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Synod agrees to revise disregarded suicide canon

Canon B38

GIVEN the "sensitive nature" of the private member's motion from Canon Michael Parsons (Gloucester), the General Synod was asked to "pause for silent reflection and prayer" before the debate began.

Introducing the debate, Canon Parsons said that the motion was not about assisted suicide, despite the Mail on Sunday headline "Church to legalise suicide". Instead, it was simply to "allow those who have taken their own life . . . to be buried in accordance with the rites of the Church of England".

He said that "a person who takes their whole life while of sound mind may not have a licensed C of E minister conduct their funeral in any shape or form." While this was "widely disregarded" by most clergy, "we take the funerals of murderers, rapists, child abusers, and gangsters. God himself is their judge, and we are happy to commit them to the mercy of God. But not, it seems, suicides."

Until 1882, the law had required those killed by suicide to be buried "between 9 p.m. and midnight, and without rite". This had led to burial outside the churchyard, without the services of the clergy, and at night.

The Church's position had "led to a view in many quarters that the Church is hostile to suicide", and it was seen as "being part of the problem, not the solution". One of his older parishioners had not been near a church for 60 years after she had been "refused a church service for her husband".

He said that Canon B38 prohibited funerals for those killed by suicide unless they used an order of service directed by the diocesan bishop or a service approved by the General Synod. He said that his former diocesan Bishop Michael Perham was "not aware of any such service in any diocese", and that the "General Synod has not approved any such service either."

"The overwhelming voice of the Christian Church over the ages has been in no doubt that it is indeed wrong," he said. "There have been a number of different positions as to the status regarding the salvation of a person who has taken their own life, from the most extreme that it is an unrepentable and unforgivable sin which must lead to hell, to more compassionate understandings that affirm the continued possibility of salvation for the person, but still regarding the act as sinful."

He continued: "Suicide is often a choice of the least painful option - to die rather than to live. It is also often a failure of hope - and, as Christians, hope is our currency, the substance of our preaching, and ought to be the fruit of our lives. Suicide is almost always a disaster for the families and friends left behind. We can and do ease some of the pain by sensitive funeral ministry."

The canon was "long past its sell-by date" and its revision "would be a significant PR plus for the Church".

The Revd Paul Hutchinson (York) suggested that what had been presented was "not the full truth" for those clergy who had conducted funerals of people who had taken their lives. "Is there a legal duty to conduct under the usual circumstances? The answer is Yes. Is there a legal rite that we can use in order to conduct those services? I believe the answer is Yes, because neither Common Worship nor the Alternative Service Book before it nor Series 3 expressed anywhere on their face any restriction whatsoever as to what kind of death those services could be used in respect of. . . Canon B38 muddies the waters but not as much as, I think, Canon Parsons would like to suggest." The position of the unbaptised was slightly less clear, and needed consideration. He concluded: "Let's revise the canon, but let's not give the impression we are not already permitted to do this."

The Revd Jonathan Frais (Chichester), who lives ten miles from Beachy Head, said that last year he spoke to someone visiting his church with the intention of saying farewell to God on his way to Beachy Head. Mr Frais wanted to "speak up for those who are not here: our forebears who put this into rules of Church of England. What did they think they were doing?"

He referred to the sixth commandment and to suicides in the Bible. But the forebears also viewed the law as educative and as a deterrent: "They were saying to people 'Why not get baptised?' and to the excommunicate 'Why not repent?' And to the potential suicide 'Please don't do this.'"

There were two views of the law before the Synod: "We could say our attention is on the grieving family and on the wider effect of mission and the reputation of the Church, or we could say we want the law to remain in place because of its deterrent value and educating role of the Church." He felt that a pastoral case could be made for either, but would vote against the motion because of the way it was presented. The canon did not forbid clergy from officiating. If a liturgy was needed, that was a job for the Liturgical Commission.

Elliot Swattridge (C of E Youth Council) spoke in "resolute support" of the motion. He pointed out that more than 500 young people aged 15-24 took their own lives every year, and that 26 per cent reported feeling suicidal at some point. Suicide was the leading cause of death in men under 35. "We who call ourselves the people of God of all comfort must not overlook this."

Although he believed that very few took the canon at face value or acted differently, he said: "In the eyes of society, as long as it is left unresolved, it remains an ink splash on the copybook of the Church."

He felt that "unscrupulous journalists" were partly to blame. Clergy could be portrayed as "legalistic, cold, and even cruel". So change was essential. He also urged the Church to "rethink our theology of suicide". None of the examples of suicide in the Bible came with an "explicit condemnation or any theological comment saying it is unforgivable". By passing the motion, the Synod could "let the light of God shine on to each young person in crisis."

The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, said that the canon did not express what the Church did, and was open to misunderstanding, as shown by adverse media coverage. Those involved in taking funerals knew that there was apprehensiveness when people approached church in cases of suicide - apprehensive of judgement or rejection. So pastoral antennae needed to be really alert.

The Revd Professor Paul Fiddes (Baptist Union) suggested that the Church should be "guided by the theology of an accepting God": it should be "accepting, even excessive", in caring for people in pastoral need. His 19-year-old son had taken his own life, and the local minister had gladly allowed him to be buried in his churchyard. Although his own circumstances would not have been altered by the proposed change - he had received "acceptance without limits" - in other cases, such acceptance might well require a change in church law.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, sought to emphasise that the clergy could already take these funerals. Nothing prohibited their doing so, and the Synod should be clear about this. Canon law did say that the form of service needed to be approved by a bishop, and perhaps this should be removed.

If the motion was passed, there would be an opportunity for the Faith and Order Commission and the House of Bishops to consider the "position in the round, including those who die unbaptised, and those who take their lives in sound mind". He told the Synod to approve the motion on these grounds, "but not because we can't at the moment carry out Christian funeral for those who commit suicide".

Angela Scott (Rochester) had twice found someone who had taken his or her own life. She welcomed this motion, because she had not realised that "it was still officially not permitted for a minister to take a service of this sort."

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) emphasised that "no one, whatever that person has done, can be beyond the mercy and love of God, and that is not a judgement that Synod or clergy taking funerals can be expected to make on God's behalf, and no one can truly judge the state of mind of another person. But we can safely assume there is at least a possibility that anyone who was suffering so much he took his own life at least might quite likely have been of unsound mind.

"Nevertheless, the teaching of the Church we have inherited is that suicide is wrong, and I am worried about the message we would send out if we accept this amendment."

She was concerned by the possibility of links being made to the current legislative proposals in Parliament on Assisted Suicide: that this could be perceived as paving the way for acceptance.

The Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, suggested that "any parish priest with heart and brain learns very quickly that 

there are no slick answers to the enigma of suicide. . . Clergy must take time, pastoral expertise, and instinct, and mature Christian common sense in the way in which they lead people through this enigma. Canon law needs amendment, and we should not be hesitating at this. The Liturgical Commission must take another look, and ministers need support."

The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford) referred to earlier debates about how to maintain the ministry of the Church in every place and to all people. The canon provided a complicated list of exceptions to the duty to bury, concerning baptism and cremation, as well as suicide. He urged the revision of the canon.

Tom Sutcliffe (Southwark) told the Synod how, when his grandfather had killed himself in the 1930s, he had been buried in a churchyard. "It's not a new thing that Anglican priests have used discretion. But it is incredibly important." He supported the motion.

The Revd Dr Rosalyn Murphy (Archbishops' Council) said that she served one of the most deprived parishes in England, where suicide was common. "I suspect the intention with this motion is to remove obstacles that might actually impede the offer of pastoral care to survivors and family friends." So she supported the motion.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) spoke about a regular communicant who had attempted suicide during an episode when he was "high as a kite", but was horrified that he had done so, because he believed it to be wrong. Fr Seville emphasised that suicide was always a "horror" and "awful", and that they should not forget that in a laudable attempt to offer pastoral support.

The Revd Michael Booker (Ely) said his parish had had six suicides in recent years, all young, and most of them men. He spoke in favour of the motion, because he said sometimes clergy were not in the business of condoning what had happened, but speaking against it. "If we don't take these funerals, somebody else will, and different things will be said," he said.

The motion was carried by 262 to 5, with 6 recorded abstentions:

That this Synod call on the Business Committee to introduce legislation to amend Canon B 38 so as to allow those who have taken their own life, whatever the circumstances, to be buried in accordance with the rites of the Church of England.

The Samaritans are available round the clock to listen to anyone who is troubled. Phone 08457 90 90 90. For branches, see www.samaritans.org 

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