Press: Tongues and prophecy do not cease for Welby

25 January 2019

THIS week is all feast, no famine. I want to write about Melanie Phillips as a theologian for Brexiteers, but, since that story will go on for another ten years or so, it is better to grab at ephemera that don’t deserve to be forgotten.

The Archbishop of Canterbury discussing his glossolalia on Premier Radio got better reactions than you might expect. The Guardian’s story got 136,000 page views, the YouTube of the whole interview less than 5000, at the time of writing, which says something important about the media consumption of people interested in the Church of England.

The Guardian report was exceptionally long and balanced, and led with “The leader of the Church of England has said that he prays in tongues every day — although the Archbishop of Canterbury has said it was ‘not usually an ecstatic moment’.” The Times went with the crazy angle: “The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he believes that God communicates with him via letters from people with a gift for divine prophecy.

“The archbishop also said that he spends time every day praying ‘in tongues’, speaking an apparently unknown language as part of a spiritual gift.”

Perhaps you have to be in a business in which you get letters from the public to understand just how serious is the charge The Times lays against the Archbishop.

THAT was a good story. There were also two good articles that took a multitude of stories and set them in relationship with each other.

The Guardian’s longread on euthanasia in the Netherlands was written by Christopher de Bellaigue, whom I knew only as an expert on Iran for The New York Review of Books. It was proper reporting, not opinion: really thorough, disturbing, thought-provoking, and, I suspect, pointing at a wider future. I would urge everyone to read it.

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The most interesting line in it, I thought, was the extent to which autonomy is socially defined. Although the euthanasia movement is built around an ideology of individual control and self-sufficiency, it turns out that this self-realisation can be accomplished only with the help of other people.

It is not just a matter of some patients’ being pressured to kill themselves: that can be guarded against, to some extent. There is also the pressure put on doctors by patients who want to be killed, and to have their deaths validated: “while some applicants for euthanasia are furious with doctors who turn them down, in practice people are unwilling to take their own lives. Rather than drink the poison or open the drip, 95% of applicants for active life termination in the Netherlands ask a doctor to kill them. In a society that vaunts its rejection of established figures of authority, when it comes to death, everyone asks for Mummy.”

One story was told by a sceptic of euthanasia: “‘In the coldest weeks of last winter,’ Theo Boer told me, ‘a doctor friend of mine was told by an elderly patient: “I demand to have euthanasia this week — you promised.” The doctor replied: “It’s –15C outside. Take a bottle of whisky and sit in your garden and we will find you tomorrow, because I cannot accept that you make me responsible for your own suicide.”’ The doctor in question, Boer said, used to perform euthanasia on around three people a year. He has now stopped altogether.”

Two facts remain with me. The first is that about a quarter of all deaths in Holland now are determined by doctors. The vast majority come about, as in this country, by the deliberate withdrawal of nourishment in hospital. The second fact is that insurance companies now pay euthanasia clinics a fixed fee of €3000 for every euthanasia request that they accept, even if the patient later backs out. This supplies a rare moment of comedy, when de Bellaigue asks a euthanasia campaigner whether this doesn’t make excellent financial sense for the insurance companies, who would otherwise have to pay for nursing homes, and gets a completely outraged response.

“Pleiter’s pained expression suggested that I had introduced a note of cynicism into a discussion that should be conducted on a more elevated plane. ‘There’s not an atom in my body that is in sympathy with what you are describing,’ he replied. ‘This isn’t about money . . . it’s about empathy, ethics, compassion.’”

In New York magazine (not The New Yorker), the gay American Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan took on the problems of the RC Church and its gay clergy. He estimates that about 30 to 40 per cent of the American clergy are gay.

Most interestingly, Sullivan, a campaigner for gay marriage, was realistic and sympathetic about celibacy. He describes a pattern in which priests fall short, but repent sincerely and then struggle on; also, another pattern in which they decide that they cannot live without human touch, and leave the priesthood.

He also talks about the almost infinite possibilities of blackmail inherent in these lives. He distinguished generations by their attitudes, and weaves the whole story into the agitation against Pope Francis. Essential reading if you want to understand that story.

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