Living with our differences: Update on the Primates’ Meeting

We’ve learned more about the Primates’ Meeting today, from news reports, a news conference, and the official communique. A more nuanced picture of the entire meeting emerges from these additional reports. Participants at the news conference emphasized that the meeting took place surrounded by prayer, that they shared the Eucharist and foot-washing and that overall the tone and tenor was quite different from previous meetings, though difficult.

Today, the official communique from the Primates’ Meeting was released. The full text is available here. It addresses issues like climate change, religiously motivated violence, and evangelism (in an Addendum B):

We, as Anglican Primates, affirm together that the Church of Jesus Christ lives to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit throughout the world.

It is clear God’s world has never been in greater need of this resurrection love and we long to make it known.

We commit ourselves through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.

We rely entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us speech, brings new birth, leads us into the truth revealed in Christ Jesus thus building the church.

All disciples of Jesus Christ, by virtue of our baptism, are witnesses to and of Jesus in faith, hope and love.

We pledge ourselves together to pray, listen, love, suffer and sacrifice that the world may know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the press conference today, Archbishop of Canterbury Welby sought to parse the precise implications of the communique for the status of the Episcopal Church. He argued that that document refers to consequences, not sanctions, stating that provinces being autonomous, have the right to go their own way, but that if they do so, they can expect such consequences. It’s not even clear that other Anglican or ecumenical bodies would honor the Primates’ decision. Another tidbit, the Primates called for a Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops for 2020 (interesting that it lies beyond the 3-year hiatus for Episcopal Church participation in Anglican bodies).

This wordsmithihng deserves careful attention. First, it’s not at all clear that the Primates’ Meeting has the authority to make such a demand of the Episcopal Church. Second, Welby’s efforts to distinguish between “sanction” and “consequence” seem rather lame.

There’s been a great deal of discussion on social media about how the Episcopal Church ought to respond.

“We enjoy a fellowship and communion in Christ that is bigger than any of our difference.” Bishop Curry’s message to the church:

“it means that we have more work of love to do, and that work of love is helping our story and the story of many faithful Christians … to be told and heard, and it really may be part of our vocation in the world to bear witness to that, and it’s a loving witness.”

The link to Presiding Bishop Curry’s video response to the communique:

On dying with dignity and our baptismal vow to “respect the dignity of every human person.”

I’ve been surprised by my personal response to the spectacle that’s recently played out in our media over Brittany Maynard’s widely publicized decision to move to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s assisted suicide law. On the one hand, I find the notion of terminally-ill people having the option of choosing when to die and the assistance of medical professionals appealing. On the other hand, making such a decision public in the interest of bringing attention to the death-with-dignity movement seems, well, less than dignified. End of life issues are deeply personal and gut-wrenching.

Part of my concern with the whole movement and the debate is how it is couched in term of individual rights and dignity. Many of those in favor of assisted suicide or death with dignity say things like, “I don’t want to be a burden to my family” or this (from Sarah Kliff):

Eric Holland, a brain cancer specialist at the University of Washington, calls glioblastoma multiforme “the terminator” of cancers. “It’s like the movie where there is this a killer that you can’t stop, no matter what you do,” he says.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days reading about what it’s like to die from glioblastoma multiforme. Median survival for patients is 14.6 months. Death often happens with little dignity. There’s an essay that Stacey Burling, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, wrote in 2011 about her husband’s death, that I can’t get out of my mind. She describes the cognitive decline as “Alzheimer’s on steroids”:

He mistook the kitchen trash can for a toilet. He couldn’t figure out how to use a phone. I had to pull him with both hands through unfamiliar buildings because he could no longer walk normally or navigate. I bought Depends, just in case. Two days after we started using them, he asked, “What do you figure our last name is?”

Candace Mondello, who lost her brother Kim to the same tumor, describes the experience similarly. “Kim lost his ability to walk, talk, feed himself or use the bathroom,” she wrote in a 2012 essay. “He lost all dignity at this point. He had to be fed, wear diapers and was bed-ridden.”

Yes, it’s a horrific disease and if I were suffering from it I would likely want to end my life as well. Still, as I read these paragraphs, our baptismal vow came to mind: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

What is “dignity”? Well, the word comes from the Latin word dignus, which can be translated as “value” or “worth.” We are tempted to see ourselves in purely instrumental terms. Our value or worth is tied up in what we have or what we do, not who we are, God’s beloved children. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby emphasized the potential of the proposed assisted dying law in the UK on the elderly and disabled.

No doubt, I’m in a shrinking minority in my church, but I fear for our culture if “death with dignity” is embraced. More importantly, I think we are called as Christians to be present in the midst of suffering; to be present with those who suffer, and to witness to the dignity of all human beings in the midst of their suffering.

Jason Welle, SJ wrote powerfully about his brother’s death (I linked to it earlier):

But his dying was never without dignity. I asked Tony to let us love him through his sufferings, and we were able to love him all the way through to the end. And in letting us do that, he showed us courage and heroism, and embodied real dignity. Tony’s journey through his own illness, suffering and death was nothing short of courageous; but that he did all this and cared for my dad in his illness and death is simply heroic. Courage and heroism aren’t born in complacency or contentment, nor are they the hallmarks of fearlessness and ordinary strength. They are created in response to trials and suffering, and they’re evidence of the triumph of hope over despair. Dignity too is made possible through courage and heroism, but love makes all of these possible; love in time of affliction is the condition that makes dignity a reality.

No, dignity isn’t opposed to suffering; sometimes in suffering dignity reveals its truest face.

Yes, it’s gut-wrenching, but as gut-wrenching issues usually are, there are hard questions and strong arguments on all sides.