A statement from the Primate

By on September 1, 1998

Excerpts from a statement by Primate Michael Peers

Among this newspaper’s readers are some who are confronting agonizing decisions about medical treatment for loved ones who are no longer capable of making decisions for themselves. At what point, if ever, should the goal of medical treatment shift from prolonging life, to easing the transition from life to death?

 As Christians, we affirm as a first principle that life is a gift of God and has intrinsic sanctity, significance, and worth. The Lambeth Conference has drawn a distinction between active and passive responses to issues at the end of life. We believe it is not consistent with Christian faith to take any action intended to cause the death of another, even one who is suffering in a painful terminal illness. On the other hand, it may be consistent with Christian faith to enable someone to die with dignity by “withholding, withdrawing, declining or terminating excessive medical treatment.”

 About the only Canadian news that made it into the English press was the historic signing of the treaty between the Nisga’a people and the governments of British Columbia and Canada. It came as Lambeth was urging compliance with the United Nations universal declaration of human rights, in part as a way of supporting the claims of indigenous peoples.

 The Anglican Church has been closely involved with the Nisga’a people, giving modest but unwavering support. We share the hope of the Nisga’a and political leaders, that this signing signals the beginning of reconciliation.

 Over the past 20 years, some of the poorest countries have been hit by a double whammy. Interest rates on their debts have risen sharply while the prices they can get for their products have fallen.

 For every dollar we in the developing world send overseas as aid, $8 comes back as interest, according to the international development organization, Christian Aid. The World Bank has conceded that this ballooning debt can never be repaid realistically – and that it is one of the most serious barriers to development.

 A coalition of Christian and development groups is urging that the debt of the poorest countries by cancelled by the year 2000.

 For Christians, this is bound up with the biblical concept of “Jubilee,” a time of forgiveness and restoration. For Canadians generally, forgiving the debt of the poorest countries would have a modest economic impact, while offering a way of setting off the 21st century on a more even keel, so that the disparity between rich and poor at least has a moment when the bottom moves slightly closer to the top.

 Just what did Lambeth say about human sexuality? There are two parts to any message: the actual content, and the way the message is perceived. The perception of this message varies from those who receive it with joy as a vindication of traditional Christian teaching, and those who find in it a devastating betrayal of the gospel of love.

 Canada’s 1995 General Synod acted to “affirm the presence and contributions of gay men and lesbians in the life of the church and condemn bigotry, violence and hatred directed toward any due to their sexual orientation.” This is obviously a stronger affirmation of gay and lesbian Christians than the Lambeth text. Even so, much of the content of the Lambeth statement, strictly speaking, is broadly in accord with the current policy of the Anglican Church of Canada. (Canada’s policies remain in force since the Lambeth Conference has only advisory, not legislative authority.)

 However, I must disassociate myself from any who perceive this action as a “victory.” Canadians generally will have been scandalized by some of the reported comments, as were Canadian bishops here. The debate was marked at times by outright condemnations of homosexual persons, sometimes phrased in viciously prejudicial language.

 The most moving moment came for me as I attended a worship service led by the church in Japan, on the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

 The Japanese Church apologized for its complicity in wartime aggression.

 For me, the service evoked two intensely personal memories. The first was in my early childhood, in Vancouver, when one of my playmates and his family abruptly disappeared without notice. I later came to understand that he had been interned with his family.

 Much later, I came to understand why there were always pieces of Japanese decorative arts in my living room; they were among the belongings my father, in the name of the government of Canada, had helped to confiscate.

 The second memory concerns my experience, five years ago, of apologizing on behalf of our church for the abuses suffered by Native people in the residential schools we administered.

 In the middle of the Japanese service I wept as I relived those moments. The church is an imperfect reflection of God’s reign, a deeply flawed institution. Far too often, it has brought pain instead of healing. And yet, as the Japanese Church showed, it is also a place where we can be open to transformation. When the gospel reaches into our lives, and challenges us, it can enable us to face very difficult truths and to both seek – and bestow – forgiveness.

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