SINGAPORE: Reverend Eileen Harrop has never courted fame, she said. But in a strange twist of fate, she has gone global, after being pictured giving Communion to her congregants with a pair of long chopsticks.
Appearing on several major UK media outlets - including Sky News, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the tabloid Daily Mail - and some further afield, Singapore-born Mrs Harrop is “baffled” by her newfound fame.
“I still don’t understand it. That’s the honest truth,” she told CNA on Thursday (Aug 13) in a video call all the way from County Durham, where she serves at St Mary’s in Gainford and St Andrew’s in Winston.
“I don’t understand it. But I think, if it’s something that takes people’s mind away from the fear of living in a pandemic, where it’s going to be scary and completely threatening and hopeless, if it can give people some inkling that there could be hope and interesting things and we’re going to be okay ... then I’m very glad.”
In fact, when she first conceived of using chopsticks, she was only trying to work within the constraints of safe distancing in the UK, where people have to keep a distance of more than a metre from each other, but with advice to stick to two metres if possible.
“I’m about five-foot tall, and my arms aren’t very long,” said Mrs Harrop. “If people come forward to receive Communion … they stretch out their arms, and it’s still not long enough for the 2m distance,” she said.
While some other churches started using tongs, Mrs Harrop felt that those available to her - sugar tongs about 15cm long - were still too short. That was when she thought of using ‘lo hei’ chopsticks, which are about 46cm in length, she said.
Such chopsticks are longer than normal and are used by groups of people to toss the ingredients in a raw fish salad to celebrate Chinese New Year.
And she thought the meaning was “very appropriate” for Communion in a Christian context too, as the Chinese use the chopsticks for “special communion”, where family and friends come together and “lay aside any differences” and be there “in good spirit”.
Once she suggested the idea to her team members at the church, they were immediately onboard, she said.
“They did not hesitate. They thought - why not? It brings confidence to our congregation. It is the first time they’re coming back to church services after being locked down for four months,” she said.
On Mar 23, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown in a bid to stem the overwhelming numbers of coronavirus cases in the UK.
So with the support of her bishop, Mrs Harrop tried using chopsticks with her parishioners, who she found were very “assured” with what she had planned for them.
‘I DIDN’T EXPECT IT TO BE CARRIED SO WIDELY’
It was initially meant to be a “local story”, said Mrs Harrop on the media interest in her unusual approach to Communion. “I didn’t expect it to be carried so widely.”
It all started when she first opened the church for a school service, after churches were allowed to resume in the UK. A local reporter came in to cover the service, where the congregation prays for students entering secondary school.
“When I told this news reporter - our local news reporter - I said, our next service is a Holy Communion on Sunday, and I’m going to pilot using chopsticks, he was very interested … He actually ran it in a local, very local way in our own area, and it had such a good reception,” she said.
The spread ended up being a huge photograph covering about a quarter of a page. While she expected regional interest, she never imagined that it would end up hitting the headlines in places as far as Poland and India, she said.
Mrs Harrop wasn’t even aware that she was on the news until one resident in the community sent her a Facebook message telling her that she was on BBC news. And since then, it has been a "complete, continuous" line of people getting in touch with her to tell that they have seen her on the news.
The local Facebook page has been buzzing about this too, she said, which has “just lifted people’s spirits”. And members of her family around the world - from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Hong Kong - have also got in touch with her after seeing her hit the headlines.
For someone living in a “sleepy rural area” used to a regular schedule of prayer and counselling, Mrs Harrop was initially “a bit concerned” about her sudden fame. She has only slightly over 3,000 people living in both her parishes, with nearly 100 people attending her services.
“I had to think about it and (I) thought, well, if it’s of help, if it encourages people, if it gives people a little bit of positive cheer, then that’s a good thing,” she said.
The reverend, who is still a Singapore citizen, also saw this in the spirit of representing her home country, which she said has always “hit above its size”.
“I think if I could testify to what a Singaporean spirit can contribute, to ourselves as Singaporeans, and to anybody else who would be encouraged, I’m very pleased. I’m very glad to be able to do that.”
A TEACHER, A CONSULTANT AND NOW A PRIEST
Mrs Harrop - whose maiden name is Eileen Chew - started her career as a teacher, teaching in Anglo-Chinese School (ACS).
She married her English husband, also an educator, who she met during her undergraduate years in the UK. They settled in Singapore from 1989 to 1996.
Before leaving Singapore, she had already switched careers twice. She left the teaching service to work with hospitals in the private sector, before being headhunted by a private company to be an organisation change consultant for quality management for multinational conglomerates (MNCs).
She returned to the UK with her husband in 1996, when he needed to finish his PhD at Bristol University. They settled in Oxfordshire, where she continued her work with MNCs, until 2004.
“At the time, things were happening in that village, and then in a group of parishes there. And the bishop said to me, I think Eileen, you should think about going into the church.
“I thought he was being polite, because I had done some things to help the church … But God was calling me, and somehow I knew that my life was going to change,” she said.
It took many years to reconcile herself with joining the church, but she finally took the plunge in 2010, where she did a two-year Bachelor of Theology in Ministry at Cambridge University.
She was ordained as a priest in 2013, and since then, she has served several congregations, including her current one in County Durham.
While there aren’t many Chinese priests in the UK - and Mrs Harrop said she is among the few Southeast Asian women to serve as a parish priest in England - Mrs Harrop feels “very blessed”.
“The congregation of people in my parishes and my communities, they know who I am. They know I come from an Eastern background. I even had - about two years ago - a fundraising meal, (where) we celebrated Chinese New Year, and I did ‘lo hei’ as part of the fundraising celebration.
“So they (have) fully accepted who I am.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this article said Mrs Harrop is the first Southeast Asian woman to serve as an ordained minister in the UK. Mrs Harrop said the original statement was incorrect and that she is among the few Southeast Asian women to serve as a parish priest in England.