I admit it was something as skin-deep as his sonorous voice which caught my attention when I first heard him on the telly during his enthronement as 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003. Then it was the thoughtfulness of his sermons and the philosophical depth of his speeches. This Dumbledore of a bishop is arguably the most intellectually gifted bloke (so far they have always been blokes) to have graced the Chair of Canterbury in recent times. He speaks or reads about eleven languages competently. Due to his scholarly temperament it is understandable he may not appear to be as decisive a leader as some of his more cerebrally handicapped counterparts across the Atlantic – but hey – in my opinion he has made Christianity, at least in its Anglican tradition, intellectually respectable. His successor Justin Welby in spite of his Charismatic background has so far shown no sign of the neanderthal qualities which his evangelical kind usually display. I suppose it is his Etonian pedigree.
Katharine Jefferts Schori
There is always something admirable about being the first woman to be elected an Anglican primate. Schori is currently the Presiding Bishop of the U.S. branch of the Church of England and a vigorous champion of human rights and the environment. It is not a surprise many evangelicals in the Episcopal Church dislike her – which is a spur for admiring her even more!
What can I say? If God the Word is incarnated today God would be Desmond Tutu. He is the face of Jesus on earth, one’s theological understanding of the papacy notwithstanding. There are few Christians today who can and will do what he did and fought for even if they had a few lifetimes more.
This diminutive and meek Bavarian octogenarian equals if not surpasses Bishop Dumbledore in intellectual stature even though he may not have the good fortune of having the Welsh’s ability to earn the respect of the secular public. But what does one expect for a former Indian chief of the Inquisition? While his boyscout fidelity to Roman Catholic orthodoxy can be a bit off-putting for a 21st-century global citizen, Ratzinger does not display any of the fideistic thought processes of his counterparts in fundamentalist evangelicalism. I am impressed by the breadth of his philosophical knowledge which he puts to bear on whatever theological issue he is tackling. His conclusions may be ho hum but his arguments and speculations are breathtakingly skilled and very non-evangelical. Like Williams he is also one of the most intellectually gifted popes Roman Catholicism has seen in recent times. Admittedly, he does not have the vocal charisma of either his predecessor the late Pope John Paul II (yes, the man had some good pipes too) or Bishop Dumbledore and definitely not a supporter of liberation theology as his successor Pope Francis. But in my opinion he makes conservative Roman Catholicism sexy for anyone who appreciates good theology and philosophy. Okay okay, don’t puke.
The late Peter Gomes is among the handful of preachers I listen to regularly. And since his abrupt demise in 2011 I have been in sack cloth and ashes. His sermons were as intelligent and well-crafted as he was dignified and gentlemanly. I suppose one cannot act like a buffoon on the pulpit affiliated to the world’s most prestigious university. His accent was what some have described as a uniquely Harvardian accent although I think what he spoke was an affected RP tone.
Yes, he is another preacher to whom I faithfully listen. No surprise here, he is a British-born Episcopalian and former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. His homilies are Anglican-style short, lasting about eight to fifteen minutes on average each service. But they are packed with existential wisdom. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer preachers who are skilled in rhetoric to write their sermons in full and read them on the pulpit. There is something magical about listening to a skillfully worded piece of literary art called the homily. Modern-day evangelical preaching is just so pedestrian. The closest thing to a masterly pulpiteer in Singapore in my opinion is Melvin Huang, former Pastor-in-Charge of Wesley Methodist Church. He speaks English well and with a richly-timbred voice. Really, I cannot understand the appeal of rambling self-appointed preachers like Joseph Prince. I suppose only the vulgar likes that sort of lowbrow monologue.
William Sloane Coffin
No American admirer of Desmond Tutu will miss out this civil rights giant. Coffin (d. 2006) was not only a staunch civil rights advocate who went alongside the great Martin Luther King as well as protesting against the Vietnam War, he was also a renowned preacher as Senior Minister of one of the most prominent congregations in New York City, the prestigious Riverside Church. He too had a rich baritone voice which did a lot of good when he was preaching against the ills of bigotry, discrimination, war and violence.
Not many know John Dear but this portly bloke gets a Kallang wave from me for championing non-violent activism as a way of life. This radical Jesuit priest was arrested more than seventy times over the course of his ministry for protesting against war and injustice. I wish I can be like him but I am just not intrepid enough. My excuse is a young family. I suppose in an alternative universe I would have volunteered myself for the detention barracks in Kranji Camp the moment I received my National Service enlistment letter. And perhaps do so many other things which may get me in trouble with our obviously not very impartial legal system. Gee.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio
No list of contemporary Christians will be without Bergoglio, better known as Pope Francis. Why do I like this tubby old Argentine bachelor who cannot speak English and is neither a scholar nor an orator nor a hardcore activist? Is it because he is the only pope in recent times to tend towards the proletariat more than his two predecessors? Is it because he is friendlier towards liberation theology? I am not sure but I think he is somehow the man for such a time as this. And he smiles a lot more than Ratzinger did in his time.
Okay I am biased. First, he is my pastor. Second, he speaks English well. Third, he has a mellifluous bass-baritone voice. Fourth, his life is the stuff of Hollywood. For any Singaporean not acquainted with him, Tan was a notorious thug in post-war Singapore and at the age of seventeen was charged with the murder of a rival gang member during a gangland war. He was sentenced to death by hanging but because of his age was detained at the President’s pleasure instead. He was miraculously released seven years later only to get into trouble with the law again and again. It was during the last of his numerous incarcerations when God found him. Cool huh?
Song Cheng Hock
Another biased selection. He was my pastor for a while. He is the closest thing to a liberal protestant Christian whom I got to personally know in Singapore, although such black-and-white labels can be misleading. He is liberal not in the Anglo-European-American sense but definitely not the typical evangelical Christian preacher against whom I used to shut my ears. His sermons are simple but not simplistic – they do not offer easy ‘answers’ which the average parishioner does not apply anyway – but open up possibilities and questions for the listener to wrestle and contend with. One on one, this Presbyterian cleric neither judges nor condemns, which made our conversations together so liberating and authentic. Of course he sometimes gets into trouble with the powers that be because of his authenticity. And because he suffers from bipolar disorder, he understands my sometimes misanthropic and anti-social side. We also share a love for Roman Catholic spirituality and unconventional theology. I miss him.
Speaking of Roman Catholic spirituality there is Henri Nouwen (d. 1996), the Dutch priest and preacher dynamo whose profound expositions on suffering and the Christian life makes so much sense. Anyhow, he was also a compelling speaker who held the attention of his listeners till the last drop of his saliva.