COMMENT
February 2001

 

In our January editorial we deplored the role of the House of Commons in further eroding the few remaining safeguards on the rights of pre-natal human life. "The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2000" rumbled into the House of Lords on Monday January 22, preceded by dire warnings from the Leader of the House, the one remaining unelected hereditary peer, Baroness Jay, about the consequences of bucking the Commons decision.

In advance of this debate it had been made known that the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with leaders of all the major faiths, had attempted, on several occasions, to meet the Prime Minister. The purpose? - simply to implore him to refer these matters to a Select Committee before proceeding with any epoch making legislation. Their plea was ignored.

The result, at the end of an erudite and temperate debate, was a victory for the government by the surprisingly large margin of 212-92.

Several things need to be said about this result and the method of achieving it.

1) To proceed with such fundamental changes by means of "regulations" rather than primary legislation is little short of scandalous. "Regulations" cannot be amended and avoid the full scrutiny of both Houses to which a "Bill" would necessarily be subject.

The government was well aware that such scrutiny might not serve its cause and it is unlikely that, had these measures appeared in a Bill, they would not have passed the Human Rights Act compatibility statement on European law - not least under the European Convention on Human Rights and Bio-medicine. The contempt with which this government and its huge majority treat Parliament and its democratic safeguards is becoming drearily familiar.

2) Even those whose philosophical history leads them to favour embryo research were startled by the extraordinary urgency of this measure. Why could it not wait a few months for the result of a Select Committee?

The level of disquiet led to the government agreeing to a Select Committee - after the proposals had been passed. This bought enough votes to win the day but, as Lord Alton remarked, this is akin to hearing the prosecution and defence after conviction and sentence.

3) Why, in what was advertised as a free vote according to conscience, was the government so active in lobbying its case. One peer, who had served 18 years in the Commons as well, said that he "could not recall such active involvement a government department in lobbying on one side of the argument". This interference extended to the Department of Health vetoing senior scientists from putting the contrary case to a briefing for the House of Lords. Such practices further degrade the democratic process.

4) Given the opposition of many European parliamentarians, the opposition of President Clinton's bio-ethics committee and the known opposition of the new President, what is driving Britain's enthusiasm for going it alone? Though only time will tell, some very senior and respected peers were led to speculate on the political and financial clout of the pharmaceutical industry. Woe betide this government if there proves to be any substance to these anxieties.

5) Finally, the role of the established Church in the debate was salutary. In its brevity and simplicity the contribution of the Bishop of St Albans, in calling on knowledge to pay attention to wisdom and reflection, was masterly in its defence of the democratic process and its warning against the Gadarene rush.

The Bishop of Oxford outlined, in some detail, his view of the Catholic position on the sanctity of life being a largely 19th century creation but still supported the "Select Committee First" view.

Former Archbishop Habgood, long and much involved in these matters, produced his usual thoughtful contribution. It is always much easier for Catholics to understand where Habgood is coming from as a scientist than to follow his reasoning as a Christian, but, in the event, he erred on the side of caution and voted accordingly.

The extraordinary and distressing fact that emerges from Hansard is simply this. The great coalition of faiths that had been beating vainly at the Prime Minister's door, could only be represented in the debate by the current bishops of the Church of England. In the event scarcely any of those (26) qualified attended the debate, only two spoke and only one (the Bishop of St Albans) voted.

That this government has behaved badly cannot be in any doubt. That this legislation marks another significant step in the decline of a Christian country is self evident. That the bishops could not turn up on such a day in such numbers as to mark its seriousness is a tragic indictment.

Perhaps the simplest, shortest (a mere 10 lines) and most moving speech was given by Lord Ahmed.

"I speak as a diabetic who is desperate for a cure for my illness, but I am forced to oppose these regulations on the basis of moral, ethical and spiritual values.

As a Muslim, I feel that this is a violation of human life. No scientist should be given permission to play God. There is only one creator of life and that is God Almighty."

AMEN and AMEN.

Events in the United States move on apace. Francis Gardom details in this edition of New Directions [page 23] the happenings in Pawley's Island, South Carolina which marked a leap forward in faith for the Anglican Mission in America, under the leadership of the 'Singapore Two', Bishops Murphy and Rodgers. There a de facto Free Province is rapidly emerging.

Here the recent House of Bishops meeting has been discussing both the ill-fated Blackburn Commission Report and the stand-off between Reform and the dioceses of Worcester and Newcastle.

Whereas Forward in Faith UK (through its Statement on Communion and Code of Practice) has hitherto accepted the authority of existing bishops and sought, through Extended Episcopal Care, to work alongside them and with them, it has been the way of those opposed to the revisionist sexual agenda (both here and in the United States) effectively to declare the sees of revisionist bishops vacant. In Kidderminster and Newcastle, as well as in Philadelphia, the solutions sought have been radical and uncompromising.

We need to make it clear that Forward in Faith has operated upon principle, and not out of weakness or lack of determination. We have striven to make the 1993 Measure and the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod work. The Measure provided for the ordination of women (for those who like that sort of thing), and a mechanism for refusing their ministry (to those who do not). Whilst pointing out the slightly bizarre ecclesiology which underlies such a compromise, we have gone along with it.

But the compromise is drawing to the end of its useful life. Those who want to see the repeal of the Act of Synod (GRAS and the Modern Church people's Union) have, of course, a wider agenda. They want to see women bishops as soon as possible. And women bishops spell the end of the compromise.

So important is the role of the bishop as a focus of unity and a symbol of apostolic continuity that we have felt obliged to recognize and work with even those bishops who have acted against the teaching of scripture and unvarying practice of their predecessors by ordaining women to the sacred priesthood. So important is the role of the bishop as a focus of unity and a symbol of apostolic continuity that we could never recognize nor work with a woman bishop, nor any other bishop who shared with that woman collegially.

At that moment the radical and perhaps irreconcilable divisions which have set bishop against bishop and Province against Province in the struggle for the soul of American Anglicanism will have come home to the Mother Church.

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