March 2000

Insurrection in St Andrew's Cathedral




One would have thought that if a Singapore archbishop led an insurrection against his own worldwide communion, it would have been news. Well, a Singapore archbishop did leading an insurrection, and it was news. I read about it on BBC Online. But not a word was carried in the local media.

Strange, isn't it?

Not so strange when you consider that the issue was homosexuality. Our media here are quite at a loss as to how to handle such stories; so play safe, don't report at all.

The dispute – and it's not over yet -- is happening in the Anglican Church, one of the many Christian denominations here in Singapore. The "mother church" of this denomination is the Church of England, whose head is the Archbishop of Canterbury. There are large Anglican congregations in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the ex-British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. The Episcopalian denomination in the US, with a few million members, is also part of the Anglican Communion.

The Consecration

The "insurrection" that was led by Archbishop Moses Tay [1] was to consecrate on 29 January 2000, two American priests as bishops. This took place in St Andrew's Cathedral, right in the heart of downtown Singapore. While Moses Tay's purview is Southeast Asia, the two new bishops were intended to work in the US.

However, Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has since condemned the move. In a letter to all Anglican bishops, he said he "cannot recognise their episcopal ministry" -- in other words, he does not regard them as genuine bishops. He cited Anglican rules and practice in support of his judgement that the consecration of the two men was "illegal".

Lambeth Conference 1998

Archbishop Moses Tay is in revolt over the church's attitude towards homosexuality. This question dominated proceedings at the last Lambeth Conference held in Canterbury in July 1998. The conference is held once every ten years, and is a major discussion forum involving all its bishops from around the world. In 1998, nearly 800 bishops attended.

The liberal wing of the Anglican Church wanted a more tolerant and understanding approach to gay parishioners. They wanted church doctrine to reflect the social and cultural realities of today and recent advances in the understanding of sexual orientation. They wanted greater weight placed on love, compassion and equality.

The reactionary wing, of which Singapore's Archbishop was one of the most vocal, wanted a stronger condemnation of the sin, and a more literal reliance on biblical injunctions. In this, he has been allied with African bishops, e.g. from Zimbabwe and Uganda, whose state leaders have called for mass arrests of anyone suspected of homosexuality, followed by incarceration and the death penalty.

The row at Lambeth in 1998 recalled an equally contentious debate in the Lambeth Conference of ten years earlier, in 1988, over the ordination of women. Many of the bishops then attending were utterly against having women in the priesthood, and threatened to break away should it ever happen. But this wasn't an issue anymore in 1998. In fact, the 1998 Lambeth Conference included women bishops for the first time.

Some bishops in 1998 wanted the same degree of progress for gay Anglicans. They proposed abandonment of the Anglican rule that ordained priests should be either married or celibate. If so, it would mean that sexually active gay priests would be permitted, and the church should be able to bless same-sex unions. That was going much too far, and Lambeth '98 ended with a resolution upholding the ban on the ordination of sexually active gay priests. It also declared homosexual relationships incompatible with the teachings of the Bible.

In an attempt to bridge the differences, Dr Carey said in a speech towards the end of the conference, "What we must do is to continue to listen to each other and the experience of homosexuals, while they must continue to listen to us."

Nonetheless, Bishop John Spong, an American Anglican, said he expected there to be gay bishops at the next Lambeth Conference, due in 2008.

As reported by reporter Alex Kirby of BBC News Online,

What worried Spong … and other liberals was not just the result of the debate, but the way in which the traditionalists relied on quoting from the Bible to make their case. In Spong's words, "the resolution sought to justify its prejudice by appeals to the authority of Holy Scripture….That tactic was employed in the church's attempt to justify slavery, segregation and apartheid."

[Bishop] Holloway [from Scotland] said what was heartbreaking was "not so much the same-sex angle, it is the sense of a new prevailing attitude to scriptural interpretation which I do not recognise as Anglican". He sees the Anglican church heading down the dangerous path of fundamentalism -- and fundamentalism he believes is "attractive in the same way that fascism was attractive".

BBC's Kirby, in his article, continued,

You do not have to agree with their views on sexual morality, though, to realise that they may have a point in what they say about their opponents' use of the Bible.

Modern Western theologians, with a century-and-a-half of rigorous biblical analysis behind them, will now say that you simply cannot transfer the message of a series of books written several thousand years ago to our own day without allowing for the yawning social and cultural gulf which separates us from the writers.

But those 150 years of biblical scholarship remain, literally, a closed book to many of the leaders of the vibrant young churches of the third world -- the very leaders who secured the massive majority for the resolution against homosexuality.

The Most Reverend David Crawley, the Archbishop of British Columbia and Yukon, believes there are now two separate churches within the worldwide Anglican church: those who value the Bible but want to interpret it for our own day, and those who want to use it literally - the new Christian fundamentalists.


Look out for 'suspicious' characters

Archbishop Moses Tay is apparently not satisfied with the middle course which Dr Carey tried to sell. Perhaps he wished to tilt the balance of forces by consecrating new bishops who share the same homophobic stance as himself. But he has gone about it without proper authorisation, as you can see from a full report by a Singaporean Anglican, Lee Tuck Leong, in

Tuck Leong wrote,

The ceremony began with an atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion…. The service time was uncertain, stated at perhaps 5.00p.m. or 6.00p.m. At around 4.40 p.m., the Very Rev'd John Tay [brother of Moses Tay] gave a briefing to the acolytes. The episcopal candidates were described as people unable to be consecrated Bishops in the Episcopal Church of the United States because of their opposition to the 'pro-homosexual' agendas of the Church. The service was originally intended to be held on the following day but was brought forward in order to prevent disruption to the ceremonies by people of 'ill-intentions', and that included possible delegates from Canterbury or people associated with the 'liberal' Episcopal Church. The acolytes were told to look out for 'suspicious' characters, and if needed, to physically restrain any who might disrupt the service, and to call the police, if necessary.

Apparently, none of the acolytes were informed of the gravity of the action nor of the repercussions resulting thereof. Till today, some of the acolytes are begrudging the fact that they have not officially been informed of the responses to the consecrations from within the worldwide Anglican Communion. In fact the whole service was held in such a hushed manner that a confused presbyter based at Saint Andrew's Cathedral, the Rev'd Dennis Lee, was asking around for some clues as to what was happening.


Describing the consecration as a diocesan decision will stretch the reality too far out. Many clergy are still not informed of what took place. Three vicars randomly interviewed expressed surprise that it even took place at all, with expressions of incredulity. Normally, any bishop that is to be consecrated has to be approved by the Diocesan Synod and the decision rectified by the House of Bishops. In this case, none of the above was involved…. In any case of an episcopal consecration in Singapore, the Diocesan Chancellor will be called upon to read the authorisation for the consecration and to provide a 'legal' presence. In this case, the Diocesan Chancellor, Justice Lai Kew Chai, who was invited to the consecrations, refused to attend, on the ground that though he is the Chancellor for the diocese, the consecrations had nothing to do with the diocese.


Why it matters

The Anglican denomination is not a large one in Singapore, although I don't have a figure for it. What I know is that overall, only 12.9% of Singapore residents are Christian, of any denomination [2].

Nonetheless, this story holds a useful point for all Singaporeans, for it typifies an observation many Christians from abroad have made: that Christian churches in Singapore are often very fundamentalist compared to mainstream churches elsewhere. So when Singaporeans think that Christianity is absolutely incompatible with homosexuality, it is framed by our local church leaders such as the Archbishop Moses Tay, who is considered by his peers in the Anglican Church as extreme. The literal kind of Christianity preached here is not representative of the broad stream of Christian thinking found around the world.

It would be like saying that the kind of Islam practised in Taleban Afghanistan is typical of Islamic teaching in general. Is it not!

But unfortunately, the influence of the Christian church in Singapore is greater than its numerical strength. The westernised, English-speaking, section of our population tends to be Christian. They also tend to be the same ones holding positions of influence in government and society. Notice, for example, how a Supreme Court Justice is also Diocesan Chancellor.

So the fundamentalist colouring of our local Christian churches not only skews our perception of what Christianity is all about, it may also skew our public policy. At the end of the day, all Singaporeans, Christian or not, have a stake in what goes on in these churches. And that is why an insurrection in the aisles of St Andrew's Cathedral, should be newsworthy.

© Yawning Bread 



  1. Archbishop Moses Tay is titled the Primate of the Province of South East Asia, meaning he is the head of all the Anglican churches in the region. He is due to retire in April 2000.
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  2. Source: "Singapore 1998" – a yearbook published by the Ministry of Information and the Arts, page 32.
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