I say that bishops are nut cases with particular reference to Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts (as well as to another who will be mentioned anon), who attacked “Question 2″ on the Massachusetts ballot, an assisted dying measure which lost by a small margin. I find it hard to see why such matters are a matter of majority rules. This is democracy in the wrong place. If majority rule governs how people will be permitted to die, it could as easily be used to marginalise minority groups — and that, of course, is just what have in the case of those who seek assistance in dying. They are a minority group. But bishops in general tend to be nutty. What is nutty about this particular bishop is not that he is opposed to assisted dying, but that he is opposed for such shallow reasons. It is, of course, not a matter of course that he says that “Catholic health care may never condone or assist in assisted suicide in any way.” Bishops often hide their religious presuppositions when talking about things like assisted dying. This, however, even if not mentioned, can just be taken for granted, and it should simply cancel through as in an equation, so that no one need take any notice of it, and yet he wrote a letter to be read in all the parishes on his diocese, which is, I think, a form of political intrusion that should be forbidden by law to those organisations that, through tax exemptions and other perks, feed from the public trough.
But, what he opposed, he said, was the wording of the bill that was up for decision in the election. And, I agree to some extent. Passing legislation by plebiscite is simply the wrong way to go about things, for public policy needs to be thoroughly vetted before it is placed on the statute books. The nutty thing, however, is simply that he lacks the imagination to see that palliative care is simply not enough. Why can’t people see this? And why can they not see that assisted dying should not be only about people who have terminal illnesses that will cash themselves in within a prescribed period? Compassion and Choices in the US, and Dignity in Dying in the UK are the same in this respect. They seem unable to see that assisted dying needs to be extended to those whose lives have become intolerable to them, whether terminal or not. A terminal prognosis is simply the worst basis upon which to premise assisted dying legislation, for it assumes that terminality in itself is a necessary condition for interminable suffering that only death can end, and it suggests, beyond that, that people who have a terminal prognosis are all eligible candidates for assisted dying, thus satisfying the slippery-slope conditions that so many people say they fear. Of course, saying that all are eligible does not say that all must, but it maps out a class of people whose lives may be seen to be, by definition, intolerable, and that is unsatisfactory. Many people die in peace. Dying is not a terrible experience for everyone, and having a terminal prognosis is not, as I say over and over again, and should not be, a necessary condition for someone to seek to die. Assistance in dying should be possible for people like my Elizabeth, or Tony Nicklinson, or Diane Pretty, Gloria Taylor, or Sue Rodgriguez (they’re all searchable names on the internet). Why is it so hard for people to see this?
However, back to bishops. Bishop McManus pretends to be an expert on these things, just because he is a bishop, and bishops preside over the morality of their “flock” (as Christopher Hitchens said, about any religion which thinks of its people as a flock — and bishops don’t carry a shepherd’s crook for nothing — you already know enough) — these are not good reasons for thinking of them as moral authorities, and yet even non-religious people genuflect in their direction and presume that they really know. As is usual with bishops, McManus thinks that the proposed law was unacceptable because it was, in his view, simply poorly drafted (which is why this is a bad way to make law). In other words, he sought out the least contentious reason to dissent from it, when his real reasons were all religious at their heart, and should not govern what laws may say.
But the things that he picks out are of marginal importance. He complains that terminal prognoses may be wrong. Doctors are not infallible. Well, what do you know?! And yet the good bishop doubtless thinks that he is in close contact with someone who he thinks is infallible in certain respects. No, prognoses are not infallible, and many people thought to be terminal within a few months are alive many years later. This is another good reason not to make terminality a necessary criterion for assisted dying. This is not, despite what people think, why people choose to die before their diseases kill them, which may take many years. They choose to die because life, even lives which may have many years of their “natural” course yet to run, can become intolerable. Just ask Tony Nicklinson.
But McManus is not the only nut case bishop. I have already expressed myself about Archbishop Rowan Williams. The things that he has said about assisted dying and gay marriage are just stupid, to my mind. But I am no more enamoured of his successor to be, Justin Welby, a man of privilege and connexion in Britain who was converted later in life by the Alpha Course, a sub-Christian evangelical brain-washing curriculum that was starting to become the rage in the Diocese of Nova Scotia in the 1990s, and which was the writing on the wall for me. A church that could accept and recommend the Alpha Course was and is, to my mind, a church that is willing to go downmarket just to sell its brand of Christianity. It has no intellectual substance, and merely pushes belief for its own sake. The logo of the Alpha Course, which is a religious pressure-cooker, and dismisses as only formally Christian those who do not have the Alpha Course experience of the Holy Spirit, is a little man lugging around a huge question mark, too heavy for him. Alpha promises to take the weight of your questioning away. You have to know that anything that makes this kind of promise has to be a fake. Life’s questions are as much individual as they are general, and are only answered by living. Sometimes there simply are no answers. That the new Archbishop of Canterbury is a product of this course is enough to dismiss him sight unseen, though he has already given sufficient reason to dismiss him as simplistic, intellectually negligible, and, whatever his achievements in the financial sector, religiously still a child.
In one article about the archbishop elect (appointed, rather, for bishops are not elected in England, nor, of course, in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches), we are told the following:
Conservatives see a man who really believes in God. You would think that was a pre-requisite for the job, but the Church of England has a decades’ long reputation for theological wooly-mindedness [sic]. Right wingers here think that is the reason the established church only has around a million regular worshippers. They are wrong, of course. But Welby does mark a break from the sense that those who preceded him in St. Augustine’s chair had lost the ability to speak clearly about Christian belief, as Britain has gone from a mono-cultural to a multi-ethnic and sectarian society.
How far this idea has taken hold could be seen yesterday, when he was asked by Channel 4 News host Krishnan Guru-Murthy if he really believes in the Virgin Birth. Without hesitation or a smile at the insulting nature of the journalist’s question, Welby replied, “I can recite the Creed without crossing my fingers at any point.” Asked if he believed that Jesus was physically resurrected, he said without any hint of doubt, “Yes.”
That “Yes” is straight out of the Alpha Course, and whereas people may prefer this to the woolly mindedness of previous ABCs, the woolly mindedness at least prevented them from saying such out-and-out ridiculous things. To be able to recite the creed without qualification shows that you are lost in a past so far back that you really can’t find your way around in the present, at least so far as religious belief goes. Welby may know lots about the business world, but his theology is slightly older than that of Augustine, who at least had some appreciation of the figurative possibilities of religious language. His will not be a Sophisticated Theology™ in Jerry Coyne’s sense, but a pretty demotic, conventional kind of empty-headed believing, so that, despite his being an old Etonian, and able to walk with kings, he obviously has not lost the “common touch.”
People think that, having been an oil company executive, he will be able to walk the corridors of power, and that may be true. He already sits on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. The hope is that he will be able to inject more Christian priorities into public policy. But a man who says, of gay marriage, that he will continue to examine the issue “prayerfully and carefully,” is a man who is committed simply to putting people off the scent with a little piece of religious bric-a-brac. Thinking about things prayerfully and carefully is a polite way of saying no, almost always, and does not, as the reporter of the article thinks, indicate flexibility. It is a way of being inflexible in a socially acceptable way. “I’m praying about it,” simply says, “I can’t get my mind around this, but I’m working at it,” which means that he isn’t working at it at all.
I feel about Welby as I thought about George Carey, who was appointed to Canterbury when Elizabeth and I were touring Britain, that he will probably be a bit of a disaster for the old C of E, perhaps not quite so much a disaster as Carey, because Carey was, after all, a bit déclassé, and has subsequently shown himself to be such. He wanted so much to be liked, and did, as was reported in the newspapers at the time, make forays out from his moated palace at Wells to greet people and bathe in the sunshine of his new appointment, though he was not around when we visited Wells. I did read one of his books, though, at the time — even bought it at the Wells Cathedral bookshop – and was appalled at the Sunday School faith that it revealed. The man simply refuses to grow up, and this, I fear, will be the case with Welby too. And he’s only in his fifties, so the C of E will be stuck with him for a decade or more.
But it is inevitably so. The church, just like the mosque, will always be drawn back to its roots, and it will, therefore, shrink to the right, towards the simplest and most intellectually unsophisticated version of itself — often its most belligerent version as well. Meanwhile, of course, they will do as much damage as they can to the public life of those places where they are particularly active, for despite repeated claims that religion is the soul of community, religion is far more likely to bring division than it is to bring unity and amity. Why the religious cannot themselves see this is beyond me, for, set up a number of churches or other religious establishments in the same town, and there will be a fierce competition for membership, one trying to outdo the other. The most successful one will tend to preside over “ecumenical” events, and will be thought to be most morally wise when it speaks to the issues of the day. Religion is just nutty, and should not have the large footprint in society that it continues to enjoy.