18 May 2009

Imperial overreach: NCCS edition

NCCS - nothing like MUIS

Certainly, the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) has benefited from the uniquely consultative style of the Singapore government in recent years, rising to occasion as a convenient spokesbody, representative, and leader for Protestants here.

Founded in 1948 by a group of British clerics and friends who served as POWs at Changi Prison, the Malayan Christian Council promptly faded into obscurity given the fact that these clerics left the region shortly after, and that there were a whole host of other ecumenical initiatives in Malaya. And not to mention, The Emergency.

To put it bluntly, the NCCS has a temporarily high profile today thanks to the opportunism of its exco members. Their actions have catapulted it to the public eye, above and beyond its natural capacity -

Signing the declaration of religious harmony
Issuing a statement on homosexuality
Issuing a statement on the casino issue
Issuing a statement to back the banning of the Mohammed cartoons
Issuing a private and secret letter to the MDA on The Da Vinci Code

Extra-legal powers and authority?

But who does the NCCS speak for? What manner of doctrine or public position can it enforce on Protestants in Singapore?

The NCCS was never intended to be a Protestant fatwah-issuing religious council. The President of the NCCS was never intended to be the leader of Protestants in Singapore. Yet these two misconceptions were held by many commentators on the Aware issue, regardless of which faction they supported.

We refer to the Constitution of the NCCS:

Article 3(iv): [the Council is founded] as an association of co-operating members, each of which determines its own policy and action.

Article 4(vi): [The objectives of the Council are] to provide an agency through which the Government of the Republic of Singapore may consult the Council on matters of common concern to its members.

Articles 4(v) to (vi) are amendments to the original constitution of the NCCS, giving credence to the Wayang theory of state-church consultation. (As an aside, we note that 4(vi) is a copy-paste-adaptation of Section 3, 2(a) of the 1968 AMLA act.) These amendments can be reasonably dated to the aftermath of the 1969 race riots in Malaya, whereupon the governments on both sides of the Straits instituted various faith councils to take part in the wayang process, and empowered the successors of the Malayan Christian Council as 'official' spokesbodies.

In Singapore at least, there was very little follow-up consultation thereafter, until the Goh administration reinstituted the wayang process with the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in 1991 and to seek 'religious approval' of the human stem cell research through 'religious representation and consultation' in the Bioethics Advisory Committee, in 2001.

Our main concern is with 3(iv) of the NCCS constitution, which appears to explicitly contradict the organisation's spokesbody role. The same clause also appears to contradict the organisation's carefully cultivated impression having the unquestionable authority to advise Protestant Christians on theological or secular matters.

In reality, the President of the NCCS has no power to issue commands to the Protestant Christian population, set church policy, or to speak on behalf of NCCS member churches.

Don't believe me?

Ask the Methodists.

The General Conference, "which meets every 4 years, is the highest decision-making body of the MCS, led by the elected Bishop and an equal number of elected representatives (both clergy and laity) from each of the three Annual Conference..."
The People Called Methodist, 37

The General Conference is the only body that speaks officially for the church. "No person, no paper, no organisation has the authority to speak officially for The Methodist Church, this right having been reserved exclusively to the General Conference under the Constitution"

Ask the Presbyterians.

According to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore, the Synod is its highest decision-making body, with unique powers to license and recognise preachers (18)(i) for its denomination, to represent the Presbyterian Church in external relations (48)(i) and make doctrinal decisions (48)(ii). It is the Synod who represents the Presbyterian Church externally, not any Moderator, and most certainly not the President of the NCCS.

In light of this, we question the placement of Rt Rev Tan Cheng Huat as NCCS Vice President and presumably its representative for the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.

Under the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore, the Moderator of the Synod is purely that: an administrative role in the 3rd level of the church bureaucracy. He calls meetings to order, is responsible for accounts, but when the Synod votes, the Moderator is an ordinary voting member; his vote is not a veto and not a deciding vote.

Under what right does a Moderator have to represent and speak for the Synod in the NCCS?

As far as we know: There is no "Moderator of the Presbyterian Church". The Moderator of the 35th & 36th Session Synod of the Presbyterian Church, 2009-2011, is Rev Phua Chee Seng. The Moderator of the 16th Session English Presbytery, 2009-2011, is Rev Keith Lai. The Moderator of the 17th Session Chinese Presbytery, 2009-2011, is Rev Leow Khee Fatt. We are unclear if NCCS meant the moderator of the synod, the moderator of a presbytery, or the moderator of a church known as "Presbyterian Church".

Will the "Moderator of the Presbyterian Church" please stand up and explain your strange, unusual, probably fictitious post - and just what you're playing in this organisation, and who is authorising you to play in the NCCS?

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