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Spires and Crosses: The Malaysian Church That Could Be in the English Countryside

Malaysia isn't a country one associates with old churches. After all, it's a majority Muslim country.

Spires and Crosses: The Malaysian Church That Could Be in the English Countryside

An old church in Malaysia | (PHOTO: DENNISLENNOX)

Malaysia isn't a country one associates with old churches. After all, it's a majority Muslim country.

Yet, as a past installment of this column detailed, Malaysia is home to a surprising number of interesting churches — Anglican and Roman Catholic alike.

These legacies of colonialism, particularly British colonialism, can be found throughout the country. In particular, the Anglican cathedral in the Malaysian capital offers a unique glimpse into life when the sun never set on the British Empire.

The Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin was designed by architect A.C. Norman in the style of Gothic Revival, specifically Early English, and built in 1894 to replace a circa 1887 wooden edifice. It only became the episcopal see of the Anglican bishop of West Malaysia in 1970, when the bishopric was carved out of Diocese of Singapore.

While the nave was extended in the 1950s, the late Victorian-era core retains its prominence. So much so that a visitor would be forgiven if they thought they were in England.

The interior is simple. The only decoration is monuments and plaques memorializing long-forgotten names — almost exclusively of British origin — adorning the white plaster walls.

As with churches in Hong Kong, Singapore and the West Indies, the only concessions to Malaysia's hot and humid climate are modern-day electric fans and doorways installed in gothicky-looking window openings, the latter of which is also seen in two 19th century Anglican churches on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The chancel and high altar are divided from the nave by a splendid wrought iron rood screen, though the present ordering of the interior makes use of a freestanding altar — a simple wooden table — protruding two steps above the nave and enclosed by brass rails. Behind the freestanding altar at the liturgical north end of the rood screen is a matching wrought iron pulpit decorated with a beautiful bronze relief that is dedicated to the memory of Chares Edwin Spooner (born 1853-died 1909), a British colonial engineer who was posted in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) for 14 years before arriving in Kuala Lumpur.

Those with an interest in church music will be interested in the cathedral's original 1885 pipe organ from Henry Willis, who also made the organ for St. Paul's Cathedral in London. And yes, it remains in use today, when St. Mary's hosts 11 services every Sunday.

Spires and Crosses is published every week.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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