The Archbishop of Canterbury warned this afternoon against any attempt to relax the laws on assisted suicide and called on the Government to resist making it easier for terminally ill Britons to help each other die.
In his first public comments on the euthanasia debate since a series of landmark legal rulings seeking further clarification, Rowan Williams cautioned that changing the law to allow some forms of assisted suicide would legalise “what feels like public impatience with protracted dying and ‘unproductive’ lives.”
Doing so, he said, would be a “moral mistake” which the Church would continue to “argue fiercely” against.
His comments come just weeks before the Director of Public Prosecutions is expected to publish new guidelines stating whether someone could avoid prosecution if they have helped someone die.
Keir Starmer QC, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, is expected to unveil the guidelines next month. A draft version released last year before a public consultation process began stated that relatives who helped loved ones die would not face prosecution as long as they had expressed a clear wish to end their lives and that there was no malicious intent from the helper.
But speaking to today's General Synod, Dr Williams argued that the majority of Christians believed that “the legal initiating of a process whose sole or main purpose is to end life is again to cross a moral boundary and to enter some very dangerous territory in practical terms.”
He added: “Most of us would still hold that the current state of the law, with all its discretionary powers and nuances about degrees of culpability in extreme cases, serves us better than an opening of the door into the provision for the legal ending of lives.”
In the same speech the Anglican leader also offered an apology to gay and lesbian worshippers for “ignoring their human realities”.
“I have been criticised for doing just this and I am profoundly sorry for the carelessness that could give such an impression,” he said. Anglicans of all hues, he said, had to realise that many worshippers are openly gay including “sacrificial and exemplary priests.”
The global Anglican Communion is currently tearing itself apart over the issue of homosexuality. Many North American evangelicals and socially conservative worshippers in the developing world have threatened to leave if liberal congregations continue to consecrate openly gay clergy.
Wary of the ongoing discord, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a passionate appeal for Anglicans to tolerate each other’s differences and recognise that what they do in one corner of the world can have a profound effect elsewhere.
To use an example he contrasted moves among American Anglicans to press ahead with the ordination of openly gay bishops with the difficulties faced by Malaysian Christians who have recently had churches burned down by Islamists who are opposed to Christians using the word “Allah” to describe their deity. “The freedom claimed, for example, by the Episcopal Church to ordain a partnered homosexual bishop is, simply as a matter of fact, something that has a devastating effect on the freedom of, say, the Malaysian Christian to proclaim the faith without being cast as an enemy of public morality,” he said.
The leader of the Church of England also defended his fellow bishops in the House of Lords who delivered a fatal blow to Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill last month. Church leaders feared that the bill, which is an attempt to collect and simplify the last forty years of equality legislation, would have forced them to hire openly gay employees in non-clerical positions.
The Lords, with vital support from the bishops, threw out the legislation causing anger among gay rights advocates who accused the church of trying to stay exempt from employment laws which forbid discriminating against sexuality.
But the debate over the Equality Bill, Dr Williams said, had been “obscured by fantastic overstatements from zealots on both sides.”
“Very few Christians were contesting the civil liberties of gay and lesbian people in general; nor should they have been,” he said. “What they were contesting was a relatively small but extremely significant point of detail, which was whether the Government had the right to tell religious bodies which of the tasks for which they might employ people required – and which did not require – some level of compliance with the public teaching of the Church about behaviour.”