Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 20th July 2014
20 July 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
A couple of days ago Lord Falconer introduced his private members bill on assisted dying in the House of Lords and some 130 peers indicated that they wished to speak. The debate, just across the road, which lasted around ten hours produced a variety of heart-felt opinions. The bill passed its second reading without a vote, and will now be examined line-by-line as it passes to the committee stage.
The Archbishop of Canterbury had referred to it as 'mistaken and dangerous' and former High Court judge Baroness Butler-Sloss said the proposed safeguards were 'utterly inadequate'. On the other hand, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of inter-faith leaders for Dignity in Dying, an alliance of clergy of different faiths in favour of assisted dying, supported archbishop George Carey's positive view for the bill by saying his words are like a breath of fresh air sweeping through rooms cloaked in theological dust that should have been dispersed long ago.
Overshadowing all this, the government has already commented 'that any change to the law in this emotive and contentious area is an issue of individual conscience and a matter for parliament … rather than government policy.' So if the bill progresses successfully through the House of Lords, later this year it will go to the House of Commons, where lawmakers will be allowed to vote according to their consciences.
Throughout the history of Christianity, and indeed democracy, individual conscience has shaped our understanding of 'right' and 'wrong', 'truth' and 'error'. When we speak of 'conscience' we usually refer to that 'inner voice', telling us that a course of action is right and should be done or wrong and not be done. And yet it does more than declare rightness or wrongness. It lays a certain moral obligation on us to heed its call.
>My text for this morning speaks of how we should keep our conscience clear. How can we do this? Well, firstly we need to recognise that the true voice of conscience isn't just personal opinion or conviction. The debate on assisted dying is characterised on all sides by genuine desire to do the right thing—motivation that requires a certain level of maturity of conscience. The distinctive Christian dimension to this lies in the fact that Christian character is coloured and shaped by faith. Faith, of course, is the gift of the Holy Spirit, through whose gentle power it grows to maturity. It is a gift given to us by the Church. As St Paul reminds us, 'faith comes from what is heard'. (Romans 10: 17)
In saying this, the Church isn't just the House of Bishops or the General Synod, it is first and foremost a community where its teaching is tied up with the nature of the Church as the People of God, formed by the Word and shaped by apostolic tradition. So how we live in community helps set our moral character and shapes the Christian way of life. We should also recognise that others, who don't share the Christian story, may make similar judgments and choices, but they do so out of a different value system and in a different style. Although as Christians we don't have ready-made answers to moral problems, our faith and conscience should colour our decisions and lead us to make decisions that are in accordance with the Gospel.
Let me give two examples. Firstly, Blessed John Henry Newman's famous hymn Lead Kindly Light is a mirror reflecting his core teaching on the importance of the formation of conscience. He recognised that it is not always clear how to interpret the lead of the beckoning 'kindly inner light'. Even when we have prayed for guidance, consulted the scriptures, sought wise council, or familiarised ourselves with the Church's teaching we can be mistaken about God's will. As an Oratory Father, writing a confidential letter to Henry Wilberforce, Newman admits with characteristic humility:
'I have wished earnestly to do some good work … and have to the best of my lights, taken what I thought God would have me do—but again and again, plan after plan, has crumbled under my hands and come to nought.' (Letter, 20th August, 1869)
Newman recognised that a mature adult conscience is characterised by the taking of responsibility for one's own decisions, and those one makes on behalf of others. This doesn't necessarily need a highly developed speculative intelligence or an advanced education. Rather, what's vital is a commitment to living the good life, coupled with the desire to 'internalise' the voice of conscience, so at least we're aware that this is truly our own judgment, and not just somebody else telling us what we should do.
Secondly, I finish with two fundamental questions. The first is: Can assisted suicide be a matter of individual conscience? Brendan McCarthy, Medical Ethics Adviser to the Archbishops' Council, who incidentally was speaking this morning on Radio 4, makes the important point that the Church of England respects the right of every individual to hold his or her own views on religious and ethical matters, stressing that it doesn't seek to impose its opinion on its members or on others outside the Church. As a responsible body within society, it does however comment on ethical issues, seeking to inform individuals and to contribute to national debates. Assisted suicide, by its very nature, involves more than individuals who wish to die; as such, it is reasonable for the Church to examine the implications of assisted suicide for society.
The second is this: Is the Church of England's broad opposition to assisted suicide based on religious conviction? While the Church of England believes that there are some specifically theological reasons for opposing assisted suicide, it doesn't argue, on that basis, that assisted suicide ought to remain illegal. The Church's opposition to a change in the law is based on principles that people with varying religious convictions or none may hold. These principles include affirming life, caring for the vulnerable, building a caring and cohesive society, and respecting every individual member of society.
So why should non-religious people listen to what the Church has to say? Well, the Church is part of society and as such, both the Church and individual Christians have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else to contribute to the debate on assisted suicide and to state what sort of society they want to live in. The Church doesn't expect to be heard simply because it is the Church, but because it believes that its arguments are worth respecting and that an informed conscience is all important.
At the end of the day, deeper and fuller initiation into the mystery of Christ and the truths of the faith should go hand in hand with the continuing development of personal maturity. This is an ongoing task that calls us all to be ever mindful of our conscience and open to the informed views of others.