Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The ex-archbishop and the disabled

George Carey was the last but one archbishop of Canterbury. He hit the headlines on Saturday by performing a volte-face on assisted suicide in an article in The Daily Mail. Some speculated that it was a deliberate attempt to steal the thunder from the present incumbent who was about to achieve a notable break-through in the matter of welcoming women bishops without splitting the Church of England. I don't subscribe to that view. I believe, though I've never met him, that Lord Carey is well-intentioned.

I understand that he can be stubborn. However I do wish he had listened what the disabled community is saying. Not Dead Yet sums it up simply.


"The key messages we want to get across are
  • We are deeply concerned that a change in the law will lead to disabled people – and other vulnerable people, including older people - feeling under pressure to end their lives.
  • The issue tells us a lot about public attitudes towards disabled people.
  • Why is it that when people who are not disabled want to commit suicide, we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to commit suicide, we focus on how we can make that possible?
  • We believe that the campaign to legalise assisted suicide reinforces deep-seated beliefs that the lives of sick and disabled people are not worth as much as other people’s. That if you are disabled or terminally ill, it’s not worth being alive.
  • Disabled people want help to live – not to die."
I was sufficiently disturbed to send him an email. I'm not surprised that I've had no reply, but I don't like to waste my efforts. So here, suitably edited, is what I wrote.

Dear Lord Carey

No doubt you are receiving a blitz of correspondence at the moment!  But I hope you will take time for this one.

I'm the youngest son of your predecessor but one at St Nick's in Durham, John Wenham.  Indeed I was born while he was vicar there.  Now I have Motor Neurone Disease (PLS variant).  I don't know how long I have to live, but know the sorts of things that lie ahead for me and my family.  I am now utterly dependent on my wife for my survival and for my day-to-day needs.  

I have consistently admired your doughty defence of the Christian values underpinning our society.  So I was sad to hear on the news last night of your intervention in the assisted suicide debate.  Clearly I don't know what Damascene experience you had to change your mind, whether it was meeting Tony Nicklinson or other experiences in your pastoral ministry.  When I met Tony Nicklinson for a morning, I came away immensely saddened that he was unwilling to recognise the love with which he was surrounded, both from his wife and daughters and from his carers.  His life was limited, but it had great value - as does all life.  Of course, neither he nor Paul Lamb would have been helped were Lord Falconer's bill to pass into statute, with its attempted safeguards.  That would come later if Lord Falconer's Commission on Assisted Dying saw its implied conclusion fulfilled: 'we do not consider that it would be acceptable to society at this point in time to recommend that a non-terminally ill person with significant physical impairment should be made eligible' (emphasis mine).  As a terminally ill person with significant physical impairment but with hopefully more than six months to live maybe I'll be next in line.  You cite Tony and Paul as evidence for necessary change.  Would you want to legislate also for cases such as theirs?

In your article you write movingly about our Lord's compassion for the suffering around him.  However I see him only offering healing and enhanced quality of life to those he met, never death.  Can it be the Church's role to advocate suicide instead of care to the end?  Isn't that what compassion really means - suffering alongside?  Would Jesus ever have abrogated the sixth commandment, which means, I understand, killing intentionally or through carelessness or negligence?  It seems to me that we are much more faithful to Jesus when we are involved in healing diseases and in palliative care.  

I don't doubt that Lord Falconer, the folk at Dignity in Dying and yourself are motivated by pity for those in pain, which is of course good. But there is also a strong agenda for personal autonomy, the right to choose.  As Terry Pratchett put it, 'My life, my death, my choice.'  Life, and death, is more than that though, isn't it?  Rights go with responsibilities.  If my insisting on my right endangers others in any way, then I must forego my right. 

I could write more about the ambiguities of the 'safeguards' in the bill, but I will simply urge you to hear the voice, in the debate, of those who see the dangers of opening this particular door for the disabled, the elderly and powerless vulnerable.  I hope you might consider, if not voting against the bill, abstaining and recommending an official royal commission to consider all the issues of end-of-life care, before the pressures of austerity and emotion push us into a position which we later come to regret.

Yours sincerely 

I was chatting on line to psychologist friend yesterday, and she said: "These things occur to me: 1. Many psychotherapeutic approaches theorise about the threat to our sense of self posed by death (a threat which exists regardless of our physical health state). It seems to me that this Bill is actually an unconscious response to this fear (dressed up as something very different!). However, in my experience, avoiding and bypassing fear will only increase it. This, I think, is the connection to 'the slippery slope'; 2. It is premised on something falsely believed to be absolute (6 months' prognosis); 3. It does not, as you point out, provide an understanding of the complexity of informed consent which is so dependent on many factors...social, societal, emotional, physical, intellectual etc...." Nicola's first point was new to me and rings true. Trying to avoid the fear of death by bypassing it will only reinforce it.

The Bill is debated on Friday. I guess that's the time for all the faithful to get praying and all the mobile to get protesting.

Finally something I heard yesterday about our approach to suffering: "Pain is inevitable; misery is optional." We don't have to choose misery and pessimism whilst facing the reality of pain. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

What's wrong with the Falconer Bill?


On Sunday I was asked for my views on ex-archbishops endangering the lives of disabled and ill people. Well, it was the World Cup and I needed a day off; so I promised something on Monday. (Sorry - missed my deadline!) And this, I hope, will be it. Actually rather than knocking two well-meaning old codgers, I think I’ll write about about Lord Falconer’s deceptively innocuous-sounding bill on “assisted dying” whose second reading takes place in the House of Lords on Friday.

It’s summarised in Parliamentary business papers as “A Bill To enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own life; and for connected purposes.” 

A commentator summarised its contents like this: “His bill would make it legal for doctors to help mentally competent adults with less than six months to live to kill themselves. Two doctors would need to agree that a patient met the criteria and the option would not be open to minors, people without mental capacity or those who are not terminally ill.
“The final step would involve a doctor (or nurse) hand-delivering lethal drugs to the patient at a time and place of their choosing and staying with them while they took the drugs and until they were dead.”

I’m indebted also to Peter Saunders for the following three headings. He is not to blame for the comments thereafter, which are mine.

It’s unnecessary
The law
The present Suicide Act makes it illegal to aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, with a maximum penalty of no more than 14 years in gaol. The law is hedged round with safeguards such as prosecutions being carried out only by the Director of Public Prosecutions (within compassionate guidelines) and all the processes of jury trial and appeals. The law as it stands enshrines absolutely the protection of life, but allows the leeway of public interest and compassion, in other words, Portia’s principle of justice and mercy. The fact that in the 53 years since the Suicide Act was passed there has been no contentious court case is evidence that it’s not a bad piece of legislation.

End of life care
An aunt-sally propagated by the assisted-suicide lobby is that at present many doctors in fact covertly kill their terminally ill patients. I think they refer to the double effect of ceasing treatment or administering drugs with the intention of mitigating symptoms and alleviating pain. There is a category difference between that intervention and what the bill proposes (from understandable motives). A doctor friend of mine commented yesterday:
Desmond Tutu, as quoted..., is completely misunderstanding the issue of assisted dying and my worry is that the bill will be passed based on these misunderstandings.
“Scenario 1) A person is terminally ill. It is their time to die and further treatment is futile and unnecessarily prolongs suffering (e.g. Repeated courses of chemotherapy, or the intensive care treatment of Nelson Mandela described in this article). We don't need a change in law for this. We need sensible, compassionate care.
“Scenario 2) A person is terminally ill and has a 'settled wish' to die. Two doctors therefore agree to end that persons life by way of administering drugs. This is what the bill proposes.” 

The accusation that palliative care specialists intend to kill their patients rather than ease their last hours has to my mind a hint of malice about it. 

Hippocratic oath v necessity
Nursing = caring
As I understand it, the aim of the bill is for health professionals (such as doctors and carers) to be allowed to take someone's life or to assist in their suicide: so for example allowing my doctor to administer a lethal injection at my request. That opens the door to doctors ceasing to be healers and carers, and becoming dealers in death. That is one of the most valuable safeguards in the DPP's Guidelines on Prosecution in respect of Assisted Dying, preventing health professionals helping someone taking their own life. I guess that's why the BMA is against a change in the law. As events proved, in Tony Nicklinson’s case for example, there was no necessity for a doctor to end his life. He could refuse treatment and ask for only symptom control and pain relief.

It’s unsafe
The bill itself
There are many aspects of the bill itself which are glaringly unsafe. For example the six month cut-off point: as any honest doctor will admit, such a precise prognosis is notoriously hard to make - witness the case of the “Lockerbie bomber” Al Megrahi being released having been given three months to live by the country’s leading cancer specialist, Professor Karol Sikora, and enjoying another three years of life back home. I know a number of people, such as the late Alison Davis, who are profoundly grateful that an early exit was not open to them, since they went on to live many more years of fulfilled life. For example the assessment of mental competence and settled desire simply by two doctors. There is no specifying of who the doctors should be, what their qualifications should be (for example psychiatrists). Presumably they would be doctors in favour of assisting death, and the prospect presents itself of the situation emerging in Holland of mobile euthanasia clinics with a couple of doctors ready to sign the necessary papers on board. For example, the requirement of informed consent. Does that mean being given a leaflet about local hospices, or palliative care packages? In my experience there’s no real alternative to visiting and staying in a place where you can experience care from the real experts.

Its implications
The proponents of assisted suicide often pillory the idea of a “slippery slope”. But experience shows it is unwise to do so. The Benelux countries and Switzerland (the only European nations with voluntary euthanasia) have witnessed a steady relaxation of the safeguards originally in place there. In the two US states where assisted suicide exists the number has steadily increased. Times of austerity (like the Depression of the 1930s) have seen a rise in euthanasia - see “Action T4” in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action_T4). Disturbingly one can hear hints of this in Desmond Tutu’s “But why is a life that is ending being prolonged? Why is money being spent in this way? It could be better spent on a mother giving birth to a baby, or an organ transplant needed by a young person. Money should be spent on those that are at the beginning or in full flow of their life.”

Peter Saunders’ comment is pertinent.The right to die can so easily become the duty to die and the generation that has killed its children through abortion could very easily become that which is killed by its children through euthanasia and assisted suicide. Add in economic crisis, debt, cuts in health and welfare and the argument gains force by playing on popular prejudice against those perceived to be a drain on families and the state.”

Lord Carey cited cases of permanently disabled people to explain his change of mind. Yet they of course are not covered by this bill. One see how inevitably the argument will be, “Why not these people?” “And why not teenagers younger than 18?” “Why not those with a longer-term terminal illness? Those with a chronic painful condition?” And so euthanasia is upon us. Disabled campaigners such as Tanni Grey-Thompson and Baroness Jane Campbell are clear in warning of this danger.

A further real danger is that of the disabled and chronically experiencing explicit or implicit or self-generated pressure to ask for euthanasia. Personally I think the last is the most likely, as the disabled, chronically ill and elderly seek to alleviate the expense and anxiety of those who care for them, whether family or state. And it would also be naïve to underestimate the amount of elder abuse in this country.

It’s unethical
Compassion
Stephen Hawking who like me has a rare form of MND not long ago propounded what I call the “pet theory”. It goes something like this: we have our pets put down when they’re suffering. Surely people deserve better than that? However it’s also true that we have them put down because they become incontinent, because their vet bills rocket and because, to be blunt, they’re no longer afford us pleasure. In other words, it’s more about us than the pet.

Compassion, it seems, is often confused with pity. The true and original meaning of compassion is to suffer with, to stay with someone in their pain and darkness. It doesn’t mean to put them out of their misery; it doesn’t mean concurring that their life has lost its value; it doesn’t mean euthanising them. That’s a cheap imitation of compassion. True compassion is costly emotionally and often financially.

Investment in universal best palliative care is the true expression of compassion, not the offer of a cocktail of barbiturates, which is a perversion of therapy. 

Defence of the vulnerable
"You are not a burden."
Another mark of a civilised society is its attitude to the weak and vulnerable. Eugenics gained traction in the early 20th century, wanting to produce healthy strong and racially pure men and women. The weak went to the wall. I'm not concerned for myself - although I don't look forward to the process of dying - but I am concerned for the vulnerable, the disabled who don't have a voice, for the elderly who are at risk through dementia or frailty - for those who are increasingly regarded as a burden on their families, on society, on our nation's resources. It's those people our laws should protect. Ironically Lord Falconer’s bill seems to me to be about people who are far from vulnerable. It’s about determined people concerned to maintain control over their lives come what may.

Rights
Rights only come with responsibilities. My right to life, or to death, can't be isolated. If my demanding the right to die endangers the lives of others, then my responsibility to them trumps my choice. You can’t have a community, you can’t have a society where each person insists on his or her rights. Rights, in my view, are not possessions. They are what we afford each other. The danger of this legislation is that it begins to remove the right to life of the many to accommodate the right to choose of the few.

Value of life
Neither is life a possession. Life is bigger than us. We are a part of life. We are granted a share in the adventure which is life. In financially straitened times, such as we are told we are now in, there is a real test on the horizon: what do we value more - money, or life? That will be the measure of our society. I know what I would prioritise.

The value of life was long ago encapsulated in a simple principle, “You shall not murder”, a word which includes intentional killing, and also from carelessness or negligence. In other words life, of whatever perceived “quality”, is precious and to be protected.

Lord Falconer’s bill, well intentioned though it may be, is in my view unsafe and opens the way to consequences which, though denied, are entirely logical extensions of the breach in this principle. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

An honest video testimony

Almost a year ago I met a gay Christian. It was not the first time that I'd met gay Christians by any means! However this encounter was crucial in the evolving of my views on the subject, as readers of this blog will be aware. I realised that it was my problem, not hers. People like me were the ones who inflicted pain and alienation on people like her, who left no room for her to be who she was in the family of the Church. My deep regret for that is why I now recommend things which help both gay and straight people hear each other.

A twenty-year old student and a sketch pad on a beach. Using simple cartoons, he recounts his upbringing as part of a loving Christian family. He goes through the usual children's and youth groups which are part of most churches. It is one evening at the youth group, that he plucks up the courage to raise a question that's been troubling him. He poses it about "a friend". "I've got a friend, and he's gay. What do I do?" After an awkward silence, he is told in no uncertain terms: "YOU CAN'T BE GAY AND CHRISTIAN". And of course he is his gay friend.

This is the beginning of a short documentary made by James Lawbuary called A Video Testimony, described as "The story of a simple man who was changed by an almighty God". Almost the entire film is shot over his shoulder as he vividly recreates his struggles with the tension created by the dogmatic assertion, which bore no gainsaying. His experience echoes that of many in his position - many tears, many prayers, isolation and alienation from any faith he had. I won't to spoil the plot, but the change of the tagline takes place unexpectedly on a beach one evening on a church weekend away. It is a dramatic encounter with Jesus himself who speaks to him. 

Only at the end of the film as James packs up his art equipment does he turn round and we see him walk away. It is as if he has found resolution and found himself. And we see him as a person, an ordinary young man like anyone else, and like everyone else made "in the image of God" and loved by Christ - as he is.

What is impressive about this film is its transparent honesty and its understated conviction. It has a lovely statement of the God's universal good news at its heart. Watch it here: A LGBT Video Testimony. I thoroughly recommend it. 

Monday, 30 June 2014

Competing at school

Thanks to my grandfather's accounting acumen, my father's vocation and a pinch of native wit, I was fortunate to receive a privileged education. My secondary school was one of the better public schools, Clifton College. It happened to be situated opposite Bristol Zoo. I had to remember to turn left rather than right along Guthrie Road on my way from home. The school owned a great deal of real estate in this exclusive residential area. Strikingly, much of it was playing fields and sports facilities.

Around the main school buildings was first Collins' Field where the highest score ever made in cricket (628) was scored by one A E J Collins in 1899. I used to pass the plaque on the back of the brick air raid shelter commemorating it twice a day. Then came The Close, the huge cricket field (rugby in winter) where the main matches were played. When school matches weren't on there was room for a number of practice games and nets on the expanse. But that wasn't all. A few blocks away there was New Field, smaller, but including a pitch, athletics track and pits, and three squash courts. Elsewhere on the premises were some fives courts, tennis courts, a rackets court, a small heated swimming pool and a large open-air pool. But that wasn't all. There was also a fleet of four (or five) coaches to transport us across the famous Clifton suspension bridge to Beggar's Bush, a prairie of pitches for practice and minor matches. Now on this site, I believe, are floodlit and all-weather pitches. And of course the school had its boathouse on the river towards Bath where the rowing took place.

Why do I bother to tell you this? Not because it made me a great sportsman. It didn't! But to point out what a fatuous criticism Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, made about sport in state schools. I think he blamed headteachers' failure to encourage competitive sports in their schools for there being a disproportionate number of élite athletes from independent schools. I have a long enough memory to recall state school playing fields being sold off for development by government edict, to make some money. Independent schools by contrast have bought property. Of course state schools would love to have facilities comparable to public schools', which would enable far more practice and far more competition. However it's more a matter of resources than will.

And by the way, Sir Michael, how many of our top footballers are public-school educated? I can think of one. Or perhaps you don't rate football as a sport.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Court discussions of life and death

I know it won't be the end of the story, but I was pleased, if not surprised, on Wednesday that the Supreme Court dismissed the appeals of Paul Lamb and Jane Nicklinson and upheld the DPP's appeal against "Martin's" demand for more definition about assisted suicide. Having met him I am aware of how painful and frustrating Tony Nicklinson's life had become, but demanding an effective change in the law to enable doctors to end life, in other words to legalise euthanasia, would be in my view to open the door to a world of danger to vulnerable people of all ages.

The spin put on the verdict by Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), I imagine, was that it was all about the Court saying Parliament must get on and clarify the issue (which 2 of the 9 judges said ought to be done now, 3 out of 9 said sometime, and 4 disagreed). After all Parliament has discussed it a number of times in the last ten years. In truth the judgement upheld the law as it now stands. However Lord Falconer is putting forward the second reading of a bill to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill people on 18th July in the House of Lords. That bill would not help people in Paul Lamb and the late Tony Nicklinson's situations, as it would apply only to people with a confirmed prognosis of less than six months, but its champions are keen on it partly because it would erode the principle of the sanctity of life enshrined in law.

Recently I was asked to write a short piece for a photographic exhibition. This what I wrote.

'“Everyone knows they’re going to die one day
 but society tries hard to duck it
 so we need stubborn truth-tellers who will sparkle and shout
before they kick the champagne bucket.”
 (Kate Fox on Kate Granger)

I imagine almost everyone who receives a diagnosis of a terminal condition experiences some moments of fear. I was no exception. I was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in the same year that Diane Pretty had died in the publicity of her court cases. I was under no illusion as to what MND meant. I knew it was life-limiting and life-ending. In particular I had fears about the manner of dying I could expect. These were fuelled by the campaign surrounding such people as Ms Pretty, which portrays those with similar conditions as 'sufferers' and 'victims' and drip-feeds horror stories to the media - with the effect of exacerbating public fear.

The campaign for assisted dying/suicide feeds on and fuels our fear – our natural fear of pain, of dying, of the unknown. It destroys hope and trust. And that is toxic to society.
The disabled, chronically ill and the elderly experience another fear – of being regarded as disposable burdens. Of course there aren’t yet calls for us to be 'put down', but it's not hard to see how that might be offered as a 'treatment' – saving medical and care costs.
Don't mistake me. MND, as a newly diagnosed friend recently observed to me, is a 'bugger', as are other neurological and terminal diseases. I suppose, for that matter, most dying is too - which of course none of us avoid.

In Yann Martel's remarkable novel, The Life of Pi, the turning point for the 16-year old Pi Patel, alone with the terrifying Bengal tiger, on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean
comes with a discovery.
'I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins with your mind, always....
'... Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.
'Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you've defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you' (chapter 56). It's as he accepts the tiger's presence, loses his fear and starts to befriend it that he discovers his ultimately successful survival strategy. 'And so it came to be: Plan Number Seven: Keep Him Alive.'

In her blog Dr Kate Granger addresses her advanced cancer. “Being positive though, through tear-filled eyes there are also some exciting things I really want to live for on the horizon. I’m not going to let you stop me achieving those goals.”

Call us “people with MND”, not “sufferers” or “patients”. We’re not victims. There is still life after diagnosis, however short or long. It’s still an adventure. We’re not dead yet.'

Monday, 28 April 2014

Pain in the offering - gay marriage and the Church

During my gap year in the late sixties I taught on the slopes of Mount Kenya. On arrival I was told not to be surprised. It was customary for students (in their late teens and early twenties) to go around holding hands with friends of the same sex. It was not long before I ceased to notice, it was so normal. However in England, for me holding hands was the first move of courtship; it was what you did when you were "going out" with a girl! There are different cultural norms to do with relations between the sexes. I start with this also to illustrate what a sexualised society ours is - so that we make all sorts of projections about partners, or home sharers, which may well be far from true, based on our own cultural conditioning or our imagination. 
I am returning to the issue of same sex marriage. I suspect that this will be my final post on the subject - at least for a while! But I need to write it having lain awake quite a bit last night with it on my mind. I apologise in advance as a lot of this will be derivative and will ask of you, dear reader, to follow links to secondary sources. My defence for that is partially a comment on my previous post, "I have no wish to spend money on books providing (what I see to be) wickedness. So if I'm to be persuaded, the new kids on the block have got to do the work and make their arguments available for free." Well, here are some free links, which no doubt will fail to convince my correspondent, but encourage me to consider that there may more than one valid interpretation of the Biblical evidence. More disturbingly for me one scholar with whom I occasionally correspond recently wrote, "I have been provoked by your latest blogs to read your recommended reading, as well as the Pilling report. I have had a look at the NT discussion in Renato Lings, Love Lost in Translation. I haven't yet got into Justin Lee’s Unconditional. As yet I remain as traditionally convinced as ever, though hopefully willing to find that I might be wrong, if I am!"

First, let me ask you to take a leap of empathy which I euphemistically described as "grim" to Jane. It asks you to imagine what the world must be like to a youngster who discovers she is different from the "norm". You need 20 minutes to watch this: Love is all you need? All right, it's fiction, but as the film-makers point out it is based on real incidents and, as a writer, I would say that good stories tell the truth, sometimes more than history. 


Secondly, here is a link to the highly respected evangelical Christian pastor and teacher, John Piper, and his account of how he went from a self-described racist to an adoptive father of an African American: I was a racist. My friend, Anita Mathias, writer and blogger (anitamathias.com), who drew my attention to it, commented, "society is often ahead of the church, and the church later catches up. Examples were colonialism, slavery and racism condoned by theologians. Society is ahead of the church in the environmental movement and in animal rights, though I have no doubt the church will catch up. Society was and is ahead of the church when it comes to feminism and equal rights for women. The church tends to be conservative and reactionary as an institution, though this is not true of every individual Christian, of course." Here are two quotes from the article, the first about the black woman who helped his mother with the cleaning, the second about the implications of the gospel.


"No, she was not a slave. But the point still stands. Of course, we were nice. Of course, we loved Lucy. Of course, she was invited to my sister's wedding. As long as she and her family 'knew their place'. Being nice to, and having strong affections for, and including in our lives is what we do for our dogs too. It doesn't say much about honor and respect and equality before God. My affections for Lucy did not provide the slightest restraint on my racist mouth when I was with my friends."

"I believe that the gospel—the good news of Christ crucified in our place to remove the wrath of God and provide forgiveness of sins and power for sanctification—is our only hope for the kind of racial diversity and harmony that ultimately matters. If we abandon the fullness of the gospel to make racial and ethnic diversity quicker or easier, we create a mere shadow of the kingdom, an imitation. And we lose the one thing that can bring about Christ-exalting diversity and harmony. Any other kind is an alluring snare. For what does it profit a man if he gains complete diversity and loses his own soul?"

I can sense some of my readers by now becoming irritated and saying, "But what about the Bible? What about what it says about homosexuality? It's plain as a pikestaff there." So, here, thirdly, is my next link, which although written by a young gay man is a fair summary of the alternative informed view of the proof texts usually adduced to condemn homosexuality. It's the transcript of an hour's lecture and so I am assuming that you, dear readers, would rather I did not reproduce it in full here, but leave you the freedom to read it at your leisure: Matthew Vines, The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality

However, I will reproduce the critique from the blog (http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/where I found the transcript. The reaction of the author, Rachel Held Evans, is near enough to my own for me to (mis)appropriate it!
"I confess I approached the lecture with some skepticism - not because I've never heard a strong case made for the affirming view, but because Matthew is so young and isn't exactly a biblical scholar. But I was impressed. I'm sure Matthew would be the first to acknowledge the scholarship is not his own, but the way he so carefully and skillfully puts together the argument is unique and effective. It's not perfect, but it's compelling and reasonable.
"And I confess that I always engage in these conversations 'wanting' the affirming view to make sense because of the many dear folks in my life who are gay and who I'm certain did not choose to be gay and who long to be faithful to Jesus but are understandably disheartened by the prospect of lifelong celibacy. So even though I grew up only hearing the traditional view, I have that bias based on new information about homosexuality and new relationships with people who are gay, and I'm not ashamed to admit that bias. Still, I don't want to believe something because I 'want' it to be true; I want to believe something because it 'is' true. So as a Christian committed to the authority of Scripture I've been working through these passages (and others) for a few years now, struggling to understand them better. And I confess to playing the devil's advocate in my head, no matter which perspective I'm reading. I really see both sides on this one....
"- What I like most about Matthew's presentation is that he deals with some of the lingering questions I always have after hearing the affirming view. His response to the challenge that 'all the Bible's references to homosexuality are negative', is, I think, a good one. That has always been a hang-up of mine, and while Matthew's response still leaves a question in my mind (why are there no positive examples of a homosexual relationships in Scripture?) it makes sense. I also think he responds well to the charge that gay Christians who don't want to be celibate are just trying to take the easy way out and are unwilling to commit to the sacrificial nature of following Jesus.
"- I really like Matthew's treatment of Romans 1, particularly regarding what is meant by 'natural' and 'unnatural' as they were typically used not only in Paul's writings but also in the broader culture. Having spent a good deal of time studying those head covering passages, I love that he shows the similarities between Paul's argumentation in 1 Corinthians 11 and in Romans 1. I also think his points about how homosexuality was generally perceived in the Ancient Near Eastern world (as a compulsion toward excess rather than an orientation) is worth considering. We don't fault the writers of the Old Testament texts for assuming that water was held above the earth by a sold firmament, so why would we fault them for assuming that gay sex was something heterosexual people did when they grew unsatisfied with their heterosexual partners? At what point do we allow the new information we have about sexual orientation affect how we understand the context and assumptions behind these texts?
"- Still, I'm wondering if the 'exchanging natural relationships for unnatural relationships' is a bit more general and less specific than Matthew indicates here - like that Paul is not referring to specific people denying their orientation but rather generally, to the acceptance of whatever sexual practices are referenced in that text.
"- I love what Matthew said about how we are actually being more faithful to the texts when we preserve some of the ambiguity of the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy passages. Why assume we know exactly what the authors were referencing there when we simply don't?
"- As for the conservative responses, I think the critique from Evan Lenow in the Christian Post article regarding the creation narratives is a reasonable one. He rightfully points out that the context of Adam and Eve as suitable partners is that of procreation, something I think Matthew overlooks.
"- However, I don't think Lenow's response to Matthew's treatment of Romans 1 is as strong. He sorta just defaults to the old 'this guy doesn't believe in the authority of Scripture' line rather than seriously engaging what I believe are strong arguments from Matthew regarding the context and language of Romans 1.
"- I would say the strongest point in Lenow's response is that the language used in the 1 Corinthians passages is very similar to that used in the Leviticus 18 passage, suggesting Paul may indeed have been referring to gay sex...a point Matthew fails to address in this lecture.
"- I think both sides could have spent a little more time on Jesus - addressing both his silence on homosexuality in particular and his comments on heterosexual marriage...as well as the general inclusive thrust of Jesus' teachings.
"- I would also love to see more people bring the biblical references to eunuchs into this debate, not because eunuchs are the same as LGBTQ people, but because they were notable sexual minorities in the day who were specifically condemned by OT law, and Jesus & the early church leaders were profoundly welcoming and inclusive of them.
"And then finally, I have to admit that Christian history really looms over this discussion for me. After reading Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, I've grown somewhat wary of the idea that whoever 'wins' with the most proof texts in this debate will be on the right side of history. You just can't read the quotations from southern preachers regarding the Bible and slavery and not see the similarities in the rhetorical style and approach. Honestly, if given the task of making a clear biblical case for the abolition of slavery, I'm not sure my arguments could hold up against those armed with Bible verses that appear to support slavery as an institution. (As we discussed a few weeks ago, many of the same passages once used to support slavery are still used to support the subjection of women.)"
On Rachel's point about Jesus, it is certainly true that he broke the conventions of his time by welcoming women among his close followers and learners, touching untouchables, having dealings with Samaritans and Gentiles and consorting with tax-collectors and notorious sinners. It was only recently that a friend suggested to me that it was quite likely that the centurion's "boy" (Greek pais) whose healing we read about in Matthew 8 and Luke 7 was the soldier's protegé lover. Such relationships were common in the Graeco/Roman world. (For a fuller account see "Jesus affirmed a gay couple".) Surprisingly the centurion escapes any censure but on the contrary is held up as a paradigm of faith.

It seems to me that there is a disjunction between the "traditionalists" and those wanting change. The traditionalists look at behaviours; the radicals look at relationship. The traditionalists concentrate on the sexual acts; the radicals emphasise lifelong commitment. They each see reality in a different way. As I read somewhere, "The heterosexual complementarity of the sexes’ functions is the conservatives’ ace in the pack over the progressives’ equally ontological argument that God created 'homosexual persons' in the 'image of God'."
Almost finally today I came across this article by a pastor of an American Vineyard church who found himself asking why we mostly have no problem welcoming and affirming divorced and remarried people in churches, when Jesus' teaching was on the face of it so clear about such relationships being adulterous. He reflected on C S Lewis's marriage to divorcée, Joy Davidman, which at the time the CofE would not allow: CS Lewis' marriage & the gay marriage controversy.
"Call me naïve, but I think there’s a third way for evangelicals in the gay marriage debate, and it’s a way that honors the Bible and the power of the gospel better than 'love the sinner, hate the sin' or 'open and affirming'. Whether or not it works is another matter. But I think it’s time to give it a try, especially if it could bear witness to a risen Lord better than the current rehashed moralism that we’re calling the gospel.
"If you are an evangelical pastor who has felt the same troubled conscience that I have over your exclusion of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, you might try what the pastor who married C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman did: ask Jesus what you should do and do that, come what may."
Penultimately, I heeded this acute observation on Rachel Evans' blog by a Kristen Rosser: "There's something distressingly clinical about 2 heterosexual people discussing the happiness and suffering of LGBT people as if they were case studies and not people. I don't think it's my place to determine whether, and to what extent, other people should be happy or should be allowed to suffer. Suffering is of no value in and of itself; if anyone suffers for the cause of Christ or in order to do good, it needs to be by their own choice and not because someone else determined that they should."

So what are my conclusions from all this?
• It is possible to hold different legitimate interpretations of the Biblical teaching on homosexuality.
• There is a difference between promiscuous sexual activity (whether straight or gay) and loving committed relationships (whether straight or gay).
• Singleness (or celibacy) is an individual calling from God, not something one Christian should demand of another. All Christians are called to be chaste, in the sense of sexually responsible and loving. This has implications for all of our sexual activity.
• We now live in a society where equal marriage is the law of the land and the Church needs to accept that fact and consider its treatment of legally married lesbian and gay couples.
• The Church needs to admit and repent that it has excluded and wounded LGBT people in the past and continues to do so.
• Personally, were I still in parish ministry, I would want and welcome LGBT people, couples and single, and, more, affirm and bless them as beloved children of God for whom Jesus died.
• And yes, I trust my church introduces a service to bless gay commitment as it blesses straight marriage - before long - equal in status but not identical in nature.

From St Mary's Church, Richmond
And finally - thank you and congratulations if you've stuck with me this far! - one of my waking thoughts last night was, am I doing what I see proponents of euthanasia doing, viz arguing for something merely because it's what people I love want, because it's what I want to believe? I honestly don't think so, as my present conviction did not come from laborious argument but rather from a vivid moment of insight. But I'm reassured it's something I'm not alone in wondering. And so I ask for myself and all of us a touch of Cromwellian humility, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken."

"...as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful" (Colossians 3.13-15).

PS I was interested to discover that today's Telegraph has an article headed "CofE top female cleric: I would have 'no problem' with blessings for gay marriages. The Dean of York, the Very Rev Vivienne Faull... says effect of the Church's stance on same-sex marriage is 'dreadful'".

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Love unknown

Well, it’s been quite an eventful ten days or so.  However I’ll concentrate on just one theme that occupied me which is the one about which I blogged before we went away for a few days.
On Friday (4th) we were due to be celebrating with our friends Esther and Julie their wedding. So it was somehow bitter-sweet to hear Justin Welby doing an hour’s phone-in on LBC Radio, answering among other things questions about gay marriage. He came across well, I thought, not least making real why it is such a hard issue for him.

The wedding celebration was an extremely happy event. The couple were in great form. One of them said to me, “It’s nice to feel normal,” and I could see what she meant.

Then we went away to Devon for a few days, staying in a cottage up a winding crumbling lane and with a blissful absence of internet. Late breakfasts, fresh fish and chips, picnics by estuaries, views from the cottage, spending time with Jane's parents.… And so after all too short a break it was back to the harsh rushing world of traffic, vehicular and cyber.

One of the first things I picked up was the news that my occasional correspondent, Vicky Beeching, who did her theological studies at the same place as me had been getting it in the neck because of her support for equal marriage. She now describes herself on Twitter as “Theologian. Religious Commentator (Sky, BBC, ITV, Radio 2, Radio 4, LBC). Pro #womenbishops  & pro #equalmarriage. Feminist. Christian. Songwriter (EMI). Geek”. It was a blog post she had written entitled My support of same-sex marriage which had incurred the wrath of many Christian readers, sadly, and ironically, since it was a personal plea for dialogue carried on in a loving spirit.
“So, while many conservative and evangelical Christians are very angry about my stand for same-sex marriage, please let’s dialogue in love. Journey with me here. I’ll be blogging about this topic, the relevant Bible passages, recommending books and resources, and writing about the various questions that arise from them all.
“Thanks to the many people who do support equal marriage and have reached out to me. I’m touched by the way you have gathered around me and rallied to encourage me at this difficult time. Thanks also to those who’ve written to say they disagree with me, but are wanting to do so with kindness and respect.
“If you want to come on this journey, whatever your beliefs may be, I’d be delighted to have you read, comment and share your responses on this site.”

Vicky derives much of her income from royalties on her songs. One consequence of her expressing her views has been churches telling her they’ll no longer use her songs, and thus she will lose a good chunk of her livelihood. I decided to write her a note:
“Hi Vicky.
“Thank you for your blog post. As others have commented, it's brave. Being retired I don't have as much to lose as you do. Being relatively obscure, I don't stand to receive the shower of vitriol that you do. However as you know I come from a similarly conservatively Christian background as yourself - and have to confess to having held what might have been regarded as a Biblically-based homophobic stance, which I now regret and of which I have repented, as I believe I should have much sooner.
“My change of mind and heart has not been an overnight conversion, but has been based on my reexamination of the 'proof-texts' (very situation-specific in all cases but one; that one a Biblical hapax legomenon [single instance] with a much debated meaning), the resounding silence of Jesus on the subject of same-sex attraction, and his resounding condemnation of judging others and his all-encompassing demand of love. It's also arisen from witnessing the harm inflicted on LGBT young people and their parents by the uncomprehending condemnation of Christians like me, and from an encounter with a couple where I had no doubt that I was to reach out, accept and love them. I had the privilege of celebrating with their friends after their marriage a week ago on Friday.
“Ironically I had listened to Archbishop Justin's phone-in on LBC Radio that same morning. And I did understand the awful dilemma that he has as a crucial leader within the Anglican worldwide church, being aware that any 'liberalisation' which might take place here would have fatal consequences to fellow Christians in other countries - as well as having the responsibility to uphold the Church's agreed teaching on marriage. I share your hope that 'as the Church of England enters a two year discussion period about “human sexuality” based around The Pilling Report,... those of us on all ‘sides’ can talk with respect and kindness, despite the deeply painful and inflammatory nature of the subject matter.' As mule-headed Oliver Cromwell said to the equally stubborn Scottish Kirk Synod, 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.' We're all of us mere humans.
“I suspect you don't need me to say that I don't believe you're a heretic, but on the contrary Valiant for Truth in the market place of Vanity Fair. And I for one will be listening to 'The Wonder of the Cross' this coming week and being grateful.”

Following my recommendation of Vicky’s article, I was contacted through Facebook by one person challenging me to justify myself: “I have just never found an even slightly convincing theological argument for its practice...” I recommended Justin Lee’s Unconditional and Renato Lings, Love Lost in Translation. I suspect Vicky’s subsequent posts on the subject will provide more theology than I’m likely to. Another friend asked me whether I had read the Rev Steve Chalke’s article on the subject – which I had, and did again. I replied, “Yes, I have read it. It's so sad that Christians divide so heatedly over the issue. As I mentioned in my blog, knowing parents of gay children and having friends who are gay has made me think that the received attitude to homosexuality is pastorally misconceived and harmful - unloving and unChristlike. I suspect I'm like Steve Chalke in that. There are more struggling young gay Christians than churches like to acknowledge and consequently they feel they either have to conceal their sexuality or leave the ordinary fellowship of church.”

In her reply she agreed and recounted how one of her friends at university left the church when she realised that she was gay. She had prayed so hard that her feelings would be taken away from her. “I also am concerned that Christians appear to the outside world to be unloving bigots. I am so conscious of how the church is viewed by many of my colleagues - and it is not good!”
The stance which has caused more than “one of these little ones to fall” seems to me highly perilous and to require re-examination. I have previously said that I do not like Government redefining language by dictat – that is acting ultra vires in my opinion – but I do also like the Church supporting faithful loving commitment. Perhaps we need to accept that we live in an imperfect and broken world, and do what we can to work for the reconciliation between person and person and between people and God, which is why we call this Friday Good.

Have a listen to this: "The wonder of the Cross". I think it’s up there with “When I survey” and “There is a green hill”.