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Press: Conservative Christians v. medical authorities

05 August 2022

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ONE of the biggest stories of the week has been the genuinely tragic case of Archie Battersbee, a 12-year-old boy who appears to have hanged himself three months ago as a result of a dare that he saw on social media.

Obviously, this wasn’t his intention; just as obviously, the awful accident killed him. To quote an expert from the Science Media Foundation, “he had evidence of damage both to his spinal cord and his brain. This meant that normal nerve tests were not possible. Doctors used several extra scans. These showed that sadly there was no blood flowing to Archie’s brain, that his brain had no electric activity, and that there was permanent damage to the brain stem.”

This is grim news for his parents to accept, and they won’t. And so the child joins a grim collection of brain-dead people whose case has been taken up by Christian fundamentalists. The first one to make a real splash was a bulimic Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, who collapsed in 1990, apparently as a result of her strenuous dieting. In 1998, after she had been years in a persistent vegetative state, her husband petitioned for her feeding tube to be withdrawn. Her parents objected, and the case became an early example of the American culture wars. Politicians up to the level of George W. Bush became involved, before she was finally allowed to die in 2005.

Then there was the Charlie Gard case, in which a baby with a fatal congenital disorder became the focus of a campaign to keep him alive which eventually sucked in Pope Francis (News, 28 July 2017).

In all these cases, conservative Christians — in this country, Christian Concern — have been prominent in the agitation against the doctors and hospitals who believed that there was nothing more to be done. I don’t understand why. One explanation is suggested by a memo in the Schiavo case from a Republican operative, which suggests that it could be weaponised to fire up the base against the Democrats. But why?

The reason can’t be theological. Unless Christian Concern is a great deal more Calvinist than I suppose, it cannot suppose that putting off the death of a brain-dead child is preserving it from an eternity of conscious torment.

Two factors seem to be in play. The first is the question of authority. Conservative Christians stand for parental authority, and, where parents and doctors disagree, so much the worse for the experts. This is all part of a general fear of secular standards overriding the right of parents to bring up children as they please — see also corporal punishment — and has nothing much now to do with the religious beliefs of the parents. That, in turn, feeds into the general populist suspicion of all large institutions, something entirely justified in the case of American health care.

The second factor is an expectation that medicine should deliver miracles. This is the angle worked by the tabloid media, with their unerring instinct for sentimentality. “You keep fighting, Archie,” ended a comment piece by the television presenter Eamonn Holmes in the Daily Express, as if the words made any sense at all when addressed to a child with no blood flow in his brain at all.


THE only honest take on the Lambeth Conference came from Canon Giles Fraser on UnHerd: “Every ten years, bishops from all over the global Anglican Communion meet up in Canterbury to argue about gay sex. . . Out in the parishes, the best we can hope for is that our parishioners won’t notice. We are all praying for a busy news week. . .

“These days there is no reason for Canterbury, or its Bishop, to be so important. But bishops don’t vote to make themselves less important.”

The Lambeth Conference is a profoundly distasteful subject, but I can’t help noticing that it is only the losers in these debates who find it outrageous that national Churches should learn from the central authorities.

When the supporters of women’s ordination were winning, they (we) had no objection to forcing our understanding on the backwards Provinces. The celebrated resolution that there were no theological objections to women priests is no more or less imperialistic than Lambeth 1.10.


MUCH better to read The Economist, which has discovered “champing”: overnight stays in deserted or deconsecrated churches. This is organised by the Churches Conservation Trust, and it seems to make a real difference to the finances of some rural churches. “Last summer Tilda Howard champed with friends in a church in a Northamptonshire village, in order to play Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy role-play game. . . Ghost-hunters have also poured in; some post videos of their nocturnal expeditions on YouTube.

“Such idiosyncrasies are tolerated if it helps keep churches in good nick. In Cooling, asked if the possibility of fornication taking place on sacred ground causes him concern, a local man grins: ‘If it was one bloke and his goat in there, then I’d mind.’”

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