Why can’t they leave things the same?

I’m afraid this website is being reorganised. New blog posts will appear on the home page, www.clatworthy.org. For the time being the ones here will remain unaffected.

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Food, the Pope and justice

Once again Pope Francis is causing a stir. Speaking at a United Nations conference on nutrition on Thursday, he called for a more just distribution of the world’s bounty. He said that access to food is a basic human right and should not be subjected to market speculation and the search for profits: ‘We ask for dignity, not for charity… It is also painful to see that the struggle against hunger and malnutrition is hindered by “market priorities,” the “primacy of profit,” which have reduced foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation, also of a financial nature.’

vegetablesIf these remarks turn out to be influential the big guns will be turned against him. Nevertheless he is addressing an issue which is rapidly deteriorating on a world scale as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. What is happening is not going to be resolved by slight tweaking, a bit more tax here and a bit less there. Since the end of the Cold War the west has behaved as if it won and its way of life should now be unopposed. The result is these ever-increasing extremes of wealth and poverty. It cannot last.

My aim in this post is to offer a Christian ethical account of why the Pope is right. My reason is that the people who have created the present situation seem to be winning the intellectual argument. Those who care about poverty need to develop a clear, convincing intellectual case for change.

For the sake of brevity I am keeping the points as simple as possible. The present regime defends itself something like this.

  1. Capital creates wealth. While Marx argued that wealth is created by the working class, the present neo-conservative consensus is that wealth is created by the owners of capital.
  2. The amount of wealth to be created needs to grow continually. When we do not have economic growth, unemployment and recession follow.
  3. Wealth is measured by the amount of money changing hands.
  4. People with only a little to buy or sell are comparatively unimportant to the economy. People who receive money but do not engage in paid employment are a hindrance to the economy.
  5. Inequalities, like starvation in the midst of plenty, are caused by failures of economic management.
  6. The way the economy works is very complicated. Managing it requires great technical expertise. The well-being of the world’s economic order is dependent on a small number of economic experts. Without them there would be chaos.
  7. We must therefore pay them as much as they ask.
  8. Justice – that is, what morally ought to happen – is that everybody obeys the rules, rules designed to maximise the total amount of wealth.

Here is my alternative.

  1. Wealth is created by God. Or, if you don’t believe in God, call it nature. Nature, or God, provides the things we need, including our brains and muscles so that we can look after each other.
  2. The amount of wealth created is enough to meet everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed. The idea of increasing wealth to provide for greed as well as need is what has got us into this mess.
  3. Wealth should be measured not by money but by seeing whether people’s needs are met and whether they live fulfilling lives.
  4. Some people are fit and healthy and can help others. Some people are too young or too old or too ill or too handicapped and need a lot of help from others. They are not a hindrance to legitimate objectives, as there are enough able-bodied people to care for them.They should not be discriminated against in any way. They are loved by God just as much.
  5. Inequalities are caused by some people using their power to take more than their share, thus depriving others.
  6. The way the economy works is not a matter of technical expertise. Instead, as the European tradition knew until the eighteenth century, it is a matter of morality. It is a matter of people caring for each other, noticing what other people need, and helping. This caring role applies to everybody who is not severely disabled or ill, but it applies more to people with more power, like governments.
  7. Some people need more than others, but nobody earns or deserves twice as much as a full-time hospital nurse.
  8. Justice would be when everybody’s needs are met. To achieve it, we will need to abandon the fantasy of never-ending economic growth.
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Rochester’s white van man and jittery politicians

The fall-out from the Rochester by-election speaks volumes about the emotional state of leading British politicians. All three of the traditional main parties did badly. Although this was largely expected, party leaders felt obliged to do what they usually do – argue that their party didn’t really do that badly, or anyway not as badly as their rivals.

Photo of house with flags and van

The now famous Rochester photo

Trivial events get heavily publicised as though they were more important than how these parties think the country should be governed. One is Dennis Skinner’s outburst in the House of Commons (Dennis Skinner is your favourite MP, here’s why). Mark Reckless, the by-election winner, was sworn in as UKIP’s second Member of Parliament on Friday, only to be torn into by Skinner, not known for being mild-mannered. Criticising UKIP for its stance on foreigners and its ‘talk about sending them back’, he said:

We dragged the National Health Service from the depths of degradation… I’ve got a United Nations heart bypass to prove it. It was done by a Syrian cardiologist, a Malaysian surgeon, a Dutch doctor and a Nigerian registrar.

At the time of writing, Skinner’s more-popular-than-usual speech is being overshadowed by endless debate about something seriously trivial. The Labour candidate, Emily Thornberry, committed the error of tweeting a photo of a house draped with England flags and with a white van parked outside. Her comment on it was ‘Image from Rochester’. As a result she has had toresign from her shadow cabinet post. Apparently Ed Miliband was furious. Speaking on Sky Newshe said:

I was angry because I thought her tweet gave a misleading impression when she photographed a house in which the family lived that somehow Labour had the wrong view of that family. It’s not the view we have of that family. Labour’s never had that view of disrespect and I’m afraid her tweet conveyed a sense of disrespect – that’s not my view, that’s not Labour’s view, it’s wrong, it never will be our view and that’s why I think it was right she resigned.

The usual suspects jumped in. David Cameron added:

Effectively what this means is that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party sneers at people who work hard, who are patriotic and who love their country, and I think that is absolutely appalling.

To Nigel Farage it seemed clear that Thornberry ‘looked down her nose’ at working people. The van owner said ‘I’ve not got a clue who she is, but she’s a snob’ – which I find interesting: if he doesn’t know her, how does he know she is a snob?

At the time of writing there is no end to the saga. The van owner then went to Thornberry’s home armed with a flag, only to find that she was out. And so on.

I have no idea what was going on in Thornberry’s mind when she sent the tweet but I see no evidence that she intended to be critical. I am inclined to agree withRebecca Winson. People who live in estates where England flags are prominently displayed are better able to judge what statements they are making: when they express support for a football team, when they are making an anti-immigrant statement, and so on. Ed Miliband is not one of these people, yet he leads the political party that likes to think it represents them. What he knows is that the social class he actually belongs to does have stereotypes of ‘white van man’ and families who drape England flags around their houses; but this same class knows that it is not politically correct to express disapproval of them. Having lived in both cultures myself I am well aware of the huge differences, and I am not at all surprised that Miliband feels sensitive about his situation.

Above all, this fall-out from the by-election tells us volumes about the jittery state of the traditional political leaders. The Huffington Post has a good analysis with its article ‘Seven utterly depressing things we have learned about British politics ‘.

Meanwhile, here in Liverpool 17 we have just received Labour Rose, the local Labour Party leaflet, explaining that the Labour Council is rescuing Liverpool’s libraries ‘from closure due to Government cuts’.

Actually the cuts are demanded by the Government but the original decision to close the libraries was a Council decision. So the news is that Labour has saved the libraries from a Labour decision. The leaflet doesn’t mention that the official opposition party, the Green Party, had conducted a popular campaign against the closures, but it is a pleasure to have one’s attention turned to something that does have practical significance.

If the media discussion of Rochester is going to set the tone for political debate between now and the General Election, one can only sympathise with the Occupy protestorsin their complaint that we do not have any real democracy.

Personally I would like to be governed by people who know what they believe, explain it warts and all so that we all understand, and leave it to the voters to decide whether they want it. People like that do not get jittery about their prospects of winning or losing. Instead they explain what they believe in doing.

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Assisted dying: must people suffer?

Is it acceptable to make innocent people suffer in order to uphold society’s moral norms about the sanctity of life?

Love or oppression?

In his Church Times article opposing assisted dying (Church Times 1 November 2014) Nigel Biggar, a leading British ethicist, accepts that many of the terminally ill endure intense suffering, but argues that

when suffering is borne for the sake of protecting fellow-citizens against the hostile manipulation that would arise from the legalisation of assisted suicide, then suffering is no longer meaningless for it becomes an act of love. And meaningful suffering is sometimes easier to bear.

tabletsI disagree. It does not become an act of love unless the dying person chooses to treat it as such. On the contrary it becomes an act of oppression: Biggar, or rather the kind of society he promotes, is imposing suffering because of the norms it holds. It defends its norms at the expense of the suffering.

Biggar’s logic is common enough. In the same way, at the time of the 1967 Abortion Act, many theologians argued that even dying in childbirth was to be humbly accepted as God’s will, rather than putting to death an innocent unborn baby.

Changing moral norms

Of course it has to be somebody else who does the suffering, not oneself. Every society has norms, some of which oppress minorities. Social norms change, but slowly. In the meantime the majority would rather let those minorities carry on suffering indefinitely than question the norms they have been brought up to take for granted.

In British history the classic example is the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Looking back it seems to us astonishing that so many people believed illiterate poverty-stricken beggars could make magic spells work. They probably cursed their mean-fisted, uncaring neighbours more than they should have; but that the curses could have a magical effect is something most of us no longer believe. Eventually the beliefs changed, the norms changed with them, and the cruelties inflicted on these unfortunate people declined.

Our society still has norms which oppress, but because they are our norms, we take them for granted as obvious and we do not see them as oppressive. Nevertheless norms do change. A recent change has been in our attitudes to gays and lesbians. Fifty years ago British society condemned same-sex partnerships. In effect society demanded of them a celibacy which most people did not want for themselves. Gradually society became more tolerant and its norms changed. By comparison with most changes of social norms, this was a quick one. Gays and lesbians organised and campaigned. They pressurised governments. Like sixteenth-century witches, young pregnant girls and the terminally ill have less influence.

At any one time, then, some minorities are suffering the adverse effects of their society’s norms. Societies do change their norms, but slowly. Depending on who you are, society may ignore your suffering for very long periods of time. Is this an acceptable price to pay?

The philosophies behind the norms

Behind the particular issues lie different expectations about how good life can be. Christianity offers two conflicting answers. Our expectations are influenced by our deepest philosophies, which we rarely think about and may not notice at all. If we think human life ought to be, and can be, a fulfilling experience for everyone, we are more likely to look for ways to achieve it. If instead we think intense suffering will always be a part of fallen human life we will see less point in trying to alleviate any one instance of it.

Christianity comes in different versions and can support either. According to one, a good God has created a good world and wants the best for us, so when somebody is suffering some wrong needs to be put right. Alternatively we live in a fallen world; perfection exists only in heaven and we should not expect to go through life without tragedy and pain.

To these two we can now add a third: that the world was not created at all, but came into existence as the accidental product of unthinking physical processes. If so, it is presumptuous to suppose either that societies can do better or that they cannot; all we can do is observe the results of the social norms that have actually prevailed in any one place, and reflect on whether we like them.

Most of the time modern western society takes a positive view. We think of cancer, poverty, homelessness and crime as problems to be solved, not as inevitable tragedies of life. Solving these problems counts as progress. In historical fact, but also in logic, this belief in progress derives from faith in a God of goodness and purpose.

It was this commitment to the possibility of progess that made our parents and grandparents so dissatisfied with permanent distress that they changed social norms. To relieve people of abusive marriages they accepted divorce. To relieve people of poverty and homelessness they created the welfare state. To relieve people of enforced sexual abstinence they accepted contraception and, later, same-sex partnerships.

It is possible to believe that all these were mistakes. Perhaps the very idea of progress, and reducing suffering, is an error. Most of us however think that, although some attempts proved counter-productive, we were right to do what we could to relieve suffering. If so, we should apply the same logic to the terminally ill.

This means that no society should accept as normal that an unfortunate minority are going through intense suffering, and refuse to do anything about it. There is a moral imperative to help. If society’s norms prevent help, it is time to question the norms. There must be something wrong with them.

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Assisted dying and the law

On 7th November Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will return to the House of Lords for scrutiny in committee.

On Thursday I attended a talk on the subject by Falconer himself. He said his Bill is deliberately restricted as he himself would not wish to go further. It only applies to terminally ill patients of sound mind with a maximum of six months to live, and they have to make the decision and administer it themselves.

hospital patientFalconer told us that about 70% of the population think the law needs changing, and the percentage is the same for churchgoers. The medical profession are divided on the subject. The main opposition comes from religious leaders, who however say they object not for spiritual reasons but because of the risk of abuse.

The next day the Church Times carried an article by Nigel Biggar opposing the Bill. Biggar offers three arguments. The first is about the safeguards to ensure that nobody is put under undue pressure to choose an assisted death. He thinks they would not be effective in practice:

Many vulnerable people live, make their choices, and exercise their “autonomy” in an environment that is hostile, not supportive.

His second argument is that the Bill would

enshrine in law the implicit endorsement of the principle that some life is not worth living, and is not to be borne.

Once this principle was accepted, he argues, it would then be reasonable to ask why assisted dying should not be extended to those not capable of administering it themselves, or to those not terminally ill, especially as many of the cases recently publicised by the media would not be covered by the Bill.

Biggar’s third objection really just spells out the point of the second:

Once the principle is established in law that some life is not worth living and may be terminated, political momentum will gather for the extension of eligibility.

Who is right? When we focus on this specific Bill – or indeed any specific Bill – they both are. Falconer’s proposal is so closely restricted that it would not provide relief for a great many people sentenced to intense pain for the rest of their lives. They must continue to suffer, not because they deserve it, but because society cannot agree what to do. On the other hand, some of those who are covered by the Bill may be affected adversely, for the reason Biggar gives. Widen the scope of the Bill and it includes more of the dying while increasing the risks. Wherever the legislation draws the line, the line is in the wrong place for many people.

In other words, the law is the wrong instrument. The way laws work is that the same wording, once passed by governments, applies to everyone. Laws are supposed to treat everyone the same. Yet every case of a dying person is unique. No law can possibly get it right for everyone.

I come at this as an ethicist, not a lawyer. In each case the right answer needs to be judged on its merits – on the basis of love for the person concerned. The decision should be made by people who know and care for the dying person.

To make this possible the law needs to be changed, to let each decision be made by people who know the patient and the family well enough, understand the issues and have no vested interests. But who should that be? There are good reasons for believing it should be neither the medical staff nor the relatives. Who else is there?

This, as I see it, is the big sticking-point. Reliance on the law implies that we do not think anybody can be trusted to make the decision on someone else’s behalf, unless they are obliged to follow precise rules.

What, nobody? Is our society so atomised, so individualised, that in our hour of greatest need there is absolutely nobody we would trust to make an informed and compassionate decision about the end of our life?

For some, there really is nobody. They are a minority. I can think of people I would happily nominate to make the decision for me if I reach that state, and you can probably do so too. I only wish the law would allow us to do so.

The problem is the other way round: nobody wants to be given that responsibility. We avoid thinking about death; and when it comes near, for ourselves or someone else, we are hopelessly unprepared. We do not know how to evaluate the situation, so we do not know what to do.

Death is spooky. A century ago it would have been a different matter. There were not so many ways to keep people alive then, but I think the main difference is that most people believed in life after death. Different people believed in different afterlives, but as long as death was a transition to something else, it was possible to talk about it. Now that the dominant narrative is that death is a complete end, nobody wants to talk about it. So nobody knows what to do when somebody is dying – except to try to keep them alive.

Yet these decisions often have to be made. I suspect that good decisions will be made more often if, instead of a one-size-fits-all law, we were given the right to nominate one or more people whom we trust to make the decision on our behalf. Legal safeguards would still no doubt be needed, but no system will be satisfactory if it does not allow for the fact that every case is unique. If you think this is a bad idea, please submit a comment and explain why.

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Bread and circuses

At the bottom end of the socio-economic scale, what is happening in Britain today is what my generation thought would never happen. We had the welfare state. Anyway we were too civilised to allow it. How wrong we were. Starvation, homelessness and the criminalisation of those with no income are all continually increasing.

woman beggingThere is no shortage of evidence. Statistics abound. An example is the report of the Joint Public Issues Team representing the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches. For an example of the personal effect, see this report of a man ‘sanctioned, starved then jailed’. A good example of research on what is happening in Liverpool is the Getting By Project.

To anyone who cares for the well-being of other people all this is truly horrific, but you will be lucky to spot any such information in a newspaper or television programme. Why is it not front page news?

Because what Owen Jones calls ‘the Establishment’ in his latest book – the political class, business leaders and the mass media – are, between them, making sure most of us remain unaware.

The economic experiment the cruel dictator Pinochet conducted in Chile is now being imposed on European counties including the UK. It is wrapped up in economic theory, but the point is that, to make the rich richer, the poor must be made poorer.

A general election is only a few months away so, for a short while, public opinion matters. The three traditional techniques are being used for all they are worth.

1. Blame the victims

If we will insist on caring about the plight of the desperately poor, they give us someone else to blame. This is the age-old trick of ‘divide and rule’. The Government is distracting attention from their own cruelties by setting the employed against the unemployed. Get yourself a job, lazybones – as though anyone could go into town and just do that. By promoting a witch-hunt against welfare recipients, within a few short years the Government has turned the banking crisis into a welfare crisis. Last week Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions launched an advertising campaign to encourage us to report anyone we know who is fraudulently receiving benefits. If you think this is a sensible initiative, read this Huffington Post article.

2. Change the subject

Better still if we can be persuaded to forget about poverty. Those who are desperate for something to eat probably won’t vote anyway. Those of us who care about what is going on in the country need to be given different things to worry about. The two issues chosen for us are the European Union and immigration.

Neither of these issues is a significant factor in the present situation. The debate about the EU picks up on a bit of xenophobia, and there is no doubt some irritation in government circles that they have to abide by EU rules, but the real debate is between business leaders. Big business is a competitive world, so inevitably some favour the EU and others do not.

As for immigration, the number of non-UK citizens entering the UK is only slightly greater than the number of UK citizens choosing to live elsewhere. Migrants need some kind of income, either benefits or a paid job. Whichever they do, we can condemn them. Meanwhile, British opinion polls show that the number who think foreigners should be restricted from entering the UK far exceeds the number who think British emigrants should be sent back home.

Neither the EU nor immigration are significant contributors to the declining standard of living so many people are experiencing. They are being given disproportionate time in the media to distract us from the real reasons living conditions are getting worse.

3. Entertain us

Most of all, what they would like us to do is to ignore what they are doing altogether. We need to be distracted by what Juvenal called ‘bread and circuses’.

Juvenal was an ancient Roman satirist. This phrase comes from one of satires (10.81, written in the early second century CE). He mocks those who seek power, singling out Sejanus who governed the empire for some years on behalf of the emperor Tiberius. Sejanus was deposed when Tiberius was convinced that he was governing badly. Juvenal writes:

The head of the people’s darling glows red-hot, great Sejanus
Crackles and melts. That face only yesterday ranked
Second in all the world. Now it’s so much scrap-metal,
To be turned into jugs and basins, frying-pans, chamber-pots…
Everyone cheers. ‘Just look at that
Ugly stuck-up face,’ they say. ‘Believe me, I never
Cared for the fellow.’

Juvenal knew how seriously to take popular opinion:

If the doddering Emperor
Had been struck down out of the blue, this identical rabble
Would now be proclaiming that carcase an equal successor
To Augustus.

Tiberius was the second emperor. Before the first, Augustus, there had been a republic with Roman citizens given the vote. Since many citizens lived in desperate poverty there had been much selling of votes. Juvenal continues:

But nowadays, with no vote to sell, their motto
Is ‘Couldn’t care less’. Time was when their plebiscite elected
Generals, Heads of State, commanders of legions: but now
They’ve pulled in their horns, there’s only two things that concern them:
Bread and circuses.

What Juvenal could see then is happening now. Unlike the Romans we still have the vote, but we have become disillusioned with it. What is the point of voting, if it makes no difference? So people lose interest. Bread and circuses – food and entertainment – suffices to keep most people happy, and that is how the ruling classes consolidate their power.

So the establishment – in Owen Jones’ sense – is busy encouraging us to be satisfied with this. If we do not vote at all we do not threaten them. If we are to vote, they give us the usual range of much-publicised traditional parties; and since we protest, they give us one protest party whose only significant proposal is to exit the EU.

Meanwhile the newspapers and television programmes fill us with irrelevant entertainment to squeeze out any serious analysis. They want us to be bored with politics.

Last May, while the Euro-election campaign was in its stride, I was reading some Greek newspapers. The contrast was unmistakeable. The Greek newspapers followed the campaign and the election results in incomparably greater detail than the British ones did. As far as the British estabishment are concerned, we are to become what Juvenal despised – only concerned with bread and circuses, leaving them to do the governing.

We could stop the rot. Sadly, the method to stop them only arises once every five years. May 2015 is only a few months away. So far, the opinion polls show that their methods of distraction are working nicely. Opposition is growing, but has a long way to go.

We could vote for bread and circuses. Or we could vote to care for our fellow-citizens.

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The definition of marriage

I was caught out. On Thursday I was giving a talk on homosexuality to a church deanery readers’ group. I expected differences of opinion, but the big sticking-point was not what I expected.

Detail from Gay Marriage Cake by Giovanni Dall'Orto

Detail from Gay Marriage Cake by Giovanni Dall’Orto

Nobody argued that intimate same-sex partnerships were immoral. That seemed fine. What was unacceptable, to those who disapproved, was the decision to change the definition of marriage. Gays and lesbians can do what they like, as long as they do not call it marriage.

I suppose I should not have been surprised. This, after all, was one interpretation of the Church of England’s formal Response to the Government’s consultation on gay marriage. This Response, published in June 2012, is emphatic that

the intrinsic nature of marriage, as enshrined in human institutions since before the  advent of either church or state, is the union of a man and a woman.

Why does this matter? Civil partnerships are fine – they have solved all the inequality issues – but

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a   dilution  in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental   complementarity of men and women  from the social and legal definition of marriage.

Instead, I thought this argument was so weak that it would rapidly be forgotten. How silly of me. So let us examine what it means.

Meaning 1: gay partnerships are immoral because of the definition of marriage

First we define the word ‘marriage’, and then we can deduce which actions are moral and which are immoral. We have a tradition that sex outside marriage is immoral. To widen the definition of marriage is to permit sexual activity in more situations.

I suspect that many church leaders were motivated by this thought when opposing gay marriage. It is as though gay and lesbian partnerships are to become morally acceptable not because of ethical reflection on what they do but because a word has been redefined. This, they must feel, is not the way to change moral norms.

It is not indeed. But let us be clear why. On this point there is a big difference between law and morality. Governments pass laws. The judiciary apply them to individual cases. In order to do so, all they have to go on is the words. Judges do not go back 20 years to when a law was passed and ask the members of parliament what they meant; the meanings of the words are the top authority.

In moral judgements this is not the case. Since this was a Church of England meeting, I think we would have found a consensus that the top moral authority is the way God thinks we ought to behave. Not a set of words. Many people believe moral norms are not derived from God, so they need some other account of moral authority; but I have never come across anyone who thinks moral truths can be deduced simply from the meanings of words.

So for present purposes let’s stick with God. God has created us in such a way that we are free to perform morally good or evil acts. Meanwhile the definitions of words vary from one language to another. Translators know that many words are not precisely translatable. You can translate ‘rabbit’ into French accurately. ‘Chocolate’ is different; addicts know that what we call chocolate is not what they get in France. Abstract relational words have much fuzzier edges. ‘Marriage’, like ‘honour’ and ‘friendship’, can have subtly different parameters.

So let’s suppose that the French and English languages have always limited ‘marriage’ to opposite-sex relationships. Then, let us say, the English change their minds, and redefine the English word to include gay marriages, but the French do not make the equivalent change. If the moral status of the marital condition depends on the definitions of words, this means that gay marriages are now morally permissible for English speakers but not for French speakers.

Because the top moral authority is God, this means that God approves of English same-sex marriages but not French ones. Why? God is obliged to take this bizarre line, because the English have changed the meaning of the word.

It’s absurd. If you really think this is how to establish moral truths, I just hope you are not fluent in both languages.

Meaning 2: gay partnerships are fine but redefining marriage does harm

From what I remember hearing, Thursday’s opponents of gay marriage were not concerned about the physical activities of gays and lesbians. What they do is their own affair. Civil partnerships are fine. The problem lay simply in the fact that the word ‘marriage’ is being redefined. It has always been about one man and one woman, and so it should remain.

If so, this is a major liberalisation. Has the opposition to same-sex partnerships been reduced to debate about the definition of one word?

I suspect that more lies behind it. No doubt the readers were aware that the redefinition of the word ‘marriage’ (inasmuch as it is a redefinition, which is debatable) is being driven by those who positively believe gay partnerships ought to be treated the same as straight ones. So the proposal to redefine the word is being driven by a moral claim. How are the opponents of the moral claim to resist it? By resisting the redefinition. If this is what is happening, we are back to Meaning 1.

Fudge is sweet

Nevertheless these are two very different arguments, one about what gays and lesbians may do and the other about how to define a word. They have been confused with each other. If we recall the situation in June 2012, confusion was exactly what was needed.

For a long time – since well before the 1997 Global South Conference at Kuala Lumpur which expressed it explicitly – opposition to same-sex partnerships was the dominant campaign that unified evangelical opinion. From 2002 onwards the campaign against it was front-page news time and time again: the appointment of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, the proposal to appoint Jeffrey John to a bishoprick, the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire,  the order of service for same-sex blessings in New Westminster, the succession of threatening Primates’ Statements, the Windsor Report, the threats of schism in America, the actual schisms, the proposals for an Anglican Covenant.

By 2012, the mood had changed. The general public were fed up of the schismatics. Ordinary churchgoers, faced with the prospect of splits and legal battles, saw more clearly the advantage of accepting differences of opinion within the same church. Evangelical churches were finding that their opposition to same-sex partnerships was making them unpopular with young people.

The leadership had recently been defeated over the Anglican Covenant: on 24th March the diocesan votes had reached a majority against. They then faced a bruising battle over women bishops. Suddenly faced with yet another controversy, the government proposal to introduce gay marriage, they produced what in retrospect has to be admired as a brilliant confusion of issues. I doubt whether anyone thought of it like this at the time.

The Response could be, and has been, interpreted in two radically different ways. According to Meaning 1, the official line is still that same-sex partnerships are contrary to church teaching. The Church’s teaching has not changed. According to Meaning 2, What gays and lesbians do in bed with each other is no longer important. The big objection now is about how we define the word ‘marriage’. Clergy and lay readers could begin the process of forgetting what they were previously expected to believe in.

And so, step by step, the Church of England’s leadership disinvests itself of a foolish campaign against same-sex partnerships. It does so slowly, constantly claiming the moral high ground, never admitting it was wrong in the past, always retaining enough of last year’s rhetoric to save face and give the impression of continuity. Progress!

Posted in Churches, Ethics, Religion, Sexuality | 1 Comment

Does the Church still need parishes?

For churchgoers, yet another fascinating YouGov survey by Linda Woodhead for the Westminster Faith Debates. This one is about the views of Anglican clergy. Anthony Woollard comments here.

In this post I focus on the finding that 83% want to maintain the parish system, which divides England into areas served by a priest provided with a vicarage. There are also other interesting findings. A summary is here.


Pensford, Somerset

The old parish system

My awareness of the issue goes back to 1964 and the Leslie Paul Report. I was a teenager at the time, brought up in a Somerset vicarage. While I was helping to collate, fold and staple parish magazines my father told me about this new report, threatening that if current trends continued the parish system as we knew it would cease to exist.

Current trends did continue and that parish system did cease to exist. It was killed off by an endless succession of incremental changes designed to keep it going. The 83% do not know what they are missing.

50 years ago, what the parish system meant to Leslie Paul was what my father had. One parish, one Church Council, one village with a population around a thousand. He had two churches, half a mile apart, but the parish stretched for many miles. He cycled round it.

He had time to make thorough preparations for Sunday’s sermon; no leaving it to a half-hour session on Saturday evening. I don’t suppose he knew the names of everyone in the parish, but I guess he knew most. At any rate he could think creatively about the needs of the young people, the sick and the elderly, because he knew enough of them.

The bishop would make an occasional visit, but there would not be much of an agenda; the assumption was that he knew what to do and could be trusted to get on with it. One such visit took place the day after some cows in a neighbouring field had trampled down a hedge and visited the Vicarage garden. The conversation went: ‘Delicious sprouts. Did you grow them yourself?’ ‘Yes, they are the ones the cows didn’t like.’

In towns it was different. Parishes had a higher population. Not only every house but every office and factory was in a parish and visiting them was part of the vicar’s repertoire. Rural or urban, the clergy were expected to be concerned with the life and well-being of the whole parish.

The changes

No longer. With the reduction in numbers, let alone the tendency to move more often, clergy cannot know their parishes so well even if they treat it as their top priority.

Then there are the financial pressures. In 1964 they were already mounting, but the pressures were not as great as now. The programme of closing churches down to save money had not yet got into its stride.

Another difference is mobility. Especially in urban areas, they are often meaningless. Just as people live in one parish, work in another and go to social events in another again, they can choose their church on the basis of what it offers. In one of my parishes there was a housing block where the residents were in one parish in the kitchen and another in the living room. It proved convenient, as the relevant vicars had different baptism policies.

Then there is centralisation. Being a parish priest is no longer a matter of being trained and left to get on with it. The initiatives come from on high, so engaging with the parish for its own sake gets pushed down the priority list. Along with the top-down decision-making, inevitably, comes an endless stream of forms to fill in and meetings to attend – otherwise ‘they’ do not know what clergy are up to.

Threatened with decline, those responsible become defensive. Just as Rowan Williams did not want the Anglican Communion to split up while he was Archbishop, and David Cameron did not want the United Kingdom to split up while he was Prime Minister, so also, at any one time, the people running the institutional Church of England do not want the parish system to break down while they are responsible.

The result is the endless succession of incremental changes, putting two parishes into one here, reducing the number of clergy there, maintaining the pretence that the parish system continues while in reality turning it into something different. The fact that 83% of the clergy want to retain it probably just reflects the fact that it is their bread and butter: change the system and they will have to find another job and learn new skills.

Looking back in retrospect we can see what was wrong with the parish system as it was in 1964. It cost too much money and it needed too many full-time clergy. Trying to keep it running has meant ever-increasing financial pressure on the laity and ever-increasing pressure of work on clergy.

What to do instead? The key, I think, is to have far fewer full-time paid clergy, and restrict what they are expected to do.

In my view the only function that needs performing by full-time trained clergy is a teaching role. This is because the quality of teaching needs to be high – much higher than at present – so years of training are needed. It is a professional job.

By contrast, every local community has someone who would be good at leading worship, every local community has someone who is good at pastoral care, and every community with a medieval church has people keen to maintain it. These people should be formally authorised to perform their specific tasks, without any presupposition that they are thereby authorised to do anything else.

Instead of having clergy on the one hand and laity on the other, we would have a wide range of different roles. Where appropriate the wider church should provide resources and training, set parameters and pay expenses.

Much of this is happening already. However it is often hindered by the pull of the old parish system. People feel they need to ask the minister’s permission – and perhaps the minister wants to keep too much control. A clearer system establishing who is authorised to do what would help.

Keep parishes, not stipendiary priests

I therefore think we should keep parishes, keep them local, and authorise and encourage local initiatives in them. However we should withdraw from the provision of full-time stipendiary takers of services, maintainers of buildings, pastoral workers and club managers. When a local parish wants any of these, let it fund and appoint them itself as it sees fit. This change would also enable a dramatic reduction in the church hierarchy.

What would remain of the full-time stipendiary ministry would be professional teachers of Christianity; fewer, but more focused and better qualified. To pick a figure out of the air, if instead of 9,000-ish stipendiary clergy we had 500 people, around 10 per diocese, who were up to date with theological scholarship and able to articulate what Christianity has to offer to the concerns of contemporary society, the public voice of the Church of England would no longer need to be muffled by concern about managing the institution.

The main problem with this would not be the maintenance of local church services. Most of them would adapt, and it would be easier for new ones to start up. The problem would be getting the clergy to let go. They will need to be helped, but it should be possible.

I look forward to the day when the public voice of the Church is not muffled by anxieties about maintaining the institution but can express ongoing Christian reflection on who made us and how we should live. Promoted for its own sake, devoid of vested interests, it could offer a positive contribution to society’s current agonisings over its values and priorities.

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Houses are for living in

Oliver Wainwright describes the protests at the Mipim property fair in London this week.

Staged in Cannes for the past 25 years, it is being held in the UK for the first time this year, where it is projected to attract 4,000 delegates. The three-day event was opened by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, who reassured his audience that the city was “open for business” as ever, despite the disturbances outside.


Like a regional popularity contest, the fair hosts 35 cities and local authorities, each selling their investment opportunities in little booths plastered with aspirational slogans – from “Nottingham: the time is now, the place is here” to “Croydon: the economic powerhouse of the south-east”.

Aditya Chakrabortty explains the point of the fair.

What they’ll discuss will be the sale of public real estate, prime land already owned by you and me, to the private sector.

He adds

It’s a jaunt so lavish as to be almost comic – where big money developers invite town hall executives for secret discussions aboard private yachts, and whose regulars boast that they get through more champagne than all the liggers at the film festival.

Suitably oiled-up, local officials open talks with multinational developers to sell council housing estates and other sites. All this networking is so lucrative for the builders that they even fly over council staff.

Hence the protests. Wainwright again:

“This is the wrong type of housing,” said Linda Wade, who has lived in the area since 1976. “It’s fuelling the appetite for overseas investment rather than providing the homes that we desperately need. We’ve arrived at a toxic position, where developers are masterminding and dictating urban planning – not for the common good, but for their profit.

If it’s that bad, why are local councillors agreeing to sell? Chakrabortty explains:

You might think that seven years after the collapse of an economic system built on property speculation and amid a historic housing crisis, Mipim would have no place in the UK. You’d be wrong. Many of these councils are coming because they have no other means of raising serious cash: three decades after Thatcher’s rate caps, and four years into the most painful cuts faced by local government, they are flat broke. Some council leaders will admit as much privately. But in all cases, the strong scent of neediness comes off their planned Mipim session titles (“Croydon: the economic powerhouse of the south-east”) – and forces them into the kind of rotten deals that jeopardise the livelihoods of their residents.

To me, what it happening is utterly immoral. Evil. People are being driven out of their homes in order to make profits for businesspeople who do not need more money, and councillors who might otherwise have stood up for their residents are forced by financial pressure to go along with it.

Whatever the councillors think, the profiteers will of course disagree with my complaint. How do I defend my position? By making two ethical claims which are extremely unpopular in modern secular society.

Claim 1: transcendent moral truths

There are truths about ethical behaviour which transcend the ruling classes. If you want me to explain what I mean I shall have to talk about God. This is why my position is unpopular these days, when religion is supposed to be kept out of social policy.

The result is what we get: the refusal to accept the existence of any moral truths that transcend what people decide leaves us at the mercy of the rich and powerful. The flaccid fantasy that ‘we create our own values’ suits them nicely. As soon as you ask ‘Exactly who are “we”?’ the answer is obvious. ‘We’, the people who create our society’s values, are the ruling classes – the people who also create the laws and the taxes and decide which bits of information should fill our newspapers and television screens.

So the officers of Mipim can, in classic postmodern manner, allow me to have my old-fashioned moral beliefs, while insisting that I must let them have their very different beliefs. It is a good example of how the refusal to acknowledge higher moral truths leaves the ruling classes free to do whatever they want.

Claim 2: profit does not justify anything

In modern capitalist societies theories of well-being have got so far divorced from reality that black often becomes white. Obsession with the economy has led to ever-increasing government investment in those who move large amounts of money around. These movements of money no longer need to do anything useful. They do not need to provide houses for people to live in, any more than they need to feed the hungry. Economic success is measured by these movements of money, and of course the money-moving is orchestrated by the ultra-rich acting in their own interests.

So we end up with all the contradictions we have got used to. Just driving ever-increasing numbers to the desperation of the food banks is part of a policy of making us better off, so now kicking people out of their homes is, in Mipim’s fantasy world, a housing policy.

Houses are for living in. Any system which leaves some people homeless is an immoral system. There is no excuse for it.

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Assisted dying and medical technology

This is the third of a series of three posts on assisted dying. The first discussed the sanctity of life, the second the spookiness of death. This one is about the role of medical technology. As in the other two, I focus on what seems to me to be a blind spot in modern society’s understanding, in the hope that the ethics of assisted dying may be illuminated.

operationAssessments of modern technology are much debated. For some, it constitutes progress. For others, it enables the powerful to keep ahead of others. (See, for example, Y H Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, London: Harvill Secker, 2014; or John Gray’s arguments against the notion of progress, e.g. in Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions.) What is not disputed is that the emphasis on technology distinguishes modern western society. It has produced a sense of superiority over other societies, a sense which in the past has been used to justify imperialism. Technologies are not just means to ends; they are symbols of our society’s positive self-image.

This changes perceptions. Because we think of new technologies as good things in their own right we do not apply sufficient care to how and when to use them. Too often there is a default assumption that if a technology is available it should be used. If it were not so, we should be debating not ‘assisted dying’ but ‘hindered dying’.

To illustrate the point, let us take a terminally ill man who is in pain and wants to die but the technology is available to postpone death. The relatives could discuss the situation with the doctor. However the wife gets so emotional at the thought of his death that she cannot take part. The daughter has for months been juggling a full-time job with regular visits and is utterly exhausted. The son is hoping to inherit money. A balanced, well-informed discussion of the patient’s best interests is impossible. For everybody involved it is extremely difficult to hold an informed and dispassionate discussion about the implications of the wife’s emotions and the daughter’s stress, especially in their presence. It is far easier to discuss the statistical probability of an operation’s success. As a result the temptation is to jump at the default position: the technology is there, so use it.

This is hardly satisfactory. If nothing else changes except that life-saving technology carries on improving, we shall sentence the dying to longer and longer periods of terminal pain. This suggests that our society lacks two things. One is an open, public discourse realistically assessing the proper limits of new technologies, including medical technologies. The other is a supportive wider community – some equivalent to a small rural village – which knows the family, empathises, and can share the burden of thinking through what to do without being so close to the dying person that emotions dominate.

Technology depends on science, and the cult of technology depends on the cult of ever-increasing knowledge. Until a century ago many physicists believed that one day they would have a complete account of the universe. Now it is clear that the universe is far too complex. There will always be processes we do not understand. The things we do not know will always exceed the things we do know. Our deepest, most significant decisions will always depend on unmeasured assessments of feelings. The cult of technology is reluctant to accept this and often gives undue weight to measurable scientific facts. By recognising that these facts are only a small part of reality, we can reaffirm that the big decisions of life and death need to be made not just by scientific data, but by love.

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