Churches building bridges with LGBT Christians

A worship session at Free Community Church last month. The only church in Singapore to openly welcome gays now has a membership of about 130, a mix of LGBT and straight people.
A worship session at Free Community Church last month. The only church in Singapore to openly welcome gays now has a membership of about 130, a mix of LGBT and straight people.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Some protestant pastors attend dialogue on gays; Catholic ministry helping LGBT members

In September, one of Singapore's few openly gay church pastors Miak Siew conducted a talk.

With the help of nifty powerpoint slides, the leader of the independent Free Community Church (FCC) spoke of the concerns of gay Christian men and women here.

He highlighted their reluctance to approach their pastors for fear of rejection. He argued that church leaders should avoid using terms such as "gay lifestyle" and "practising homosexual".

In the audience, some 50 church pastors sat, listening intently. They were from the Methodist Church, the biggest mainline protestant denomination in Singapore.

The presentation, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago, was among a series of quiet moves this year by some mainline churches and Christian institutions to build bridges with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Other developments include the Catholic Church establishing a pastoral ministry, CourageSG, to give support to LGBT Catholics.

MORE COMPASSIONATE STANCE

While pastors and other members of the church may react in the past by judging or shunning LGBT people, and even asking members to leave the church if they reject counselling, the stance is usually more compassionate now. They will reach out to them... even if they continue to believe that engaging in the act itself is wrong.

DR TAN KIM HUAT, academic dean at the Trinity Theological College.

Separately, a Christian think tank formed by the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS), Trinity Theological College (TTC) and the Bible Society of Singapore launched a study to better understand how LGBT Christians feel about how their churches are engaging them.

The moves come as opposing views on LGBT issues are being aired increasingly vociferously here, in part sparked by events such as the Pink Dot movement, its counter-campaign Wear White, and the 2007 parliamentary debate over the Penal Code's Section 377A which criminalises sex between men.

Given the polarised debate, said the Methodist Church pastor who organised the FCC talk, "a dialogue to better understand different perspectives is overdue". He declined to be named.

For Catholics, one impetus is the stance adopted by the Pope. Last year, Pope Francis called for transsexuals and homosexuals to be accepted and embraced by the Catholic Church.

Said a spokesman from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore: "We take a big cue from our Holy Father, Pope Francis."

The NCCS which represents over 250 churches, including the Methodist Church, declined comment.

It is not clear how many LGBT Christians there are in Singapore, or whether the numbers have grown.

As of 2015, the total Christian population here stands at 616,000, of whom about one third are Catholic. International studies have estimated that between 2 per cent and 10 per cent of the general population in any given society could identify as LGBT.

In Singapore, the FCC - the only church to openly welcome gays - now has a membership of about 130, a mix of LGBT and straight people. This is up from about 50 in 2004. Another fellowship group for gay Christians includes about 60 people in its online registry.

But despite the steps taken, homosexuality remains a deeply contentious issue in the Christian community. Many declined to be named for this article.

 

A pastor who attended the FCC presentation said he still believes homosexuality is something that should not be condoned. "(The talk) did not change much of my perception of the LGBT communities, and there are other priorities that the church should be focusing on besides LGBT issues ," he said.

Conservative churches like the Church of Our Saviour believe that LGBT people can be "set free from homosexual thoughts, tendencies and practices".

Still, the recent developments are significant, given the historicially fraught relationship between churches and the LGBT community.

While the majority of Christians here - including those now making overtures to the LGBT community - continue to believe that homosexual acts are a sin, there is now a growing acceptance of the idea that homosexuality itself is not wrong, and that LGBT Christians should not be discriminated against in church, say those interviewed.

The issue, previously discussed behind closed doors, can and should be aired more openly in church, they say.

"While pastors and other members of the church may react in the past by judging or shunning LGBT people, and even asking members to leave the church if they reject counselling, the stance is usually more compassionate now," said Dr Tan Kim Huat, academic dean at the TTC. "They will reach out to them... even if they continue to believe that engaging in the act itself is wrong."

In July 2014, Catholic Archbishop William Goh said the church "does not disapprove of a loving relationship between same-sex individuals that is chaste and faithful". He also apologised for hurting the feelings of people who were upset by his previous remarks, when he said that the "LGBT lifestyle" is "detrimental to society".

That year, the TTC also started teaching about homosexuality. At least 100 students - most go on to become church workers or pastors - have attended the course so far, said Dr Tan. It examines homosexuality from a multidisciplinary angle, incorporating legislative, religious and activist perspectives.

In April this year, the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity appealed for LGBT Christians to respond to a survey as it wants to "sincerely understand" how they "think and feel about the way their local churches and the wider Singapore Church is engaging them, as well as on LGBT issues."

The results will be shared with church leaders, and the aim is "for the Church's critical reflection, internal education and development". The institute declined comment.

Three months ago, the Catholic Church launched CourageSG. Participants attend weekly or fortnightly group sessions that involve scripture readings, prayer and sharings. They are also reminded of the ministry's goals, including living chaste lives and being good role models.

A founder of a fellowship group for gay Christians, who declined to be named, applauds such moves as "baby steps" to address the concerns of LGBT Christians who are struggling to reconcile themselves with their religion.

But, he adds, "there are people out there right now who are suffering and dealing with a lot of conflict in their inner selves, and my concern is that we may not be moving fast enough to help them".

Correction note: In an earlier version of the story, we said that Catholic Archbishop William Goh had apologised for previous remarks, when he said that the "LGBT lifestyle" is "detrimental to society". This is incorrect. He had apologised for hurting the feelings of people who were upset by his previous remarks, when he said that the "LGBT lifestyle" is "detrimental to society". We are sorry for the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Churches building bridges with LGBT Christians'. Print Edition | Subscribe