15 July, 2014

Assisted Suicide - A few resources

My Sunday homily against assisted suicide was received very well in the parishes; indeed, surprisingly a lot better than what I anticipated. St John’s worshippers were also pleased to receive a few copies of Archbishop Justin’s piece in The Times. As a result, I want to post a few links to people and organisations who are actively opposing Lord Falconer’s Bill, on so called “Assisted Dying”.

It is deeply regrettable that Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev’d Rosie Harper have also decided to publically support assisted suicide.

13 July, 2014

Homily on Assisted Suicide - Fourth Sunday after Trinity (A) 2014

Lord, ‘teach us to number our days
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’ (Psalm 90:12)
On Tuesday I was feeling very smug and I hinted to a parishioner that I had already written 90% of my homily for today, but unfortunately yesterday I felt I had to ditch that sermon in order to tackle another theme.

A debate has been taking place in Parliament about assisted dying. A Bill presented by Lord Falconer proposes to relax the existing law to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to patients of sound mind who have been given six months or less to live. The perceived aim of the Bill is to prevent needless suffering and to regulate what allegedly has been a long-established and unspoken practice of mercy killings. In this debate the Church of England has sided against relaxing the law and up until Friday all our bishops have been of one mind in upholding the teachings of the Church about end of life care. Unfortunately, Friday evening Lord Carey – whom many of you many have met here in 2010 – decided to break ranks and to cause havoc within the Church he once lead.

Lord Carey has reportedly changed his mind. Now he supports the proposed changes in the law, because as he sees it, the Church’s teaching could actually harm terminally ill individuals, asking them to suffer needlessly. He holds that instead the Church should use “compassion” in her teaching; probably meaning that feeling “compassion” should induce people to morally allow some sort of mercy killing.

Lord, ‘teach us to number our days
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’
'Mercy killing' might sound harsh, fair enough, but I think we really ought to call this proposed change in the law by its real name, assisted suicide, because all the other names – assisted dying, dignity in dying, right to die – are all sugar coatings and smoke screens for the real issue. “Assisted dying” and “dignity in dying” are activities with which Mother Teresa, and anyone who lovingly nurses the dying, are involved; deathmongering doctors, Swiss clinics, and their vocal supporters have no right of usurping these words comparing themselves to those who daily tend to the terminally ill with true compassion, suffering with them and facing tough moral questions.

Lord Carey’s affirmations are a betrayal under many aspects. First, he undermines his successor by getting his shocking and crowd-pleasing words published on the very same day in which the Times published an excellent piece by Archbishop Justin. Second, Carey betrays the teaching of the Church and of the Bible – which is a rather surprising thing coming from an evangelical of his weight. Third, Carey reinforces the silly but very popular idea that personal feelings (especially feelings of pain and pleasure) are the only actual way to judge whether or not a life is worth living. Finally, Carey paints a picture in which reasoning through theology and Christian ethics does not count for anything in the face of strong feelings and especially in the face of pain.

But so be it. Let us put aside any theological argument against assisted suicide, and let us confront Carey on secular grounds. If Parliament were to endorse assisted suicide the flood-gates would be open and in a few decades society’s conscience would be so thwarted that individuals wanting to stick around until their natural expiry date will be considered a pain in the neck, and scroungers who consume limited, valuable resources and NHS money.

A representative of Scope, a national disability charity, writes on their website 
‘This Bill is all about looking at disabled people and saying ‘I’d rather be dead than be like you’. Disabled people hear this all the time – including me.’
‘Lord Falconer’s Bill is based on the one they use in Oregon, USA. There, 40% of those requesting to end their life do so because they feel a burden on friends and family.’
Concerns about vulnerable people, the elderly, and the severely disabled have been flagged up everywhere, not just by religious leaders, but also – and perhaps more importantly – by charities that have made true compassion their main driving force.
This is not scaremongering. These are serious, tangible causes of concerns and the Church should stand her ground for the protection of life, and the messiness of it all – whatever personal feelings on the matter might be.

Lord, ‘teach us to number our days
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
The words of Psalm 90 should speak to us to remind us that the brevity and uncertainty of life is something inseparable from how we experience the world. If we try to sanitise death by making it nice and neat we would place a tremendous burden on the most vulnerable who daily remind us of the messiness of life through their pain and needs. These words from the psalm should remind us that amidst sufferings and the temptations to take decisions based merely on our feelings, we ought to apply our hearts to wisdom considering the dangers, entering into constructive dialogue about the nature of care, and pursuing true compassion.

So I leave you with some words from Archbishop Justin,
Compassion is not simply a feeling; it is a commitment to sharing in the suffering of others while trying to alleviate it. True compassion can be shown through care, through expending time and resources on those suffering and through offering hope even in the darkest of circumstances.

07 July, 2014

Homily for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles 2014

Matthew 16:13-19

I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. (16:18)
Fifteen years ago a Hollywood B movie called Dogma created a bit of a stir in religious communities. The plot was centred on two fallen angels’ attempt to get back into heaven by exploiting an apparent loophole in the divine law. These characters, Bartleby and Loki, played by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, are barred from heaven but they believe they can return in a very easy way, thanks to the misplaced trust that God has for human beings. All they have to do is to walk through the door of a particular church to which the pope has attached the complete remission of sins, thereby being forgiven on the spot and allowed back into the heavenly realm. Bartleby summarises his legalistic plan with these words, 
‘One of the last sacred promises imparted to Peter by the Son of God before He left was "Whatever you hold true on earth I'll hold true in Heaven." So if the Pope says it is so, God must adhere. It's dogmatic law.’
Well, as shallow and ridiculous this interpretation of Scripture may be, I believe that the screenwriters behind Dogma got something right – the trust which Jesus places in the Church. In our gospel reading we see this promise of trust made by Jesus to St Peter.

Now, there are a variety of ways for reflecting on these words of Jesus that all too often depend on denominational interpretation of the Bible and on churchmanship, but I would like to suggest to you is another approach; considering the words of Jesus as part of a "divine tradition", as part of God’s tried and tested way of involving people into his work. 

Throughout Scripture we read of men and women who received invitations by God to collaborate with him; calls not just to obey and worship him, but also to extend his salvation to all; on his behalf, as it were. Adam and Eve, called to work within creation; Noah, called to save creation; Abraham, called to be the father of nations and of countless believers; Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, called to lead God’s people to freedom; Paul, called to build up the Church he once tried to destroy; and probably the chief example of all, Mary, called to give her entire self so that God might become God-with-us, the Immanuel. God invited these people (and innumerable more beside) to join his work of salvation; on all of them God has taken a risk; more importantly, in all of them God has placed his trust.

Today Jesus speaks to Peter and says, I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. In these words we hear God who always entrusts all that He is to human hands. Through Peter this promise is extended to the whole church, making the church community, that is you and I, into the new meeting place between God and creation, between heaven and earth.

Noah, Abraham, Mary, and especially Peter and Paul who we celebrate today… in every generation God has trusted humanity with His work, He has risked all by inviting humanity to join his mission. He trusts also in me and you; entrusting all that He is to our poor, often hesitant, fragile hands.

God knows that we are not capable to love as well as he loves; He knows that, like Peter and Paul, we quarrel with one-another and that we are often reluctant to meet together amidst our differences. Yet God trusts us enough to take the ultimate risk with us. Then, when we hear Jesus saying, I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, we should ask ourselves what excuses do we have for remaining cold and indifferent towards the work of salvation entrusted to us? What excuses do we have for saying to God, ‘Thank you for the vote of confidence, Lord, but I’m not interested’?

A few words used at ordination services up and down the country in these days around Petertide may speak to us all, not just to clergy; they go like this, 
‘We bid you remember the greatness of the trust that is now to be committed to your charge… you cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only with the grace and power of God’.
May Ss Peter and Paul pray for us, that we may be generous and courageous in honouring the trust God has placed in our hands. Amen.

15 June, 2014

Pastoral Reflection - Praying the Rosary

The Romish Doctrine concerning … invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’ Art. XXII
There is an innate suspicion about the intercessory prayer of saints in the many parts of the Anglican Church. This suspicion has sometimes degenerated into outright hate for the communion of saints and for the Catholic tradition of the Church. However, time and again few individuals have tried to reconcile Anglicanism with the ‘invocation of saints’ – a good example being Bl. John Henry Newman’s Tract 90, where he formulates a reply to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. 

One of the most criticised Catholic forms of prayer is the Rosary. This Marian prayer par excellence involves the constant repetition of the Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, and other prayers as arranged around the structure of fifteen mysteries of faith. Interestingly, an Anglican from of the Rosary has been proposed in certain church environments aimed at keeping the repetitive nature of the prayer whilst casting out the Catholic tradition. The result is not very inspiring. If literal reading of Scripture is all that matter in prayer, than the ‘Jesus Prayer’ might be more appropriate and less convoluted.

In my personal experience, praying the Rosary is a very powerful tool for intercession; the repetitive rhythm of the Rosary allowing prayer for specific people and situations to come to the fore, whilst encouraging contemplation of the mysteries of faith. In this sense, the Rosary allows me to stretch out the needs of those from whom I pray on the canvas of the fifteen mysteries – from its beginning, to its final completion and crowing, the story of redemption forms both the solid foundation and the backdrop to intercessory prayer. I have experienced great comfort in entrusting worries to God in this way. Moreover, very far from being some sort of idolatrous distraction, the prayers of Mary, sought repeatedly in the Rosary, have contributed greatly to strengthen my trust in God’s care for all. In the Rosary, Mary is not only Mother of God, but a sister to the faithful, journeying with us toward the fulfilment of redemption.

As a side note, I ought to add that reciting the Rosary in public, for example whilst walking in the parish, is a good tool for mission, as it recalls people to being prayerful, breaking down the stereotype that prayer is only done in private or in church.

09 June, 2014

Pastoral Reflection - Funeral Visits

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.’ Romans 12:15
Funeral visits can be awkward situations at the best of times. They are one of the few situations in life when a family group may allow a complete stranger in their midst, and perhaps open up to him their most personal hurts, their intimate sense of loss, and the reality of their familial dynamics. Because of this, each visit (even with the same family) is different from the next and it requires a good degree of spiritual preparation. Each visit is also an occasion for extending to the bereaved God’s love for them – not necessarily through words, but also through demonstrating genuine concern, attention, and care of details.
Only in a limited number of occasions one gets to visit faithful and committed Christians. In the vast majority of cases the bereaved have very, very little experience of the Church, little knowledge of the faith, and a few strongly held ideas of what “the vicar” should do, say, or look like. However, I do not think that lack of Christian commitment presents itself necessarily as a challenge; rather it is an encounter between God and people’s sufferings – only once, for example, I was asked by an angry relative of the deceased to ‘cut out’ the Lord’s Prayer and all that nonsense; but even there I do think that their request was an expression of grief and resentment towards a God they did not know (I did not accommodate their request). No, I do think that the more difficult problems that can arise during funeral visits straddle both side of the Christian/non-Christian divide. These issues spill over into the funeral rite itself.  
As far as I can see, the three main problems with funeral visits are (a) lack of pastoral relationship with the bereaved and/or the deceased; (b) a vague expectation that the funeral rite would be only “mildly” religious; and (c) a creeping misunderstanding of what the faith teaches about death and "the last things".  
Problem (a). This issue might be associated with densely populated areas but it is a feature of other ministry settings as well. The causes of this problem are many – not the least, the numerical decline of full-time parochial clergy. One cause however, directly linked to funeral planning is represented by the all-encompassing figure of the funeral director. Families (and sometimes clergy as well!) tend to rely too heavily on funeral directors even for liturgical and pastoral aspects of the service, de facto rendering the figure of the priest akin to any other professional wheeled in at the right time to perform a specific task – in short, the priest risks becoming another piece of the puzzle.  
Problem (b). A “mildly” religious funeral service may come as a request from religious and non-religious families alike. The first group may be concerned about not embarrassing unchurched mourners, whilst the second group might be unwilling to endorse a religious (or metaphysical) system they do not believe in. The example about the Lord’s Prayer given above is a testimony to this. As other examples, Funeral Masses are ditched in favour of “simpler” services, and the dead are accompanied on their last journeys to the sound of regrettable music choices, rather than to the words of Scripture.
Problem (c). “She is my guardian angel; she’s in heaven with her husband looking down on us…” This hypothetical phrase reflects the sentiments and the beliefs of many bereaved. People may not be particularly religious, but they often have about sense of afterlife (even something simple but strongly held, built out of Sunday school teachings, love, and popular culture). This forms an important source of strength in the days surrounding the funeral. However, these beliefs can be a double-edged sword during visits for both Catholic and Evangelical clergy. The priest will need to pay utmost attention in listening to the family as they articulate their beliefs, without judging. Prayer, worship, and follow-up relations will offer occasions in which to outline the faith with all charity, but funeral visits are certainly not the best occasion to “confront” the bereaved.
All three of these problems cannot be solved within the context of the visit, but they can be addressed by the priest after the funeral. Follow-up visits, requiem services, or correspondence, can be occasions where the pastoral relation between the priest and the flock is reinstated, or established, outside the tight confines of planning for a funeral.  
As a coda, I include the pattern I follow for gathering information about the deceased. Obviously, other questions and occasion for digressions on the life of the deceased will be prompted during this exercise. This outline provides only the essentials.  
  • Was the deceased Baptised? Confirmed?  
  • Was s/he actively involved in the church? (or other denomination?)  
  • Family members to do eulogy?  
  • Family members to write eulogy?  
  • Give a brief history including DoB, place of birth, parents, siblings.
  • Where did s/he grow up? What was their childhood like?  
  • Where did s/he go to school?  
  • Did s/he marry? When and where? Children and grandchildren?
  • Significant life accomplishments.  
  • Any professional and career accomplishments?
  • Personal interests, hobbies, achievements. 
  • Character qualities, Christian service, and how s/he affected other lives.

O Jesus, living in Mary,
Come and live in thy servants,
In the spirit of thy holiness,
In the fullness of thy might,
In the truth of thy virtues,
In the perfection of thy ways,
In the communion of thy mysteries.
Subdue every hostile power
In thy spirit, for the glory of the Father. Amen.