"Singapore is a pluralistic society," said Dr Tan Kim Huat, who is the Chen Su Lan Professor of New Testament and Dean of Studies at Trinity Theological College. "There must be spaces for it", referring to homosexuals in society. This was the reason he gave for supporting repeal of Singapore's anti-gay law, Section 377A of the Penal Code.
In his view, where the problem lies now is that the Singapore government, while convinced of the need to repeal the law, has not yet thought through the consequences of repeal. "They don't know how to deal with it," he believed, referring to such questions as what should then be the age of consent, and how to respond to the issue of same-sex marriage.
However, he made it clear as well that he personally disapproved of homosexuality.
Tan was one of four panelists at a dialogue session, "Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality and Pastoral Care" organised by Safehaven, a ministry of the Free Community Church. It was held at the Amara Hotel on 10 May 2007.
The other panellists were Anthony Yeo, Consultant Therapist, Counselling and Care Center; Edmund Smith, the founder of ex-gay movement Real Love Ministry (headquartered in Malacca); and Rev. Dr. Yap Kim Hao, retired bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.
The session was moderated by Augustine Anthuvan, Senior Producer (English News), MediaCorp News.
The crowd of more than 250 might have expected the speakers to fall into roughly two camps with two persons on each side. Anthony Yeo and Rev Yap had previously spoken in gay-affirmative ways.
However, what came through clearly during the session was that the divide didn't actually lie there. The real gap was between those who approached their Christian faith thoughtfully, even intellectually, through the evidence and through hearing out personal witness, and on the other side, those who approached Christianity in what I'd call the "touchy-feely" way.
Interpretation and contextualisation
In Tan's presentation, he spoke about what the Bible said, "from my own reading of the evidence." To begin with, he reminded the audience, there were only a handful of passages that referred to homosexuality, and these should be looked at in context.
Yap, who spoke last, agreed, saying that readings must be "time-bound" and "contextually related."
"The teaching of the Church changes continually," he pointed out. For example, "the flat earth has been rounded," and divorce, which Jesus "explicitly condemned," is now allowed.
He also pointed out that the word "homosexual" didn't enter the Bible until 1946, which suggests that whatever the Bible was referring to, it wasn't quite the modern understanding of the word. Instead, he proffered the view that the same-sex acts mentioned in scripture related either to exploitative situations or to "heterosexual men exchanging their male role to that of an inferior role of women."
Tan felt however that "Jewish condemnation of homosexuality never mentions exploitation." In fact, the Bible's mention of homosexuality was not as context-specific as Yap made it to be. "Paul speaks generally here," Tan said.
But he did agree with Yap that the objection to homosexuality was because "it obliterates the gender distinction." Additionally, there was mention of its reproductive "futility."
For non-Christians especially, all these details are academic, but I included them for a purpose: to show why I say that it's not a big gulf between these two sides. They were both relying on evidence although they had different interpretations of it. They both allowed a role for modern awareness and circumstances to impact Christian teaching, though perhaps one allowed more than the other.
Likewise, both Tan and Yap agreed on the importance of the persons at the centre of the issue, whose witness we should hear. "When we tackle this," Tan said, "we think of it as an issue when actually there are people involved."
Moreover, as Anthony Yeo put it somewhat humourously during the Question Time, "whenever we discuss... homosexuality, we are hung up on genitals."
In his presentation, Yeo focussed on pastoral care. He stressed the importance of adopting a "high level of openness and be willing to associate with everyone," giving the example of Jesus who worked with all kinds of people.
Real Love Ministry
Edmund Smith's presentation was radically different from the other three.
"I have a conviction that it is a sin," he said, but "in Christ, all things are possible." Through Him, one "becomes a new creation... a person who is connected to God."
"My [ex-gay] ministry is only here for those who want to come out of homosexuality," he averred, using terms like 'gender confusion', 'homosexual lifestyle' and the like, terms that are very poorly defined. He also characterised "pro-gays" as people whose "goal in life is sexuality, not Jesus."
Through repetition, it seemed that his main point was that "God is the bread of life." And if one called himself a true Christian, then he's "got to consume the bread of life."
That's all "claptrap," said a participant from the floor.
Smith's position ultimately goes no further than personal conviction. Subjectivity is where it begins and ends. One gets the feeling that even if they referred to scripture, it would be used as rationalisation to support what would be a profoundly personal set of beliefs.
The problem then is how does one engage in meaningful dialogue with such positions? How does one debate with someone whose starting point is little more than mysticism ('I feel the spirit in me' - that kind of thing), who dismisses others' faith as superficial unless they too had consumed Jesus?
That was the gulf in question.
Thus, it occurred to me that the only way one could coexist with ex-gays was to allow for a high degree of religious relativism. Yet ironically, ex-gays demand moral absolutism.
Following the speakers' presentations, there were two Christian "witnesses," one gay and the other ex-gay.
Jaslyn spoke about how she became an ex-gay after a childhood with much rejection and abuse from her parents. "Before I was born," she said, "I was already rejected in the womb."
Later on, each time she was abused - she never quite explained what exactly was the abuse - she sought love and attention. "Without a mother's love, I had a vacuum issue and was attracted to girls." But, "today, you see me as really God's miracle."
We shouldn't be hurtful, but neither should we suspend all our critical faculties and accept her story without asking ourselves what really are the psychological issues here.
Kok Wei's testimony, by contrast, was so ordinary (for gay people), it hardly bears repeating. He had a normal, if strict family, felt ashamed of his homosexual inclination after imbibing social attitudes, went to church, dropped out of church, and finally found Safehaven.
"God has blessed me in my gayness. It's very hard to imagine that loving and caring relationships aren't part of God's grace."
Question time was lively, with about 15 persons speaking up, but most appeared to be gay. Three participants however, spoke up to question gay-affirmative positions. One demanded to know what was God's natural purpose for the mouth and anus. Another spoke about how "agape love" was important and people shouldn't just think in terms of "filial love" and "eros love."
One had the feeling that like Edmund Smith, they were almost in a different universe. Theirs were all subjective convictions, not something one could engage with intellectually. Not even the parts about bestiality, paedophilia, incest - yes, these were all raised from the floor - for they were used as rhetorical sandbagging, meant to defend dogmatic positions rather than a search for enlightenment.
Click this link to read the transcript of Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao's address at the dialogue.
Safehaven is holding Living Water 5, a support group in its fifth cycle in June 2007. The programme is aimed at gay male Christians who are struggling to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. For more info, visit www.oursafehaven.com.