13 July, 2014

Homily on Assisted Suicide - Psalm 90:12

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 moral 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.

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