Well, That Didn't Take Long

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Sometimes people who oppose assisted suicide argue that the safeguards will fall away, and the conditional clauses get lost, and the financial pressures will grow, and the most vulnerable will be lumped in, consent or not, with the terminal who wish to die. Sometimes the speed with which ‘maybe’ becomes fact is breathtaking. Sometimes being right is no joy at all…

According to the National Post of Canada, in its consideration of the assisted suicide debate, Belgium now has gone further and approved the termination of life for doctors, not just in cases of oppressive pain with death in sight, but also ‘autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression.” (Atlantic article by Rachel Aviv, as quoted by Andrew Coyne, April 18, 2016). In other words, why should the unhappy need still be here? What justification is there for that?  

I come from the academic world, where everything is to be debated, most things have two sides, opinions should be left open. But here the mask is off. The nihilism and brutality are clear. What is at stake in terms of the vision of the human person is clear. Only the fit are fully worthy to live. The word ‘eugenics’ is appropriate to use. Suffering is the enemy and those who experience it have the responsibility to have themselves removed.

I am not saying that there are not difficult dilemmas. I am not saying that there is not a grey area in which proper relief of pain may also shorten life. But Western societies are going way, way beyond these zones. And where they are headed can, in light of such evidence, cannot but have an implication for the nature of the lives all of us lead.

Are we there yet in the United States? No, but we had better get ready to set our face against this now. The brisk momentum of acceptance, of presumption of appropriateness, for decisions that are nowhere near appropriate, is a lesson in the doctrine of sin. As Coyne points out, quickly, the issue tells us how we are to see, not just death, but life. It epitomizes a worship of vitalism, of the healthy and strong who merit survival. It lays bare, as I say, the paganism of Western culture. And so this is an issue on which Christians should not be impartial or quiet.

Stanley Hauerwas has said that a society is gauged by its treatment of the most vulnerable, the child, the handicapped, the sick. Is this not the imperative of our Lord in Matthew 25? By this standard, the momentum of assisted suicide deserves a reaction of horror. Such a reaction is to be treasured and preserved, for it is on bulwark against a new and horrid like of society at large.

Good Disagreement

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As you know, in our wider Church, first the primates, and now the Anglican Consultative Council, have been endeavoring to find a way through strong disagreement while they continue to ‘walk together’ (the expression from the Windsor Report). Meanwhile, the Presiding Bishop will appoint a committee of Episcopal bishops, to include Communion Partner bishops, to talk about finding room for dissenting bishops within the fellowship of our own Church. (For this effort he is, to my mind, to be commended). I dare say that the same balancing act is found in its own way at the parish level.

On this topic I have been reading a book, edited by Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard, called Good Disagreement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church. I learned in their introduction that Charles Wesley turned to classic aphorism into the verse of a hymn:

Let all hold fast the truths whereby
A church must stand or fall;
In doubtful things grant liberty
Show charity in all.
Thus shall we to our sacred name
Our title clearly prove.
While even our enemies exclaim
‘See how these Christians love.’

We should enthusiastically assent to all what Wesley says, even as we are called to account by the last lines. At the same time, we realize that the exhortation has more to do with how we conduct disagreements than their actual resolution.   The reason is this: we need to determine which things are ‘stands of faith’ (over which the church stands or falls), which ‘doubtful things.’ And to determine this drives us back to the cases themselves. There are, in other words, few cases where we can apply a prior and more abstract rule to the specific debates that arise in the Church so that we can say, ‘this one is central,’ and ‘this one is doubtful.’ The disagreements recapitulate themselves.

One exception would be direct contradictions of claims of the Creed (though even here one may raise the case of someone like Bishop Spong who did exactly this with no consequences). These would indeed be instances where faith ‘stands or falls.’ (Though even here Eastern and Western Christians have fought- that is what the difference in the Nicene Creed between proceeding ‘from the Father’ or ‘from the Father and the Son’ is about). The real trouble arises when we realize that other issues may have implications impinging on larger issues. Cardinal Newman once said that a snip of a small artery can cause the whole body to bleed out- in other words, the body is one and issues are connected.

At the same time there is obvious truth in the aphorism. Each of our churches has its own liturgical quirks (I can assure you!) which we don’t think are reasons to avoid each other. (Though even here there was a time in the 19th century when Anglicans thought just this because of the implications of, say, reserving the sacrament for the nature of Holy Communion). But where does the obvious zone of taking a stand end and the zone of ‘whatever’ begin? Well, that brings us back to the cases themselves, and so back to the Bible, theology, and discernment themselves…

Given all this, does Good Disagreement… have anything to add?  Its best contribution is from Bishop Tom Wright on Paul’s treatment of reconciliation and disagreement. Debaters should not differ over abstract issues, and even the law vs. gospel dichotomy does not convey Christian contention well. Israel was to be reinterpreted in terms of the new, end-times Messiah, Jesus, and his Lordship over God’s creation and humankind. So the debate must revert to this new reality and its implications for the Church’s life. In short, disagreements must go back to Scriptural and theological first principles.   At the same time, for example in the series of new pastoral conundra of I Corinthians, disagreements must also display virtues also derived from Messiah Jesus himself, e.g. relenting from divisions (chapter 1), consideration of the poor (chapter 11), charity (chapter 15), or forbearance in light of the eschaton, etc. To the exhortation to theological exertion and such virtues answer disagreements over which the Church struggles? They do not. But they do describe a style of Christian disagreeing, which in itself cannot be discounted.



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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.