Looking a bit like a latter-day Welsh Druid, Archbishop Rowan Williams, when first appointed to the See of Canterbury, was the hope of a church which had seen too much dissension over homosexuality, the ordination of women, and a resurgent conservative evangelicalism. A professor of theology and a champion of liberal causes, even, in some respects, it seemed — though not correctly, perhaps – a liberal theologian, Archbishop Williams has been a great disappointment to many. He had scarcely assumed the throne of Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury (not to be confused with his namesake, the Bishop of Hippo, in North Africa), when he began to speak about his more liberal opinions, especially over the acceptance of the relationships of gay and lesbian people within the fellowship of the church, as merely trial balloons, not positions seriously taken.
On the question of assisted dying, Williams and his church have taken a stand of fierce intransigence. Swathes of the Church of England website are devoted to opposition to any change in the law governing euthanasia or assisted suicide or to any change in medical practice. My own web search of the site turned up 72 hits. Not a secondary concern, then? The church’s statement begins with this uncompromising declaration:
While acknowledging the complexity of the issues involved in assisted dying/suicide and voluntary euthanasia, the Church of England is opposed to any change in the law or in medical practice that would make assisted dying/suicide or voluntary euthanasia permissible in law or acceptable in practice. [The entire statement is downloadable in pdf format here.]
Of course, such intransigence just is a failure to acknowledge the complexities of the issues involved, which are not so easily dismissed. For, notice, the church is not here speaking only for believers. It is purporting to speak for society as a whole. Religions are free to determine anything regarding their theological or moral beliefs. All that is necessary is a formulation that will garner the acceptance and obedience of the greater proportion of their adherents. But to decide for a society as a whole? By what right, even in Britain, where the church is established by law, does the church presume to dictate for those who do not count themselves as amongst the number of its members, accept its teachings, or subject themselves to its discipline?
Well, in Britain, there is at least this difference, that several bishops are, by virtue of their office, or subsequent elevation to the peerage, members of the House of Lords, and are entitled to speak on important matters of legislative decision. In May, 2006, Archbishop Williams spoke at length, in opposition to the “Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill.” (The speech he made on that occasion is accessible here.) I have addressed this speech in two letters written to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first letter is accessible here. After receiving a response from the archbishop, I answered him at greater length. That answer is accessible here.
Here I will only consider one point arising from the Archbishop’s speech on Lord Joffe’s bill. In that speech he said the following:
… whether or not you believe that God enters into consideration, it remains true that to specify, even in the fairly broad terms of the Bill, conditions under which it would be both reasonable and legal to end your life, is to say that certain kinds of human life are not worth living.
As I said in an earlier post, this is simply wrong, and in the case of Lord Joffe’s bill, seriously wrong. For the bill, had the Archbishop read it carefully, did not spell out conditions in which it would be both reasonable and legal to end one’s life, as though people living in those conditions would be expected to deem their lives thereafter worthless. What it did was to restrict the availability of assisted dying — and in my view too stringently — to those who were terminally ill, and in their own assessment, suffering intolerably, so that they no longer wished to remain alive.
The bill itself mentions not one single medical or other condition (aside from the requirement that the illness be terminal) that the person requesting assisted dying must fulfil in order to receive such assistance. It deals only with the procedure, and the question of the person’s suffering is a matter left entirely to the person requesting assistance to die. So, the bill did not describe conditions under which it would be appropriate to ask for such assistance, as the archbishop assumed — which shows that even Druids can read carelessly. It would, indeed, be hazardous to describe in detail the conditions under which a person might ask for assistance in dying, since that might indeed suggest that in the minds of legislators such conditions describe a condition of life no longer worth living. But so long as the decision is left up to the individual and whether they consider their lifes worth living or not, such a danger does not exist. And if the archbishop thinks it does, he must tell us why.