Features, Highlights

The challenges ahead for ETAC

A socially-distanced and muted opening holy communion service at Tamil MC (Short Street) due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Annual Conference sessions are usually a time of lively worship and joyful reunion among members across the local churches. For the Emmanuel Tamil Annual Conference (ETAC) session, there would be much hugging and hand-shaking, as well as warm fellowship over home-cooked meals. The Emmanuel Praise choir, decked out in vibrant uniforms, would grace the opening and closing services with their exuberant singing.

But, as we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed church life. While the number of ETAC delegates for its 45th session was small enough to be held on-site at Tamil Methodist Church (Short Street) on 6 and 7 Nov 2020, the COVID-19 restrictions meant they had to be masked and socially distanced. With live singing disallowed, pre-recorded songs were played at the opening and closing service and Holy Communion at the opening service was taken individually.

The two-day session was attended by representatives from the eight ETAC churches as well as Bishop Dr Chong Chin Chung, Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC) President and Bishop-Elect Dr Gordon Wong,1 and Chinese Annual Conference (CAC) President the Rev Dr Gregory Goh Nai Lat.

However, despite the difficult year that 2020 has been, “the God of hope is in our midst”, Bishop Dr Chong reminded delegates in a sermon based on Romans 15:13–16. In his swansong sermon as Bishop before retiring in Dec 2020, Bishop Dr Chong spoke at the opening services of all the Annual Conference sessions. “The Apostle Paul suffered greatly wherever he preached the gospel. What kept him going, such that he was willing to place his life on the line to bring the Gospel to the Jews and Gentiles, was his hope in Jesus Christ.”

God has not left us alone in our trials. He has given us the Holy Spirit, who comforts us and will be with us forever. He has also given us the community of the Church, which is what Bishop Dr Chong believes John Wesley had in mind when he formed societies, classes and bands. “Our different cultures, backgrounds and gifts enrich our churches,” said Bishop Dr Chong. “We can use all sorts of knowledge and capabilities to instruct and edify each other, look out for and care for one another.”

It is this diversity of the Christian community that led The Methodist Church in Singapore (MCS) to structure its churches along linguistic lines into the three Annual Conferences—ETAC, CAC and TRAC.

What is next for ETAC?

A key issue that the Rev James Nagulan, President of ETAC for the term ending in 2020, highlighted in his President’s Address was ETAC’s small membership and the resulting difficulty in finding pastors to lead its eight churches.

ETAC membership dropped by 1.5 per cent in the last financial year, and by 8 per cent since the beginning of last quadrennium. This year’s pandemic further stymied efforts to build up ETAC membership. The Rev Nagulan emphasised that Vision 2024—a roadmap to strengthen and build up the local churches, which was adopted by ETAC in 2019—must be followed-up in the new quadrennium. ETAC, he said, needs to find creative ways to build up congregation numbers. “We must be ready to make radical decisions if we are serious about the future of ETAC.”

Owing to the low recruitment of ETAC pastors and most of its Elders being non-Singaporean, only one person was eligible to stand for election as the President for the next quadrennium (2021–24). ETAC had, at the Sep 2020 MCS General Conference session, petitioned for a relaxation of eligibility criteria for ETAC Presidential candidates but the petition did not receive enough votes to be passed.

The Rev Philip Abraham, the only eligible Elder, was declared as ETAC President for the next quadrennium. He said to the conference delegates: “I am the Lord’s servant. Let us continue to serve together to build God’s kingdom.”

Godly lives and ministries

The ordination, installation, memorial and closing service was held on the evening of 7 Nov. Pastor Jeremy James was ordained as Deacon; and the Rev Philip Abraham was installed as President, R. Selvathurai as Vice President, as were other ETAC conference leaders. Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon preached from 1 Timothy 4:6–16.

A good pastor, Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon said, is one who heeds Paul’s advice: “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (v16). A pastor’s inner life—their life when no one is watching—and their public ministry must both be beyond reproach and bring glory and honour to God. They must train themselves to be godly: to be like Jesus; to discern what is central to their ministry; and live their lives with hope. In turn, the congregation must honour and encourage their pastors as much as they can.

1 Bishop-Elect Dr Wong was consecrated as Bishop on 4 Dec 2020, and attended the three annual conference sessions in his then-role as TRAC President.

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Sheri Goh is the Editor of Methodist Message. / Photos courtesy of Daniel Lie