Two near-death experiences in four weeks pushed him into the world of theology. Only 34-years old he’s now the new priest at Hong Kong’s Danish Seamen’s Church. Meet Anders Skaaning Andersen the young priest that got the job of his dreams.
T-shirt, jeans, Nike-sneakers, a sports cap and a fashionable nordic beard. Anders is nothing like the picture your biased brain paints when you’re going to meet the new Danish priest in Hong Kong for an interview.
Anders leisurely displays his vicarage on the 13th floor of the Mariners Club building overlooking the Victorian Harbour and the Hong Kong Island where mountains and skyscrapers poke the grey skies.
A new Dane has just arrived in Hong Kong and he contacted Anders for some guidance. As they say goodbye Anders keeps the backdoor open – unconsciously it seems.
“Is water okay with you? I actually don’t have anything else to offer. I would love to offer you a beer, but I had some exchange students visiting the other day”, he says.
“Water is fine”, I say, as I glimpse a cold champagne in the fridge but let it slide.
Military, death and theology
How does a young man like Anders end up as the Danish priest in Hong Kong? And why? That’s the immediate curiosity I need to get appeased. We’ll have to turn 14 years back for that.
“I was twenty and a cadet in the military. We had an exercise and I fell in a dunghill. It was winter and I was freezing and undercooled. The morning after I fainted, fell to the ground and woke up as my comrades was trying to revive me. Then I was hospitalized”.
The accident frightened him. But he eventually got back in shape, dressed in his uniform, ready for the challenges to come.
“Only four weeks went by and we were out on another exercise when a tree toppled over my bivouac. There might have been some higher powers that didn’t want me to be a soldier”, Anders recalls. The dramatic events changed his life.
“The accidents of course got my thoughts running and in the age of twenty a lot happens in your head. I had a lot of reflections about existence and the meaning of it all and in my opinion the Church offered the best answers to this. Eventually I ended up abandoning the military and my idea of a glorious career as an officer and I started studying theology instead”, he explains.
A dream come through
Since faith brought him to the study of theology, he’s been living in Cairo working with inter-religious dialogue, been a verger in the Danish Seamen’s Church in Algeciras in Spain, a supervisor in a research institute, more recently priest in Himmelev in Denmark for 2 years and volunteering bartender at the local Gimle Bar and Venue in Roskilde, and since the beginning of this year the new priest at Hong Kong’s Danish Seamen’s Church – a position he’s been dreaming about for years.
“I always knew that I wanted to live and work abroad for a longer time. Since I’ve learned about the Seaman’s Church I’ve hoped for this position in Hong Kong or New York. I’ve always had this fascination for Asian metropolitan cities, so it has always been a dream that I kept in the back of my head.”
“So I promised myself that if the opportunity to go to Hong Kong ever came, I would pursue it”.
And luckily for Anders the position opened last year. He applied and got it.
The eagerness to explore and live and working abroad was fostered in his childhood, he tells. As a child in the ages of 9 to 11 he lived in Greenland with his parents, and those years formed an openness and curiosity to explore and experiences as much of the world as possible.
Another reason behind the priesthood in Hong Kong was appealing to Anders, was the complicated organization behind a Seaman’s Church, which he experienced in his eight months in Spain: joggling with the traditional and theological Church ventures like sermons, the heavier work in raising funds for the Church’s sustainable operatino and the Church being the center of the social life all appealed to Anders.
Baptism of fire
When he landed as the descendant the 1 January 2016, he overtook the legacy of two predecessors that held the position in a total of 30 years – in respectively 17 and 13 years. Anders is only the third priest in Hong Kong’s Seaman’s Church’s history.
He entered the short line of priests with a baptism of fire, he tells, planning the annual and very traditional New Year’s Party.
“There are a lot of expectations to such an event. There is a way that it’s used to be done, people expect that to follow. So that was a great test for me and interesting beginning of it all”, he says.
Now he’s more settled and he enjoys taking the responsibility for Danes to meet in Hong Kong, contacting the Commerce, the Consulate, the Seafarers and so on.
The next big event to come, when ScandAsia visited, was the Pentecost Bazaar, which was very apparent, as the vicarage was filled with stacked cardboard boxes and toys for the Bazaar.
Leaving Himmelev for Hong Kong
When Anders decided to leave Denmark for Hong Kong, he left two years as a priest in Himmelev in Roskilde. Two good years, he says.
“I’m very happy about my time in Himmelev. I was busy and had around 75 confirmands and 3 funerals a week, so there was a lot of work to do. I feel like I’ve learned the fundamental craft during those years.”
However: “The provincial life didn’t work for me. I’ve always been around many people and always liked to be social, so I felt there was a confusion in my identity”.
Hong Kong, as a city, is much more well-suited for Anders, and he hasn’t had any challenges in adapting to the vivid metropolitan. Life was also “pretty hectic life in Cairo”, as he says.
“I appreciate the diversity in Hong Kong. People in Denmark often say that Denmark is turning multicultural, but it isn’t really. Denmark’s very monocultural, especially compared to Hong Kong. When you experience diversity, you get an experience for how people are different and this makes you acknowledge that the world really isn’t that simple”.
Keeping theology in focus
Churches abroad often have the position as the single or one of the few social institutions for expats longing for home. This means that people doesn’t necessarily visit the church for religious reasons. The church’s role can be downgraded to simply being a social club. Anders is aware, that there’s a risk of that.
“I’m not one to judge over how the church has been run before. But I’ll do a big effort to keep the theological base and the ecclesiastical in focus”, he says and mentions that he has already insisted on writing “something with relevance to christianity” in the church magazine, renamed the annual Spring Bazaar to the Pentecost Bazaar and reintegrated supper in the service.
He is not blind about the social responsibility that the Seamen’s Church, like any other church, bears. As he says: “Seen in an ecclesiastical light, the lunch after the service is as important as the service itself”.
Actually it seems like social engagement is more than normally important for Anders. As mentioned he volunteered as a bartender in a local bar in Roskilde and he volunteered for Roskilde Festival for many years.
In Hong Kong his urge to be social made him invite 20 Danish exchange students for beers in the vicarage and moreover made him visit the annual Scandinavian football cup in the SEA-region, that took place in Hong Kong this year.
“I think Danish churches can learn a lot from engaging more in the local community on the local communities terms”, he says.
Focusing more on religion is just a minor addition, he says; he’s not here to revamp anything. All in all he is positively surprised of the church and the congregation.
“I’m really positive in many aspects. I mean this church is spoiled. The congregation is so enterprising, there’s a strong fellowship. The church only exists because of its congregation, so it’s confirming with such an supportive congregation”, Anders tells and emphasizes how the financial support for the church also took him by surprise.
“The financial support is overwhelming. I was on guard, when I found out that private and company funding was a big part of the church’s economy. It’s important to be aware of one’s integrity, because when people throw money in something, they are likely to have an interest in what they are used for, but there has been none of that”, he says.
Working as a counterpoint
That the Seaman’s Church in Hong Kong is financially fine might just be a secondary effect of being positioned in one of the world’s leading international financial centres. Part of this is also navigating in a city and an extreme performative society where everything is about money. A society that Anders wishes to be a counterpoint to.
“Hong Kong is an extremely fast-paced society. I figure it’s important to have a space where you don’t have to perform or make results, a space where you can just be yourself and relax, a space where everyone is equal. I hope the Seaman’s Church offers a space where you feel comfortable to come dressed in shorts and eating a hot dog.”
Anders laughs as he mentions the United Kingdom’s church in Hong Kong that arrange Charity Balls, where seats can be bought for enormous sums, as everything the Danish church shouldn’t be: “Danes are more grounded I guess”.
Acting as a valuational counterpoint to Hong Kong society is part of Anders’ personal set of values.
“Money is an elusive value. When I have talked to old couples about what gave their lives value, not a single one has mentioned money”, he says, before he goes into an analysis of modern society.
“This idea about making it all on you own and being the world’s greatest that prevails, is not healthy. We need each other. And the absurd idea that happiness is equal to status, consumerism and money is really unsubstantial”, he says.
“I like to think of the church as a sanctuary to those ideas and the brutal life in Hong Kong”.
Anders’ contract runs for the next four years and if he is to follow in the steps of his predecessors, he will likely be there for at least ten years.
However, he responds: “Until now in this position I haven’t been able to predict my future for more than one year ahead”.