(This article first appeared in the November issue of the Anglican Journal.)
A new task force has been formed to consider how the Anglican Church of Canada’s clergy and laity can faithfully respond to end-of-life issues.
Created by the national church’s faith, worship and ministry committee, the task force responds to a perceived need for more discussion about assisted suicide and euthanasia in the wake of recent developments, including the landmark decision by Quebec in June to allow “medical aid in dying” for terminally ill patients.
The last time that the Anglican Church of Canada addressed end-of-life questions was in 2000, when it published a report, Care in Dying: A Consideration of the Practices of Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide, which General Synod commended for study across the church. While it acknowledges that “Christians of good will, after reasoned theological reflection, disagree on the appropriate response at this time,” it recommends that the church “urge its members not to seek recourse to euthanasia and assisted suicide.” It also advises that “ongoing debate of issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide take place in the context of a renewed commitment on the part of both clergy and laity to palliative care initiatives.”
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under Canada’s Criminal Code, and the federal government has said it could contest the legality of Quebec’s Bill 52.
The Rev. Canon Eric Beresford, who was involved in writing Care in Dying and chairs the new task force, said that legal changes happening in Canada are a major part of why it is important to revisit end-of-life issues, and that “the principal stimulus was the realization that we were seeing revisions to end-of-life legislation appearing before a number of jurisdictions in Canada.” Beresford, an ethicist from the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, added that “the context in which pastoral practice takes place has shifted somewhat, and those who provide pastoral care in the highest context will have to think about what they do in light of the actual real context that they are in, including the legal and medical practice context.”
The Rev. Eileen Scully, director of the national church’s faith, worship and ministry department, said that one of the task force’s responsibilities is “to create a resource to assist the church in thinking about [end-of-life] issues.” There is also an emphasis on ensuring that those who are on the front lines-both clergy and laity-have the theological resources they need to navigate the complicated questions arising from these controversial issues.
At this point, however, it is unclear whether the new resource will offer a pronouncement similar to the statement of 1999, or if there will be public consultations or hearings to engage the perspectives of the larger church. The main purpose of the task force, which includes medical ethicists, professionals and practitioners, theologians within the Anglican Church of Canada and a Lutheran partner, is to reconsider the framework of the discussion and decide what is needed at this time.
This will be a major challenge in and of itself. Beresford acknowledged that there is some uncertainty about what the church’s role is in this conversation. “There might be one role when there is active debate, but when there has been legislation which at some level leads to a conclusion…then there may be a different role for the church, whether or not we agree with the conclusion.” There is also the question of how any kind of meaningful statement can be issued on behalf of the church when the church contains so many different perspectives. As Beresford pointed out, “One has to be very careful speaking for ‘the church’ when it is reasonably clear that the church doesn’t have one mind on this.”
This is by no means a debate happening only within the Anglican Church of Canada. The Church of England released a statement in 2007 outlining the issues at stake. While it acknowledged that “those who seek a change in the law are often motivated by compassion,” it stated that the church sees euthanasia and assisted suicide as unacceptable ways of protecting human dignity. And it is not only Christian groups that have spoken out. The Canadian Medical Association has opposed changes to current laws even as it acknowledges that there is ongoing debate about end-of-life issues among Canadian doctors. It has urged the Canadian public and policy makers to engage in a national dialogue about end-of-life care.