines proposed by the TRRC, which the Presbyterian Church adopted during its annual general meeting (the paper is available on the PCS website). But what is remarkable here is the ability of the church to adapt its theology and practices to meet the needs of changing situations. Prior to covid, no one would think that the way in which the Holy Communion (or Lord’s Supper) is celebrated within the church could be subject to radical changes. But the pressing demands of the covid situation led the church to a re-theologisation of what is supposed to be a standard and relatively fixed mode of practice within the church. It highlights the adaptability of the church to changing situations.
This pandemic also manifested the spirit of Christianity in Singapore. At the start of the pandemic, many things were unknown. Due to the threat of the virus spreading, churches realised that, for the first time since World War II, church services in Singapore may have to be temporarily suspended. And the initiative did not come from the Singapore authorities. Church leaders, following the reports of the spread of the virus, knew that Christians had to play their part in our nation’s response to the pandemic, by voluntarily choosing to suspend their church services.
Discussions were done in the background for a few days, aided by the use of mobile apps that facilitated the chat groups. Time was of the essence, and decisions were quickly taken. Just as quickly, churches informed their members of the suspension of worship services. Church members stood behind their leaders, and I could see the unity among the Christians here.
In the following days, churches worked closely with the Singapore authorities to deal with the pandemic. The covid measures and guidelines were carefully interpreted and implemented. This is something which not many countries would see, where the Christians deliberately align themselves with the governing authorities to deal with a national crisis.
In addition, early on during the pandemic, when the situation was still unclear and much of the logistical support was still in the process of being set up, Christians banded together to pray for the nation. They perceived the threat as a dire one (and correctly so).
Soon after, we began to see the Christians at work. Some organised their churches to open their premises to accommodate the homeless people who were out on the streets. The latter were deemed to be an exceptionally vulnerable group. Beds were donated, gathered and set up, and volunteers were organised to manage the facilities. Some also initiated funds to help those who lost their jobs because of the covid, whether they were Christian or otherwise.
Christians also volunteered to help with the distribution of food to the dormitories where the foreign workers were quarantined. Others volunteered to help at the additional medical facilities that were set up at the Expo to house the covid patients.
The fact that many of these initiatives were undertaken, not by the church pastors or leaders, but by so-called “ordinary” Christians speaks well about the spirit of Christianity in Singapore. It is a great testimony of the Christians here, and the kind of Christian witness that would set a good example for those who would come after them.
Rev Dr Leonard Wee is New Testament lecturer at Trinity Theological College (TTC), and an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Singapore. He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Durham and holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (B.B.A.) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.).