Synod: Law on suicide and unbaptised altered

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14 July 2017

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canon on refusal of burial

INTRODUCING a final debate on Amending Canon 37, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said that, under pre-Reformation canon law, certain people, including those who killed themselves while of sound mind, the excommunicate, and the unbaptised, were refused Christian burial. Reforms over the past 150 years allowed for alternative services to be offered in such cases, as public attitudes towards suicide while of sound mind had changed.

In 1959, a report from the Board for Social Responsibility had noted that most people now believed that anyone who attempted suicide must have been experiencing a degree of mental distress and deserved special sympathy and understanding. “The report endorsed that significant change in attitude,” Dr Smith said, and today Common Worship offered special prayers after suicide.

“Canon B38 appears to honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Many clergy will use the normal burial service with few modifications.” Similarly, the Church had for some time been conducting funerals for many people who were not baptised, using the normal funeral services.

“There’s clearly a tension between canon law and the expectation about the use of funeral rites conveyed within contemporary Church of England liturgical provision and normal pastoral practice,” Dr Smith concluded.

The amending canon would address this by removing the general rule banning the use of the standard burial service for those who had taken their own life while of sound mind, and those who died unbaptised. A conscience clause for clergy to object to this was included, perhaps for use in cases where someone had died after assisted suicide or where it was known that they were avowedly not a Christian.

In such cases, the minister could notify the Bishop and use an approved alternative funeral service. Any special provision for those who die while excommunicate had been removed entirely.

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Canon Gary Jenkins (Southwark) praised this “wise and compassionate reform”. When a close member of his family had killed themselves, the comfort of the Church of England’s funeral ministry had been essential in supporting his family.

Debbie Buggs (London) also “warmly” supported the motion, but said that, in contrast with Dr Smith’s suggestion, she did so not out of a desire to align the Church with an increasingly compassionate society, but because the amending canon would “remove restrictions that were never found in the Bible in the first place”.

Canon Priscilla White (Birmingham) urged the Synod to be particularly compassionate to those who took their own lives even while of sound mind. “Even if we profoundly disagree with what they have done, they still deserve our compassion, our care, our love, and the funeral service they could have.”

Wendy Coombey (Hereford) said that she, too, had recently experienced a suicide in her family. “I cannot tell you how my family felt to have the love and care shown to us, because there was no suggestion during the service that my brother had done anything that deserved condemnation. Please support this motion.”

David Lamming (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) emphasised how important life events such as funerals could be for evangelism. “This is an opportunity to show Christ’s love to people, whatever the circumstances of the death.”

Caroline Myers (Southwark), who also supported the motion, noted how suicide was a scourge among younger people. When a friend of hers at university had killed himself, the “trauma to the whole college community was huge. . . I can’t imagine any clergy interrogating his family as to whether he was of sound mind.”

The Amending Canon received final approval in a vote by Houses: Bishops 21 nem. con.; Clergy 125 nem. con., with 1 recorded abstention; Laity 132-1. Dr Smith moved the petition for the Royal Assent, which was clearly carried.

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