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Public witness when it counts

Mark Tooley | Anglican bishops resist assisted suicide in Britain


Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks from the pulpit. Associated Press/ Photo by Jonathan Brady (pool)

Public witness when it counts
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Opposition to “right to die” legislation in Britain is now being led by Church of England bishops , showing that Christendom is not entirely dead, even in secular Britain. The proposal, which at least five bishops denounced in the House of Lords, would allow mentally competent adults in their last six months of life to seek death, pending approval from two doctors and a judge. Currently, the crime known as facilitating suicide can entail 14 years in prison

Twenty-six active Church of England bishops sit as “Lords Spiritual” in the House of Lords, and the archbishop of Canterbury spoke of their “unanimity” against the assisted suicide bill. (Former archbishops also have seats and one former archbishop supported the bill.) The bishop of Durham, like his colleagues, warned that the terminally ill might think it their “dutiful option” to die. “The scope for abuse and pressure from this for people to end their lives is significant,” the bishop noted.

Other faith leaders backed the Anglican bishops. Britain’s senior Catholic prelate and the U.K.’s chief rabbi joined a public letter, joining with the with the archbishop of Canterbury calling “every human life … a precious gift of the Creator, to be upheld and protected.” They urged “high-quality palliative care” for the dying, declaring: “We believe that the aim of a compassionate society should be assisted living rather than an acceptance of assisted suicide.”

In its official policy from 2017, the Church of England rejects assisted suicide and favors the current British prohibition. It notes that pro-death arguments evaluate life through abilities and sense of personal worth, but these qualities cannot “take the place of the intrinsic value of every person’s life.”

The assisted suicide legislation is not officially dead but is deemed unlikely to pass after deep opposition in the House of Lords and lack of government support. Former Archbishop of York John Sentamu’s speech to fellow lords was perceptive: “There is an ideal perception of the human being as isolated and autonomous, always in control, always on his or her own, beholden to no one. It is an unreal idea, constantly to be overcome, in the interests of their living to some good purpose.”

Unsurprisingly, Britain’s National Secular Society complained that religious leaders are “restricting people's freedom and choices,” observing that “opposition to assisted dying is often rooted in conservative religious views.” The secularist group alleged that the bishops were out of step with Britain and should abandon the “pretence that senior Anglican clerics have some kind of special moral authority that justifies their privileged place in parliament,” which undermines democracy by “promoting the narrow interests of religious elites.” The group wryly observed that Britain is the only country besides Iran automatically granting legislative seats to religious leaders.

Secularists are likely right that bishops don’t speak for British public opinion. One poll said nearly three quarters of Britons support assisted suicide for the terminal ill and half back it for nonterminal people in great pain. Trends bode ill for the bishops. Only 38 percent of Britons now identify as Christian, and Church of England weekly attendance is below 1 million. Only about one in ten Britons identify as Anglican. Nondenominational churches, especially immigrant churches, are faring better.

Regardless, the Church of England, by virtue of its history and establishment, retains wide cultural influence. That influence is for good in this case. The Church of England is arguably healthier than the U.S. Episcopal Church, whose bishops do not strongly oppose assisted suicide in America (although the denomination officially opposes it). And unlike the Episcopal Church, the Church of England does not sanction same-sex marriage. As the official national church, the Church of England is more obliged to retain all its factions, including traditionalists, which means a continuing influence from the theologically orthodox.

Interestingly, most Britons still see Britain as a Christian country, including even half of non-Christians and the non-religious. Strong majorities back Christmas holidays as national holidays including in public schools. Some Christians disdain Christendom and fear blurring Christianity with public rituals. There is a good reason that the United States does not have a state church. Americans are discomfited by church establishment and would never grant automatic legislative seats to clerics. Our history points in different directions.

But American Christians can appreciate that the Church of England, as a vestige of old Christendom, occasionally still challenges secular Britain to recall its Christianity. A nation that culturally identifies as Christian, however tenuously, retains gifts that are blessings of its Christian heritage. Among those gifts is a witness to the value of human life against calls for assisted suicide. These days, that is a great gift indeed.


Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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