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A strange form of establishment

25 July 2014

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THE last word on the women-bishops debate (for the moment, at any rate) goes to Sam Leith, in The Times: "As someone remarked on Twitter, the appointment of female bishops is like finding out your grandma finally has broadband."

IT WAS a busy week. After the women, we were almost immediately into the Falconer debate on euthanasia. The Economist was gung-ho in a way that no one else quite dared: "It is also true that, as some countries relax their restrictions on assisted suicide, the practice will become more common and there will probably be pressure for other restrictions to be removed. But there is nothing unusual in this. Moral absolutes are rare. When faced with dilemmas societies draw boundaries and carve out exceptions.

"In even the seemingly clearest of cases, such as the prohibition on killing, exceptions are made for things like war and self-defence. Assisted suicide is no different and each society's boundaries will no doubt differ and evolve, as they already have. The Netherlands and Belgium legalised assisted suicide in 2001 and 2002, but only the latter has approved the practice for terminally ill children."

Similarly, Matthew Parris, in The Times, went head on for an objection frequently made: "News that a former Archbishop of Canterbury is softening towards assisted suicide has prompted the usual media alarm that people may end their lives so as not to be a burden to others. People say this as if it were a terrible reason for killing yourself. Why? If I should ever end my life it will certainly be among my reasons."

I do think this goes to the very heart of the debate: both the aspect of autonomy - what right do we have to tell people that they ought to be a burden on others, or even to judge, as outsiders, whether they are - and the slightly different libertarian argument whether the state can demand moral behaviour from families: if everyone hates granny, perhaps because she is, as some grannies are, quite genuinely loathsome, what right has the state got to insist that they behave better?

The libertarian answer to that is nicely summed up by The Economist's leader, which puts a most unusual faith in government regulation to solve the problem: "Vulnerable people . . . may indeed feel pressure, but that is simply a reason to set up a robust system of counselling and psychiatric assessment, requiring the agreement of several doctors that a patient is in their right mind, and proceeding voluntarily." Not since we were assured by the same paper that the invasion of Iraq would improve the Middle East has it been so confident of the benevolent power of Western bureaucracy.

There is a curious dislocation here. Because the great shift in sexual morality was understood, in part, as an abandonment of all rules, rather than the replacement of one set by another, it seems extraordinarily hard to argue for laws that promote virtue without sounding either hollow and pretentious - the danger for conservatives - or nannyish and frankly rather boring, as the Left can sound. Some religious objections have managed to be both; some gracefully evaded both traps.

The Rt Revd John Inge, writing in The Guardian about the death of his wife, Denise, managed to be dignified, personal, and persuasive, speaking from the authority of experience and evident thoughtfulness rather than appealing to whatever respect is still felt due to a Bishop of Worcester.

It is interesting that he chose to give his speech to a newspaper, rather than delivering it, as planned, in the House of Lords. It almost certainly had far more impact that way and, of course, I am delighted. But I can't help, at the same time, feeling that there is something wrong here. Is a regular newspaper column worth more - in terms of power - than a seat in the House of Lords? On reflection, it almost certainly is. So the levers of patronage once held by Prime Ministers are now held by newspaper editors and proprietors. What a strange form of establishment!

THE other big religious story of the week was the results of the inquiry intothe "Trojan horse" schools in Birmingham. These found no evidence of terrorism, but plenty of bullying, dishonesty, corruption, and the teaching of thoroughly pernicious doctrines. The Guardian coverage had earlier been sceptical of the allegations, based mainly on the testimony of the deputy head of Park View School, and that of the reporter who had spent a couple of days there. But then the politial journalist Patrick Wintour got a leaked copy of the report, and his scoop started: "A damning report into extremist infiltration of Birmingham schools has uncovered evidence of 'coordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into some schools in the city'."

When you consider the background factors that made the Birmingham fiasco possible, it looks absolutely certain that there will be more of this in other cities in years to come.

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