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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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