The Church has got to face up to the reality of the world as it is lived.

So, Lord Carey has changed his mind about assisted dying by polarising ‘compassion’ and ‘doctrine’, and stating that the church had to come to terms with ‘lived realities’.

Set aside the fact that Lord Carey continues to do what his predecessor never did – keeps on queering his successors’ pitch and seems unable to let go – and we can focus on the nub of his argument. Millions of words are being poured into the media today, so I will put a sideways perspective I haven’t seen pursued in the debate so far today.

  • Who decides what constitutes ‘compassion’? Especially when we know from many terminally ill people that they might well have urged assistance in their dying at an early point in their process, whilst moving on as they came to terms with their prognosis to a different conclusion. Who decides what constitutes compassion and at what point it should be recognised?
  • When did doctrine become emptied of compassion? Doctrine is simply doctrine. But, there is a principle here: law (which is what this is about) cannot be made on the basis of subjective judgements based on emotion; law requires a dispassionate clarity about the ‘doctrine’ upon which the legislation – and ensuing praxis – can be founded. There is actually no way of deciding on such legislation without having some ‘doctrine’ – assumed or articulated – that legitimises or demands such a judgement. In my language, it is the fundamental anthropology that shapes this: what is a human being, why does a human being matter, and why does it matter that these questions are admitted and addressed before moving to emotion/compassion? History is littered with examples of law being established without a clear articulation of the anthropology that underlies it.
  • Lord Carey says his mind was changed by the Nicklinson case.But, ‘Locked-in Syndrome’ is not a terminal illness and should not, therefore, be covered by the arguments he makes. Isn’t this what we call a category error?
  • What is a ‘lived reality’ and why is it cut adrift from considerations of thinking about why we matter? When did philosophy become the opposite of humanity and divorced from the rest of life? And, if Lord Carey is consistent, will he now support other ‘lived realities’ and, for example, back gay marriage, legalisation of drugs, abortion on demand, and so on – all describable as ‘lived realities’?

While medicine progresses at a remarkable pace, our statutory framework remains trapped in an outdated past, badly out of kilter with the real needs of our society.

  • And to what else might that judgement apply? We clearly need a deeper debate and one that doesn’t assume that if you use judgement, you are, by definition, devoid of compassion.

Maybe the new “philosophical certainties” could do with being subjected to the “old” ones that have now “collapsed”?

Just got back from a great trip to our link diocese in the USA – Southwestern Virginia – and trying to pick up what has been going on while I was away. Both the BBC and the Guardian websites were re-shaped into US sites while I was over there, so some domestic news seemed to slip by.

So, what strikes me on my return?

1. The Leveson Inquiry continues, but things are getting worse as four more journalists have been arrested – this time not from the defunct News of the World, but from the Sun. I can’t weep for those who have (a) indulged in unethical or criminal activity in the name of ‘the freedom of the press’ or (b) shredded other people’s lives before simply moving on to the next cash-generating scandal. However, I do weep for good journalists who now find themselves tarred with the brush of corruption – even if they now know what it feels like to face a situation of personal injustice that they cannot resolve by themselves… an experience familiar to victims of their tabloid colleagues. Not to forget also that it was excellent investigative journalism (and considerable nerve) that exposed this apparent web of corruption in the first place. A good democracy and a good society need a good, free, intelligent, accountable and ethical press.

2. While we spent nearly four hours on Saturday night with a couple of hundred others in Roanoke packing 176,000 food parcels for Sudanese refugees and displaced people (the remarkable and motivated young people of Southwestern Virginia raised the $35,000 it cost – and did so explicitly in the name of Christ), questions were being raised here about the viability of the new state of Southern Sudan. The challenges are huge, but they extend even more precariously in the north (Sudan itself). Christians there continue to be persecuted, expelled, attacked, dispossessed and dispersed. At least one British newspaper keeps this in the news (others may be doing so, too, but I have only had time to check the one).

3. Lord Carey, former Archbishop for Canterbury has bashed the bishops for being so feeble as to defend the poor in the face of the governments welfare cut proposals. Actually, it is clear that the bishops in the House of Lords have not opposed cuts per se and do take seriously the need to re-calibrate who gets what in the future. With the caveat that I have lifted this from the OUTRAGED Daily Mail report, this is what Lord Carey said about the bishops’ amendment regarding Child Benefit:

‘Considering that the system they are defending can mean some families are able to claim a total of £50,000 a year in welfare benefits, the bishops must have known that popular opinion was against them, including that of many hard-working, hard-pressed churchgoers,’ he writes.

‘Yet these five bishops – led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds – cannot lay claim to the moral high-ground.

Victoria Coren responded effectively in the Guardian, defending the right – nay, the obligation – of Christian bishops to speak on behalf of the poor, whether or not they win the eventual vote. But, my question really has to do with the insinuation that the bishops should not go against ‘popular opinion’. This cannot be serious. Since when has ‘popular opinion’ been the singular guide to ethics, Christian thought and action, or prophetic wisdom? Coren put it like this:

But I’m not a bishop. It doesn’t matter whether I think they’re right or wrong; I think it’s their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.

The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it’s happening, they hate it.

Lord Carey might have an opinion on the government’s handling of the debt, but to suggest that the bishops should be guided by popular opinion (as opposed to, say, the Bible?) is just weird.

Or have I missed something?