Monday, 14 July 2014

Women Bishops, Malala and Mary Robinson

On the day that Ban Ki-moon appoints Mary Robinson as the special Envoy for Climate Change and Malala celebrates her birthday by reminding us 'let's show the world that we are stronger than violence', it's great, at last, to see the vote to allow women bishops by the Church of England's Synod. An amazing amount of energy has gone into this debate over the past 20 years. 

To me, it's all astonishing! I was brought up in a family where my grandmother was a deacon in the Congregational church and my mother was an elder in the URC. There were women ministers in the Pentecostal churches of my youth and teenage years, many of them wonderful characters, ministering in ways that brought hope in tough, tough places. In my extended family, we had women philosophers, doctors and musicians. During my childhood I met the most amazing Ghanaian women leaders and business women who were friends of my parents. It was the Church in Wales and Church of England that introduced me, as an impressionable young woman, to the idea that women could not be teachers and leaders. This has been one of the most psychologically damaging influences in my life. Yet I also found the catholic and reformed theology of the Anglican and Lutheran churches life-giving. While posing many unanswerable questions about the nature of a God who, I instinctively felt, encompassed the feminine as well as the masculine, it spoke profoundly of relationship between the Divine and human beings in ways that helped me to live my life as a young woman involved in the care of the dying. Despite having great respect for Roman, Coptic and Orthodox theology, if you are young and female, it's really quite difficult to understand how preaching, sacramental theology (especially around marriage) and governance that come exclusively from a male perspective are life-giving and transforming. My patristics tutor  once countered such a question with 'well there's always Mary'. Yes, Mary is a wonderfully inspirational character but about as ambiguous as it is possible to be, if you are a woman. The Gospel ('good news') is about finding life in the most unexpected places and welcoming transformation; it seems to me that the inclusion of women in the whole life of the church is key to this becoming a reality for all women in both society and church.

In my early twenties, I used to organise ecumenical summer play schemes for children; I have very fond memories of summers spent in Aberystwyth, Bermondsey and Byker (Newcastle). Always, we worked with the local Roman Catholic priests who, even in those days, used to say, 'the Roman Catholic Church will ordain women one day.' Some of them graciously invited us to participate at Mass. As a young lecturer for the Cambridge Theological Federation, I was truly inspired by a female Orthodox colleague who, I think, struggled greatly with the attitude of her own church to her as a teacher yet clung on to the belief that women had an, as yet, unsung and significant contribution to make to Orthodox theology, digging out the riches that are already there. Over the years, working as a priest, I have had a rich partnership with Jewish colleagues, some of whom have been amazing women Rabbis and others of whom have helped me unlock the strong but often unrecognised vein of female insight that runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures.

For younger people who look to the future of the churches, the Church of England's decision today opens up new potential. Many of us will be truly glad that our daughters as well as our sons will now grow up expecting spiritual and theological leadership to come from women as well as men. We will celebrate the healthier balance that brings; given the shocking revelations about sexual abuse in society and in the churches it can only be healthier that, in future, there will be bi-gendered leadership.

I know from personal contacts and experience that the fact the Church of England has taken this step will be a tremendous encouragement to women in other parts of the world. It is really important that we acknowledge the lead taken by the churches in Aotearoa, Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, Canada. South Africa, USA, South India, Cuba and Ireland. And equally important that we empower and support women in churches where they find themselves powerless, uneducated, voiceless or constrained by customs that undermine health, well being or ability to earn.

For older women, it's important that we don't resort to either bitterness at lost opportunities or an attitude that wants to control what happens next. Let the Spirit be free! My mother never felt at home or truly welcome in the Anglican Church because of its refusal to ordain women; today she would have joined my father and me in celebration. And probably she would have said, 'What took you so long?'! But I know she would have thought, 'What's important is that the leadership of the church is strengthened to communicate and encourage everyone in discipleship of Christ.' 

Today, I am just delighted that we have taken one small step in the direction of marking women's experience, voices and contribution to theological, social and political life. 


Thursday, 10 July 2014

Lord Falconer's Bill

Unusually, in the assisted dying debate surrounding Lord Falconer's Bill (to be debated on July 18th 2014), I find myself lining up with those who take a more conservative view. Since this is not my natural territory, I've been reading contributions to the debate all the more avidly. I'm trying to put my finger on the source of the unease I feel about the Bill.

For one thing, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of evidence-based research supporting the need to change the law. Rather there is mainly anecdotal evidence. I'm cautious about any argument that's based solely on individual experience, especially where that experience is based on just one case. It's possible to find heart wrenching stories that both support and undermine the approach being taken in the Bill. Those who work with people who are dying can think of cases where there was suffering they would have done anything in their legally constituted power to alleviate. But they've also looked after patients who have changed their minds about a clearly stated desire to die or to not be resuscitated as the circumstances of their illness have changed. Others have relatives who, sadly, make them feel that they are a burden with the utter despair that accompanies that. Still others are in a condition, in their last 6 months, that  makes being faced with choices about whether or when to end their life simply unendurable. Choice around the point of death can be deeply distressing as well as liberating. Asking a person to choose whether to control their own death can be experienced as unnatural and very disturbing. Not all patients have supportive families and some families will be deeply conflicted and divided in such circumstances, with the result that irreconcilable demands are placed on vulnerable patients. 

There's talk about the Swiss, Dutch and Belgian contexts where, despite assisted dying having been legal for many years, assisted death has not become normalised. These countries have different systems of health care within subtly different cultures from the UK. In the 1980's, resuscitation was not routinely discussed with all patients. Today, to ask a patient whether they wish to be resuscitated is a required part of the system. Some patients welcome this, others find it a frightening or distressingly unanswerable question. I cite this as an example of how far and how quickly the NHS has moved and because it shows how contextually regulated doctors' behaviour is in the UK. My concern about the introduction of choice about assisted dying is that, over time (and indeed not much time), a Bill such as Lord Falconer's will lead to a situation where doctors are required to ask patients whether they would like to consider if they wish to terminate their life. Some will obviously not be able to respond, others will be clear and still others will be in that grey zone where it is debatable whether they have sufficient mental capacity.To reach the point where everyone is required to consider this question would be to reach a completely different situation from the one presently laid out in the Bill, but it is the logical end of what is proposed. I believe the Bill will have more far-reaching consequences than many people realise in terms of changing our culture from one where assisted dying is a rare, humane occurrence to one where each person with the mental capacity to do so is required to consider the question and the question has to be decided for those without mental capacity by others. It's unclear where those without the mental capacity to engage in this will eventually stand.

I'm also uneasy about the effect the Bill will have on the relationship between doctors and patients. Frankly, I want my doctors to be the sort of people who recoil from ending someone's life. Unless they are, it's a degree or two more difficult to trust my loved ones or myself into their care. If I or my loved ones were disabled or had limited mental capacity, I would be even more wary. Many of the articles I've read in support of the Bill seem unrealistic or uninformed about the way things happen around people who are dying. Everything is a process, a journey. Few factors are black and white, needs and desires change all the time - sometimes in the course of a day. Relationships with family can be complex; communication and certainty about what has been communicated can be extremely tricky. Even when a particular course of action has been discussed and agreed, the patient or a family member can suddenly begin to express regrets or a change of mind as physiological, emotional, spiritual or social circumstances change. I don't know how medical staff could, in every case, be certain that the correct, irrevocable decision had been made to help someone end their life. The burden of living with this responsibility, especially if it were placed on staff working in palliative care, could be intolerable. And the Bill does not lay out the processes by which assisted dying can take place. 

So I find myself agreeing with Jenny McCartney in her article in The Spectator The Terminal Confusion of Dignity in Dying when she says that the conditions laid down in Lord Falconer's Bill allowing State-sanctioned ending of life are too arbitrary. The logic underlying the Bill is that it leads to a position where the State will eventually sanction assisted dying for all who can demonstrate their capacity to choose it. The conditions set out in the Bill reflect what are thought to be the current limits of toleration in society for the sanctioning of assisted death. These limits will change over time and that is why many people with disabilities or very incapacitating chronic conditions or dementia or abusive family members fear the Bill.

I attended a lecture given by Debbie Purdy a couple of years ago. She was invited to speak to a legal, medical and clerical gathering. There must have been 70 or so present, representing the three professions and with widely differing interests. I was extremely impressed, not to say swayed, by Debbie's moving situation and her very coherent argument that to legalise assisted dying would prevent early suicides in cases of chronic illness as well as offering a humane way to choose to end intolerable pain. In the ensuing debate, many diverse perspectives were put forward. It became evident just how fraught with difficulty it is to create a law allowing maximum freedom of choice and, at the same time, maximum protection for the vulnerable. In the end, most people concluded that the law as it stands maintains the delicate balance between exceptional need for release from unendurable suffering and a requirement to protect the interests of extremely vulnerable people whose circumstances and families (or lack of family) may place them in situations where their lives may be taken from them against their will.

The law is not subjective and it must hold the balance. Lord Falconer's Bill is not, in my opinion, the right bill. I support the need for further, more nuanced debate. I support Debbie Purdy's plea that patients be allowed to discuss what suicide would entail with a doctor without fear of the doctor being prosecuted. I support the position, which I believe to be the current one, that anyone who can demonstrate that they were acting in accordance with a person's stated wishes in assisting them to die would be treated with a leniency that did not lead to prosecution. However, I do not support the withdrawal of the ultimate sanction that it remains possible to bring a case against a person who has helped someone else to die. I am not arguing that to take one's own life and to ask someone to assist is wrong in every circumstance, but I do believe that the State ought not to legislate to permit the taking of life. And, whatever the outcome of the vote, I support the need for people and institutions to continue to act within the law. 

There will be further research and debate about these issues. Much more evidence is needed for the probable effect of changing the law and there needs to be an in-depth and statistically significant study of attitudes among  
  • the dying. 
  • those who have been recently diagnosed with dementia. 
  • the residents of nursing homes.
  • family members of the deceased. 
  • health care assistants and nurses.
  • doctors. 
  • people with chronic conditions who have changed their mind. 

Lord Falconer's Bill does not seem to be predicated on extensive research findings. 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Joy of Communication

June has been framed by two welcome and delightful communications from different friends. Last week, I arrived home from work to discover a letter waiting for me. Not an official communication, not a card, but a real letter with sheets of crisp white writing paper in an envelope addressed by hand. The moment I saw the handwriting, I knew it was from a school friend I'd last seen about twenty years ago. That writing took me straight back to chalky classrooms and English and Biology classes where we sat side by side inventing ways to make the day more interesting - possibly not the way the teachers would have described our activity! It has given me so much pleasure to receive this letter. Of course, it was just lovely to hear from my friend, but the fact she wrote a letter opened up so many avenues of layered, nuanced communication - seeing her hand writing was one, the way she wrote about intimate things only a few of us would remember was another and the feeling of being able to savour it and mull it all over before replying was another. She had written to re-establish contact and to give some very specific news; I was struck by how very differently it would have come across in a tweet (terse, less personal, possibly public and certainly something I might have missed) or on Facebook (demanding a fast response with half a mind to public comment and engagement.)

There is something, today, that is very special about receiving a letter. It slows the communication down, it re-introduces the senses of touch, smell and even hearing (the rustle of the paper, the drop of the letter through the letterbox) and it allows the memory to engage in particular ways. It matters that the person sending the letter has actually handled it. Perhaps, above all, there is a sense of spacious intimacy, an assumption that communication will take a little time, allowing for reflection, and that it will be only for the eyes of the one it is addressed to.

When my mother died three years ago, my aunt handed me a bundle of dog-eared air mail letters. I read them in a sitting, absolutely enthralled. They revealed a five year correspondence between my aunt and my mother; Mum was a young administrator working in Ghana and my aunt was an even younger student nurse in Manchester. Had they communicated by e mail and Facebook, who knows how much of the exchange would have survived. What survived might have been a wonderful expression of the externals - photos, comments by friends, brief descriptions of what they were doing and places visited, topical jokes. But I think the sense I had of being inside my mother's head, at the heart of some of her experiences, sharing the interiority of her life would have been lacking. Reading her letters 60 years after they were written, I felt I was meeting again the woman I recognised as my mother and being drawn into conversation with her once more.

Those of you who know me will realise that I'm not unhappy with digital communication, in fact I readily use Twitter, Facebook and blogging as means of keeping informed and in touch. This brings me to the second lovely surprise of the month. A friend I hadn't seen for ten years but with whom I had been in touch through our common enthusiasm for blogging tweeted from the USA to say she was coming to the UK to give some lectures. Without a lot of thought, I immediately tweeted, 'Let me know when and where.' Not only did she respond, but she suggested a meeting with three of her other friends for some conversation about theological issues and the future of the church, something she knew we would all be interested in. The upshot was that five of us met up for a wonderfully stimulating day in Durham, having arranged the whole thing in a matter of days on Twitter. Without Twitter, I'd not have known that she would be in the UK and we certainly would not have had time to organise a meeting that involved finding a mutually convenient date in 5 busy calendars.

So, two signifiant and joyful communications - a letter and a tweet resulting in enormous pleasure and new opportunities. I have found myself reflecting on the importance of identifying the optimum method of communication for the person, the moment and the message. It's partly about knowing how others like to communicate and what they will respond to. It's also about capturing attention and imagination and taking a moment to mull over what you want to achieve by your communication. Do you want to evoke or create a memory? To pass on vital information? To explore whether there might be sufficient grounds for deeper communication? Is speed of the essence? Or depth? Our communications are a bit like arrows that have to find their way to their target; some do, some come close by, others miss entirely.  With the wide range of media now available to us, the skill is in discerning the target and how to strike. How best do we appeal to a particular person so that we capture their attention? What parts of their psyche are we appealing to - memory, intuition, imagination, emotion, motivation, reason or the part that requires accurate information? Communicating successfully is like finding small pools in the river of another person's mind into which we lob a judicious stone that creates ripples leading ashore to a landing place of recognition and engagement. There are many kinds of place and types and degrees of landing!

Jesus used just about all the media available to him - sand, touch, saliva, everyday action, reworked words from other sources, drama and stories. He spoke to crowds and to individuals in normal meeting places and in highly unusual ones; he sometimes allowed people to eavesdrop and he sometimes ensured intimate space. He spoke in highly original parables and aphorisms and also quoted or re-worked the words of others. He knew how to turn ordinary actions into drama and how to create memories that chimed in with the collective consciousness of a tradition. He brilliantly engineered moments (taking bread and wine while speaking of His own body and blood hours before his death) so powerful that we are still talking about them two thousand years later in every culture in ways that speak of His continued presence among us. Perhaps most potently of all, he did this in the presence of people who opposed him but also of others who would remember, interpret and record - not, I think an accident. He is described as 'the Word' in the fourth Gospel and he is understood, in the Christian tradition, as demonstrating the interiority of a God who communicates constantly and who holds in being a desire for reciprocal communication in all its many chameleon colours. This is the true heart of all relationship.

Tonight, I'm celebrating the joy of letters and tweets, memories and fresh challenges and friends who persist in communicating down the years, generously sharing the riches of their lives and the gift of their interests and empathy.