Sunday 7 January 2024

A clarification

I was upset today to find an email thanking me for "speaking out so clearly" "in the Christian institute’s weekly email". I don't remember speaking to them, I thought. And so I looked them up on line. I hadn't spoken to them. And if they had asked me to comment on the subject of assisted dying, I would probably have politely declined.

Why?

First of all, it is, I understand, basic journalistic courtesy to ask an individual before you name them in a story. And I wasn't approached. Secondly, examining the Christian Institute's website confirmed to me what I vaguely recalled, i.e. that it campaigns on certain issues with which I am not in sympathy and represents an extremely conservative type of Christianity which I no longer hold, if I ever did. For one example, it appears homophobic, which for me is the antithesis of the Christian good news - which this weekend we celebrate is for all people. I suspect that I could not in all conscience subscribe to all its tenets.

However I do acknowledge that I wrote a letter to the Guardian on the subject of assisted suicide and therefore put my views in the public domain, as they are also, of course, on my blog. So I can't complain, but simply dissociate my views from those of the Christian Institute - and hope that if they ever want to quote me again they are polite enough to contact me first.

Saturday 6 January 2024

Where is love?

Mike Chapman 'Christ Child'
 

HOLY INNOCENTS DAY

The first words we were taught in Latin
Were amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant:
Verb, transitive; meaning love.
Outside the church on Trafalgar Square
Stands a great block of Portland Stone
With a carved new-born baby soft and smooth
Lying not in Christmas card manger
But on a rough bed of rock.

Round the plinth is inscribed:
‘In the beginning was the word…
And the word became flesh
And dwelt among us’.
Look once more at the naked baby
His cord has not even been cut
He lies without defences and alone
Can this truly be the Word made flesh?

Naked new borns lie in Mariupol’s wreckage
Mothers weep for their Infants in al-Shifa
With ash grey dust their only shroud
‘What kind of a country is afraid of hospitals
and maternity wards and destroys them?’
Is it leaders lusting to unleash
Their fear full fury while they can?
Wounded they see not neighbour but stranger,

Not brother but alien, animal, pest
To be butchered, mortared, missiled from our land.
We are the chosen inhabitants of this place
Pity we can’t afford, we dare not open our eyes
To the mothers drowning in agony
To children scraping away the rubble
Wailing for lost baby brother Isa
Loved in Gaza’s hell. Are you here, Emmanuel?

28th December 2023

Saturday 23 December 2023

What do you think of Esther?

"What do you make of Esther Rantzen?" asked my brother.

I knew what he was talking about, as no doubt all listeners of Radio 4's Today Programme would have done. Clearly the advocates of assisted dying, or specifically suicide, have launched the next round of their campaign, even enlisting the late Diana Rigg, whose resemblance to my wife was once commented on by an old welsh policemen, as a witness. The Today Programme devoted a great deal of airtime to the subject on a number of days. My reply to my brother was that I thought it was a good thing if we were more open about the subject of death and dying. After all they are events everyone without exception will come in contact with at some point or another. So the sooner we stop treating it as a taboo subject the better. However the dangers of legalising assisted suicide, are proved by places like Canada and Belgium.

In January this year I made a submission to the Parliamentary Health and Social Care Committee consultation on Assisted dying/assisted suicide:

"I am writing as an individual who was diagnosed with a rare form of Motor Neurone Disease twenty-two years ago and who has experienced the condition’s relentless deterioration since then. There are a number of my contemporaries who have survived that long. That, and witnessing the ravages of the disease on friends in our local MNDA branch plus an Ethics qualification from Oxford, is the extent of my expertise.

"My first observation is how positively my contemporaries, with short or longer prognoses, with the disease seize hold of life. Clearly there are some who, like Rob Burrows, devote themselves to fund-raising and creating awareness; while others enjoy the opportunities of life that come their way. What might have seemed a death sentence has proved a challenge to live.

"Secondly, I have recently discovered myself how expert professional care can enhance what is often portrayed as undignified dependence. Good caring can in fact add to quality of life. The sad thing however is that it is not something which the state will normally provide. Along with terminal palliative care, domestic social care must surely be a spending priority for any government that cares about the well-being of all its citizens. I’m fortunate to live an area of excellent MND provision and good, though not abundant, palliative care. But I understand that this is not equally spread through the country. If it were, I suspect it would reduce the fear of dying which must be a major motivator for assistance to ending one’s life.

"Ironically, in MND, according to the Association’s information sheet, How will I die?, those fears are greatly exaggerated: ‘In reality, most people with MND have a peaceful death. The final stages of MND will usually involve gradual weakening of the breathing muscles and increasing sleepiness. This is usually the cause of death, either because of an infection or because the muscles stop working.

‘Specialist palliative care supports quality of life through symptom control. practical help, medication to ease symptoms and emotional support for you and your family.

‘When breathing becomes weaker, you may feel breathless and this can be distressing. However, your health care professionals can provide support to reduce anxiety.

‘You can also receive medication to ease symptoms throughout the course of the disease, not just in the later stages. If you have any concerns about the way medication will affect you, ask the professionals who are supporting you for guidance.

‘Further weakening of the muscles involved in breathing will cause tiredness and increasing sleepiness. Over a period of time, which can be hours, days or weeks, your breathing is likely to become shallower. This usually leads to reduced consciousness, so that death comes peacefully as breathing slowly reduces and eventually stops’ (EOL5-How-will-I-die-2018, rev 2021).

"So this is a third and subtle danger of legalising assisted dying/suicide. It would increase people’s fear of the inevitable fact of death and dying. I think this can be one factor in explaining why, in jurisdictions which have introduced it, we see it being extended beyond the first strict limits. It is held out as an answer to this fearful fact, death, whereas in fact death and dying should be talked about in realistic terms, as normal, as concisely outlined by Dr Kathryn Mannix (https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/dying-is-not-as-bad-as-you-think/p062m0xt). As she says, normally dying isn’t as bad as we think.

If the government should be doing anything, the first thing it might well do, is to promote informed education about dying of the sort exemplified by specialists such as Dr Mannix, as well as adequately funding her former specialism of palliative care. It should start with schools’ curricula. After all every child will have encountered death at some stage.

Fourthly, the dangers of coercion, in my experience, are not so much external as internal. It’s often rightly observed that prolonged pain is worse for the engaged spectator than for the sufferer. If you care for someone, seeing them struggling is barely tolerable. You may wish to see their struggle over, but underlying that wish is your own desire to be spared more of your own horror show. The person who is ‘suffering’ however has that EOL5-How-will-I-die-2018, rev 2021 strong survival instinct, common to all humans, and is more concentrated on living than dying. Having said that, when you are depressed, as might be natural, that instinct gets temporarily eclipsed. Then you need protection from your own dark sky. It is at such times that your other inner demons emerge: your sense of being a burden - to your family, to your friends (if you have any), to the NHS and to the state purse; your fear of losing your savings and of leaving nothing to your loved ones; your fear of pain and of dying (exaggerated by popular mythology), and your sense of suffering, heightened by your depression. 

"For most of us with long incurable diseases, it’s these internal perceptions that are most coercive, although they can be easily compounded or even exploited from outside. I don’t see any way to protect us from such coercion, internal or external, except to demonstrate through legislation that every life, however tenuous, is equally important to our society and worth caring for. ‘Any man’s death diminishes me...’ and so we will value it to the end."

I'm grateful that when I received my 'motor neurone disorder' diagnosis, which was initially frightening, I couldn't be tempted to opt for an early death. Instead of one Christmas with my family (as I warned them), I've enjoyed 22 more Christmases. That was the law against suicide fulfilling its safeguarding function, protecting the vulnerable, as I was then. Contrary to my preconceptions, my form of MND (PLS) is very gradual and I've been able to live a full if increasingly limited life, thanks to my wife, Jane, who cares for me 100% 24 hours a day seven days a week. 

My view is still that legalising assisted dying/suicide has more cons than pros. The better choice is to invest in hospice and palliative care, so that everyone may have access to pain and symptom care in the last years of their life.

 

Wednesday 22 November 2023

The Gordian Knot

The legend of the Gordian knot concerns the former kingdom of Gordium in present-day Asian Turkey. There was an ox-cart attached by a complex knot. The oracle said that whoever was able to untie the knot was destined to rule the whole of Asia. In 333 BC Alexander the Great (from Macedonia) arrived in his military campaigns and according to the most popular version simply solved the puzzle by slicing through the knot with one stroke of his sword. Well - he did in due course proceed to conquer all Asia as far East as India and Afghanistan. 

Of course today untying the Gordian knot is a metaphor for solving a seemingly insoluble problem. As my previous post indicated, the Church of England has succeeded after many years in creating such a problem. It concerns irreconcilable differences concerning same-sex relationships, in particular those of lifelong commitment. For once this is a moreorless binary split, between those who quote individual categorical verses from the Bible condemning homosexual relations and those who believe that same Bible needs to be read within its cultural contexts and in the light of message of Jesus. Last week's General Synod's vote apparently satisfied nobody, 'progressives' considering it a fudge and 'traditionalists' considering a sell-out. As a result the CofE looks as though it's heading towards schism. 

Is there any way to avoid it? I think there is, but, as I hinted before, it's as radical as slicing a knot with a sword. It means the established church relinquishing its privileged position of solemnizing the institution of marriage and leaving all marriages to the state, preserving for itself the honourable service of those who come asking for blessing for themselves. I imagine that this would be a matter of conscience for clergy,  with some saying, "I'm sorry, I can't bless you, because...", for example, you are of the same sex, or you've been living in the same house, sharing the same bed, you've been married before etc. (To be clear, there were times when as vicar I refused marriage to divorced individuals, and offered them a service of blessing instead. Not an easy decision or conversation but in accordance with the then existing rules of the church.) Other clergy no doubt would welcome couples asking to be blessed. And this could be allowed for, as it does in other realms of the Law.

Undoubtedly such a change would require acts of Parliament and legal contortions by ecclesiastical lawyers and therefore would take a long time. Yet the prospect of both this endless diversion from the central role of the Church, to present the great good news of God's love in Christ, ceasing and the modelling of the fulfilment of Christ's great prayer for his followers, that they should demonstrate his love for world by their love for one another, beginning should surely be enough to sustain us. 

Might we one day see wedding parties going joyfully from the registry office to be welcomed by their priest and dedicating their new life together to the God whom they worship? I hope so. And might we see a humbler Church of England answering Christ's prayer for us: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." I pray so. That is surely an imperative which all of us must heed.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Unholy irony

Yesterday, eclipsed by events on the domestic political stage, the whole Church of England General Synod, after a passionate address by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a shorter message from the Archbishop in Jerusalem, stood for two minutes in reverent silence praying for peace and reconciliation in Israel/Gaza. It was ironic therefore it was followed by a series of questions, some clearly barbed, on the subject of sexuality, which simply exposed how deeply and indeed bitterly divided the Church's Synod is over the issue. I suppose the people who stand for Synod, as for Parliament, will be activists by inclination, as it might be front-line warriors. Perhaps this is good for sharpening policies (to use political terminology). However I'm not sure the Church is meant to be a political body. I don't mean that it should not comment on or be involved in civil politics. But that's not its essence. That is to be a community of love, a community which models what loving and living together looks like. As its founder said, " I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

 

Well, this afternoon will no doubt see the major engagement when the debate concerning the blessing of same-sex couples is scheduled. It's not something I should look forward to. I don't suppose many, if any, will change their views. I have my own hopes for the outcome - which is that the proposal for a stand-alone service of blessing as well as prayers for use in other services should be approved. 

 

Personally I'd like our present pattern for weddings completely shaken up and reformed. It wouldn't of course solve objections to blessing same-sex relationships, but it would create room for more flexibility for differing traditions without doing away with the joys of church celebrations. Let me explain...

 

Time was when one of our pleasures was travelling to Europe, in the halcyon days before Brexit of course. One particularly bright memory was sitting of an evening witnessing a wedding party emerging from the mairie on their way to the church for the priest to bless the happy couple. “What a good arrangement!” I thought. The legal bit done by the mayor, the religious bit left to the priest. 

 

Much as I enjoyed doing a “good wedding” when I was a vicar, I was always aware of a tension between my role as a registrar - which came with the job - and my role as a pastor. Of course the civil bit brings in a useful revenue stream for the diocese and the parish, and all the extras like the organist, bellringers, verger etc, who are all worthy of their hire. The clergy earn nothing in addition to their stipend except maybe an invitation to the knees-up afterwards. At some point in our history the Church bagged a monopoly of celebrating weddings which lasted until the last century, I imagine. I suppose it was part of its campaign to take over all the levers of power - benevolently naturally, such as the right to 26 "Lords Spiritual" sitting in the House of Lords, which was once more significant than now when absurdly there are as many as 800 peers (plus one as of yesterday). No doubt this would involve difficulties concerning Canon Law - the minutiae of which resemble, it seems to me, the laws of the scribes and pharisees about which Jesus had something trenchant to say.

 

However, now it is really time to escape the magnetic attraction of our own importance and to make real our calling to serve the society in which we are placed. And like it or not our country now solemnises marriage between couples of all sorts. We can either refuse to acknowledge the fact, or bless all those that reflect the covenant relationship of enduring love that God has demonstrated for broken humankind. After all, who would deny communion or burial or the baptism of their child to someone who had been married in a registry office?

Saturday 8 April 2023

Guilty, or not guilty

Did I hear right, Wednesday morning, on the Today programme? A Republican congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene, outside the New York courtroom to which Donald Trump, under arrest, had been taken to face 34 felony criminal charges said, "Well, he's in good company," she said, citing Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ as others who'd been arrested. I see that her modus operandi is to court controversy and follow conspiracy theories; so maybe the comment wasn't entirely out of character. Yet even so, during Holy Week when Christians remember Jesus' crucifixion, it was an extraordinary parallel. 

She could have used other characters from the trial of Jesus such as ... Barabbas ("Mark and Luke further refer to Barabbas as one involved in a στάσις (stasis, riot)" Wikipedia), or the two criminals or rebels hanged on either side of Jesus, one of whom correctly told the other, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Whatever else can be said of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson facing tribunals - or indeed any of us in the final analysis - it's not that "we have done nothing wrong". Which is, mysteriously, theologians tell us, the point of the crucifixion. He has done nothing wrong, and is crucified so that we, who have all gone wrong, may escape the divine gallows and go free - or if not, at least be offered the prospect of paradise. 

Night in Garden Tomb, Jerusalem
I'm not sure I agree with those theologians, superficially attractive though that theory is. I prefer to think that the life and death of Christ who is the human face of God demonstrate that no part of human experience is outside God's own comprehension and empathy, not even the most acute torture and the worst dying. As that most popular of Hebrew psalms puts it, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley (or valley of the shadow of death) I fear no evil; for you are with me...."

As Archbishop Justin Welby wrote on his Facebook page today (Saturday):

"Holy Saturday is a day of silence. Profound, deathly silence.
It is the day after the worst possible thing has happened, and now there is only living with the consequences.
All of us have our own Holy Saturday moments that mark our lives. Perhaps, like Mary, we have seen a loved one die and we live with that empty space. Perhaps, like Peter, we have forever lost a chance to apologise for a mistake and repair a relationship. Perhaps, like Judas, we have done something very wrong and the consequences have been disastrous.
It isn’t possible to control the outcome of such moments. We can wait and see what happens. We can distract ourselves, and try and ignore the pain we feel. We can carry on with our normal lives, tinged with lost hope, fear and uncertainty. This is what the disciples must have faced the sabbath day after Jesus’ death. All is lost. For with Jesus so much else has died.
They had no idea the resurrection was coming, no clue that their sorrow would be transformed to joy.
Holy Saturday is a day like no other. A day of holding the pain and failure and uncertainty. A new dawn is coming. The promise is true that all will be well.
But today, on this day, as we remember Jesus lying in the grave we sit in silence together with the disciples, weighing the absence and praying for a miracle that will transform our lives and our world."

And although we don't yet see the miracle, we do discover that even death is not outside God's experience and we therefore have hope.


Saturday 25 March 2023

Osted - in need of special measures

When I was a teacher (which was a long time ago), I only once had an Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) inspector observing one of my lessons. Mr C was, in my memory, a large man. He had taught modern languages in a grammar school. My class was what was once known as a ROSLA year (students compelled by government dictat to stay on a year longer than before). They were students who had not done well enough at GCSEs to take A levels, and so we had to devise a curriculum for them, which would give them decent qualifications when they left. 

As head of English, my part was steering through the innovative vocational Royal Society of Arts 'Basic Clerical Skills' module (at a similar level to NVQs). It was one of these lessons that Mr C came to witness. My students were a bunch of Oxford east enders. They were rough diamonds whom I liked. The lesson, I seem to recall, was quite mundane but very orderly. No one left their seat. No one kicked up a rumpus. I was able to go round the room with appropriately encouraging and helpful advice. With that group, it was a triumph. Not as exciting as our trips down the canal or to local historic buildings, but a triumph of self-restraint on the part of the students. Well, that was my view at least!

However Mr C didn't see it that way apparently, as the headteacher told me after. Mrs Storrar was a remarkable woman who had returned to teaching following a time in industry. And she had more faith in most of her staff, including me, than in the inspector. I can't remember what status this inspection had, but it was certainly not a whole-school inspection. As the head and I observed, Mr C had (or appeared to have) no experience of teaching our kind of students. I assume his verdict had been that my lesson had been inadequate. Since then I have been governor of a number of schools and have witnessed the more recent Ofsted régime in education - and at second-hand in social work.

I've long relished what Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, said about critics: "Critics are like horse-flies which hinder the horses in their ploughing of the soil. The horse works, all its muscles drawn tight like the strings on a double-bass, and a fly settles on his flanks and tickles and buzzes. And what does the fly buzz about? It scarcely knows itself; simply because it is restless and wants to proclaim: 'Look, I too am living on the earth. See, I can buzz, too, buzz about anything.'" A word of comfort to teachers when irritated by inspectors, who criticise them.... 

But the truth is that Ofsted is far worse than an irritation. Schools were once given a week or more's notice of an inspection. I believe notice now is the day before. I suppose the idea is to prevent schools rustling up paperwork to impress the inspectors arriving seven days later. "Keep them up to the mark!" In my experience in the areas of public service with which I'm familiar, there is little more than a scintilla of evidence for lack of dedication. It's true that Baroness Casey's year-long review of the Met Police revealed enough going wrong for her to describe it as institutionally sexist, racist, and homophobic, but it is a huge unwieldy institution which is asked to do too much.

But why am I writing about Ofsted now? You'll notice that I began to comment about it at the beginning of this week - this was because of the delayed local news concerning the suicide in January of Ruth Perry, headteacher of Caversham Primary School, in anticipation of a negative Ofsted one-word verdict of her respected school: "inadequate". A single word gets repeated on estate agents' details. The reaction from local heads was to take Ofsted rankings off their websites and to threaten to keep inspectors out of their schools. and to demand Ofsted suspended inspections out of respect for a good headteacher. Since then it has hit the national news, first with the head of Ofsted, the upper-crust, Amanda Spielman, whilst expressing her sympathy with Mrs Perry's family, refusing to pause inspections, and then the eye-wateringly wealthy, privately educated Rishi Sunak backing Ofsted as giving parents the information they need. I wonder whether his parents would have been satisfied with a single-word summary of his years at Stroud School. Even if it had been "Outstanding" or "Requires improvement", they would have deserved more. And that is the problem with Ofsted. "Ofsted inspections 'provide independent, up-to-date evaluations on the quality of education, safeguarding and leadership, which parents greatly rely on to give them confidence in choosing the right school for their child,' a Department of Education spokesperson said." Maybe... However, it does not really give parents a true picture of a school or organisation - because although the report is many pages long, that's not what parents look at and neither is it what teachers hear. They see and hear only the headline. 

Ruth Perry's sister, Professor Julia Waters of Reading University, had no doubt why her sister took her own life. The Caversham report was sensationalist and drawn from scant evidence. “In our (family's) opinion, the findings of Ofsted were disproportionate, unfair and, as has tragically been proven, deeply harmful in their (implied) focus on one individual.” I suppose the theory behind Ofsted inspections was a good one; indeed school inspectors have a long history. But the idea of publishing grades in order to "push up standards" dates, I think, only to 1992. It is just one example of governmental obsession with targets, like SATs, instead of education. The only competent Secretary of State I've known was Estelle Morris (now Baroness) whose term in office was far too short (2001-2). Her virtues were honesty, humility and that she had been a state school teacher. She was a breath of fresh air. Here at last was someone who knew what they were talking about. Others tend to use the position as a step up the political ladder. There seems to be an idée fixe among others to set out to oppose those they should be championing - as was revealed in the disgraceful WhatsApp exchange between the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education and during lockdown. As the BBC reported, "In other WhatsApp messages released by the paper, Mr Hancock described teaching unions as 'absolute arses'.                                                 "Sir Gavin replied that they hated work"

One feels that Estelle Morris would have been on the side of teachers - which is, as every teacher knows, is the best form of pedagogy. And it is without doubt the best form of inspection. Collaboration and encouragement would be a far better way to raise educational standards than the present emotionally draining regime, which drives conscientious teachers to mental ill health and even to despair (as I have witnessed). Ofsted needs to look at itself if it really seeks to be a force for good. If its effect is drive teachers out of the profession, it is clearly of no help to children and is failing. Otherwise it should be replaced. Maybe, like the Met, it needs to be reconstituted. 

A good article on this subject can be found in the Guardian here.