Wednesday 22 May 2013

The Abortion Debate – Reluctantly leaving the Middle Ground!

When the current abortion debate blew up in the wake of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy and the ABC case I wrote to the Irish Times Letters page (Published Nov 22nd 2012) arguing for the ‘Middle Ground’ to makes its voice heard so that we could progress beyond the extreme polarity of the ‘Pro-Life’ & ‘Pro-Choice’ campaigns. I am not going to repeat all the points I made on that occasion but in essence I suggested that this is a complex issue which is ill-served by either ‘side’ demonizing the other. Sadly and despite the attempts of people far more qualified and influential than I the middle ground has not really been heard and we are if anything becoming daily more polarized on this issue. The debate around suicidality in particular has driven into a cul de sac and only addresses a tiny fraction of the issues around abortion.

On a personal level I too (to my surprise and a certain amount of discomfort) have become more polarized and I wonder am I alone in this. Leading into the current debate my position would have been that abortion should only be available in cases of rape, unviable pregnancy and a threat to the health and/or life of the mother. My inclusion of the threat to health as well as life would it seems to me be justified in the light of the ambiguity over the transition from threat to health to threat to life in the Savita  Halappanavar case.

I would not have been and am still not in favour of abortion on demand. I certainly do not want abortion to become an alternative form of contraception.  Equally I would hate to see abortion used as a means of genetic selection where pregnancies of Downs Syndrome or other Special Needs were routinely terminated. I say this as the parent of a child with Special Needs who has brought untold joy to my life and that of my wife.

My views on abortion are not merely speculative in that in my ministry I have encountered the issues outlined above where I feel abortion should be available. Incidentally in my experience abortion has not always been and indeed was rarely the desired choice of the mother but it is my belief that that choice should be there.

So what has changed? Where do I stand in the wake of the debate to date? Well in the absence of a middle ground I am forced to make a hard choice and I do so fully conscious of the potential for many of the things that I do not want to see happen become a reality.

In my original letter to the Irish Times I regretted the at times casual regard for the life of the foetus by many in the ‘Pro-Choice’ camp and I went on to say that to minimize the reality of abortion as the termination of a life is to ‘undermine our own humanity’. However I find even more disturbing the approach of many in the ‘Pro-Life’ camp and I still stand over what I wrote in that earlier letter:

When it comes to the ‘Pro-life’ group the principal fault is ironically the failure to take seriously the life of the mother. Their pro-life stance is somewhat selective. The mother is portrayed as a vessel whose sole purpose is to support the life within her with no account for her own humanity, welfare and integrity. Her motivations in choosing abortion, no matter how traumatic or medically necessary, are ignored and her actions are described in terms of murder regardless of the circumstances. This is cruel and for want of a better word tantamount to misogyny.’

There are times in ones life when a choice has to be made. Choice is part of what it means to be a human being. Many of the choices we face are not black and white and we do not always have the luxury of chosing between what is obviously good or bad, right and wrong.  I believe that abortion is such an issue and that for any of us from a distance to presume we know what is right in any given circumstance is at least naaive and perhaps more than a little arrogant.

There are a number of factors which sway me. As the debate has continued I have become more and more uncomfortable with the predominance of male voices who pontificate on this issue with little if any sympathy for the complex variety of situations in which women considering abortion find themselves. Yes there are ‘pro-life’ women too but I think we as men need to ask ourselves a question before we even presume to weigh into this debate: How would we feel if we were the one’s who had the privelege and the pain of childbearing? The answer is we don’t know and thus all our contributions should be made in the context of respect for the role of women in child bearing and humility in the light of our own inevitable ignorance.

I am also increasingly concerned at the level of amateur interference in medical issues that this debate has fostered. We are putting doctors in an impossible situation as we attempt to second guess their every decision.  There is something quite bizarre about non-medical politicians, clergy (of any church) and others trying to argue medical technicalities with highly qualified consultants and other medical specialists.  Our doctors need to be given clear and unambiguous guidance in principle by legislators  and then given the necessary level of trust to perform their duties and maintain the integrity of the doctor/patient relationship which is hugely undermined by the proposed legislation.

I have deliberately not until now argued my position from a religious perspective as I am not under the illusion that we religious have a monopoly on wisdom or on respect for life. However I do think there is something within the Christian tradition which speaks quite powerfully on this issue and that is our role as Co-Creators with God. We human beings as well as being created have been given the ability to create life and that is our choice. We are not forced by God to do so. Even Mary, the Christ bearer, was given the choice to say yes or no to bearing the Incarnate Lord. Her yes is at the root of the faith of those of us who call ourselves Christian. This may be irrelevant to those who are of another faith or of no faith and if so feel free to disregard but to those of us who profess a Christian faith I think the cooperation of Mary as Mother is something we should reflect on.

On a pragmatic level I am also increasingly swayed by the fact that we already have abortion in Ireland. Its simply that we export the implementation of it and in so doing condemn women to an often lonely and frightening journey to foreign shores. Here they have non of the support structures of friends and family and even on arrival home are afraid to disclose what they have experienced. In some cases where post-abortion complications arise this is potentially life threatening and does not reflect well on our compassion as a nation. What we don’t know may not hurt us but this 'fool's paradise' we choose to live in is hurting women every day.

And finally it comes down to TRUST. If we are to truly respect the role of women in childbearing then we have to trust them with that role without subjecting them to the kind of overbearing oversight that is proposed in the new legislation. Yes all life is precious and deserves respect but that includes the lives of  women who must face the joys and agonies of childbearing and childbirth and all the complexities that involves. Their ‘yes’, and even their ‘no’ is something which we must respect.

And so if you haven’t already realised I have vacated the Middle Ground and must now declare myself  Pro-Choice. I do so because I feel that I must trust women with the integrity of their own bodies. The alternative is to be party to a culture of coercion and enforcement which takes from women that most fundamental right of determining their own role in Creation. That is for me fundamental to their humanity and to mine.

Monday 20 May 2013

The Minister and Mick

Alan Shatter TD and Minister for Justice is a solicitor with a proven track record, particularly in the area of family law. It is ironic then that such an able legal mind should have perhaps committed such a basic legal faux-pas that would threaten the future of his political career. It remains to be seen whether any offence will be deemed to have been committed but even to place himself in a situation where the question can be asked shows a lack of judgment on the part of the Minister. Surely a man of Shatter’s experience and standing would realize that the use of privileged information in a political context is exceedingly dangerous. 

I sympathize with his frustration in sharing a platform with Mick Wallace who to my mind belongs anywhere but in public office, but that was the will of the people in our democracy, which all politicians, Shatter included, are sworn to uphold.  The Minister should know better than to let himself be risen by such buffoonery.

And yet Shatter’s response has been anything but conciliatory. His familiar arrogance has been to the fore as he has tried to bluster his way out of an exceedingly tight corner. I am quite certain that the Minister knows that he has at best pushed the boundaries of his office to a new limit and at worst may have committed an offence under data protection legislation.

So why does he not simply apologize to Mick Wallace and the Irish people for overstepping the boundaries of his office? Surely one such as he who has devoted his professional life to the law, its formation and enforcement would not wish (no matter how arrogant he is) to stand over actions which if condoned would undermine the basis of our democracy. Surely even he would eat a little humble pie for the sake of the Law. I use capital letters for Law here intentionally because I do believe he would see it as one of the pillars of our society.

So why not hold his hands up and ask for forgiveness? I think this is the nub of the matter. He knows that there will be no forgiveness. To admit to having, however inadvertently, broken the law is career suicide. That will be the end of Alan Shatter TD and Minister for Justice and it will be not only his loss but ours too for he has made a considerable contribution to Irish politics and law in his lifetime. It will indeed be a sad end if this does prove to be his nemesis.

However as long as Shatter persists in defending the indefensible he will simultaneously diminish the democratic capital of this State. However provoked we cannot allow those with such weighty responsibility to abuse their privileged status for political point scoring. This is a dangerous precedent and one which must be stopped in its tracks! As it stands the best solution for the ongoing integrity of our democracy would be that the Minister would relinquish office.

I wish it were other, but in an unforgiving society there is no alternative. I wish we lived in a society where people could admit to mistakes and failures and be allowed the opportunity to learn from them. I would much prefer to have Alan Shatter continue in office, having eaten the necessary humble pie, and through the whole experience grow in stature and integrity. But that will never be unless things change radically and we abandon the culture of spin and systems failure where nobody is ever responsible for anything or anyone. In the meantime in this imperfect world I hope the Minister does the right thing.

Friday 3 May 2013

Sermon for Sunday 5th May 2013

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…..the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.”

Jesus words to Judas are words addressed to all his disciples and indeed to us today. We are called not only to Love as we heard in last weeks Gospel but to the implications of that Love. Here it is spelt out for us in greater detail:
“Those who love me will keep my word”….. It seems clear enough and yet through the centuries the Church has often misunderstood what that means.
The word keep is a word open to misinterpretation – does keep his Word and God’s Word, for that is what Jesus says it is – does that mean observe it in everything that we do – follow its instruction and do as Jesus told us or does it mean to guard it, to keep it safe, to keep it to ourselves and not let anyone who isn’t in the Church have access to it?

Most of us would probably say its about following God’s commands and wishes for us as we engage with the world but very often in practice it has meant the opposite. We are inclined to keep God and God’s Word to ourselves and not always intentionally. We do it sometimes by putting up accidental barriers to communication with the world we are called to serve.
One of the greatest and worst barriers we construct is the one of language – we speak a language in church and in church circles that is quite different than the language we use in the rest of our lives. We throw around words like ‘Kingdom’ ‘Salvation’ ‘Redemption’ ‘Sin’ & ‘Judgement’ without either really understanding what we mean and certainly not explaining it to those outside the inner circle.
It is a kind of jargon or shop-talk that is every bit as effective in keeping the stranger away as erecting a barbed wire fence around the perimeter of our buildings. We don’t do it intentionally but we do it unthinkingly and it is something that clergy and congregations are equally guilty of.
There is often a demand to make the Gospel relevant – we don’t need to do that – The Gospel is already relevant – God has made it so but we as the vessels in which that Gospel is communicated must make it intelligible to the world in which we find ourselves.

That is no easy task either because the Church is increasingly alien to its own environment. We live in a digital culture which for better or worse is driven by a demand for instant and universal communication and transparency – It is no longer the privileged few who control the flow of information in society – we are all broadcasters, or can be if we want to through the medium of social networks. We may be uncomfortable with them, we may actively dislike them but if we do not engage with them we may as well close the doors. What is happening today is every bit as revolutionary as the Printing Press and it was the Churches early adoption of printing that ensured the spread and growth of the Gospel.

Keeping Gods Word today may actually mean entering into this new world of communication, collaboration and sharing. Like all new developments there is good and bad but it is the primary place where those who we seek to share the Word of God are ‘hanging out’ for want of a better word.

For those of us not at all comfortable with this digital world there are alternatives – other ways in which we can break down the walls around the Church so that the Word can permeate through our world. What does that look like ? – Quite simply putting Love at the centre of everything we do.
It means using Love as the litmus paper or test of the goodness of what we are doing.  If we do this then we are told that God will come to us and make his home with us. That home is to be found wherever the Church, you and me, are active in his service in the world. People will always recognize and respond to a Church that does what it says on the tin – May we as disciples of Jesus and living stones of the Church of Christ be the walking witness of his Love in the world. Amen.

Sermon for Sunday 28th April 2013

Love Love me Do, The Power of Love, Love can build a bridge, Love can mend a broken heart, Endless Love, Love me Tender, Dream Lover, I can’t stop loving you, You’ve lost that loving feeling, Will you love me tomorrow………..

That is but a small sample of the songs that have been written about Love in the last 50 or 60 years – I went online to have a look at how many there were and one site listed just shy of 1200 love songs – I was going to read them all and end by thanking God for the gift of love but thought I might not get away with that.

But there is an important point in this – Our music is a reflection of our culture at any given time in our history – Music reflects the mood and the events of life both on the large scale and on the deeply personal scale – Think back to Band Aid when Bob Geldof’s song captured the moment of the Ethiopian famine and not only reflected the compassion of people for the starving but motivated people to take action. So we need to take music seriously. And obviously judging by the number of songs written about Love we need to take Love very seriously indeed!

In today’s Gospel from John 13 we have the support of our Lord in this prioritizing of Love.

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

It is also important to be aware of the context of this command to Love – When we think of love we perhaps think of the excitement of first love, the embrace of a loved one, a wedding or even a cosy meal by candlelight.

It actually was at a meal that Jesus gave this command, probably by candlelight / torchlight but it was certainly wasn’t romantic! Jesus gave us the command to love one another at the Last Supper shortly after Judas had left the upper room on his way to betray Jesus!

So this central teaching of Jesus – this command to Love came in a moment of crisis, a moment of sadness, a moment of huge challenge and almost certainly fear.

That’s generally not how we think about Love – we have for the most part a very sanitized view of Love. We see it as a spontaneous thing, a mutual and balanced relationship between two people. 
But Love is much more than that and to fully understand that we have to look to the events that were to follow that fateful night when Jesus gave us this command to Love.

The most perfect vision of Love that we can look to is the Cross – In the Cross God in Christ gives his life so that we may live…. He gives something that we can never return in equivalent scale. And in giving that Love, without demanding a return he actually transforms us and allows us the potential to be the best that we can be…..but it is our choice, God’s Grace freely given which we can decide to accept or reject…..Pure Love!

While we cannot match what God has done we can be what God has given us the potential to be – we can Love in a divine way and we too can be part of that transformative work. But it means practicing another kind of love – Don’t worry you don’t have to stop loving the people you already love but you and I are called to broaden the horizons of our love. So that means loving not just those who are family, not just those who deserve our love, not just those who we feel sorry for but also those we dislike, those we hate and those who hate us.

Why do that? Because if we like God take the initiative in showing Love to the undeserving and the stranger extraordinary things can happen – Look at Saul for example – He hated God with every fibre of his body and God Loved him into becoming his disciple. That is the example we are called to follow. We don’t have to to like everybody but difficult and all as it is we do have to Love everybody!

What does that look like today? Well it means taking off our Love blinkers and looking around us to see those in pain and despair and ask ourselves how my loving them could make a difference. It also involves thinking about our behaviour as consumers as we shop for cheap clothing which is brought to us at the expense of workers in desperate conditions in sweatshops throughout the world, as was highlighted in last weeks tragedy in Bangladesh. It means constantly asking ourselves what are the fruits of my actions – Are they furthering the cause of Love or are they furthering my own selfish desires.

May our example be the one who loved us more than we can ever comprehend. He loved us when we were unlovable and somehow through that love we were transformed. We do not need to wait for love to be deserved – if God had done that we would never have known his Love. Love is the first step, not the last – so let us Love and so transform the world into what God wishes it to be.