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, 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. 


  1. Michael, I do hope you will not mind. I took the liberty of copying that wonderful piece you write the other day and emailing it to Norman Lamb ( with acknowledgement to you) the Minister for Care!! who has now also changed his mind!
    Maybe you could also copy to him today your email to Lord Carey?
    In our Parish Church today there is a Holy Hour which our Bishop has asked that every Parish in the Diocese of Portsmouth hold today, keeping tomorrow's vote in mind.
    Here's something from CS Lewis who I feel sure would not have supported this bill.

    Today's Reading

    TO MARY WILLIS SHELBURNE: On the resurrection of the body and of all creation; and on the goodness of the bodies we now have.

    26 November 1962

    "My stuff about animals came long ago in The Problem of Pain. I ventured the supposable—it could be nothing more—that as we are raised in Christ, so at least some animals are raised in us. Who knows, indeed, but that a great deal even of the inanimate creation is raised in the redeemed souls who have, during this life, taken its beauty into themselves? That may be the way in which the ‘new heaven and the new earth’30 are formed. Of course we can only guess and wonder.

    But these particular guesses arise in me, I trust, from taking seriously the resurrection of the body: a doctrine which now-a- days is very soft pedalled by nearly all the faithful—to our great impoverishment. Not that you and I have now much reason to rejoice in having bodies! Like old automobiles, aren’t they? where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size. No doubt it has often led me astray: but not half so often, I suspect, as my soul has led it astray. For the spiritual evils which we share with the devils (pride, spite) are far worse than what we share with the beasts: and sensuality really arises more from the imagination than from the appetites: which, if left merely to their own animal strength, and not elaborated by our imagination, would be fairly easily managed. But this is turning into a sermon!"

    From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III
    Compiled in Yours, Jack

  2. Have forwarded this to Norman Lamb

    1. Thank you, Ann. Politicians need to consider the substantive issues, not the opinion polls. That's what they're paid for.