Browsed by
Category: Death and Dying

Spirituality in Hospice Care

Spirituality in Hospice Care

Spirituality in Hospice Care

How Staff and Volunteers Can Support the Dying and Their Families

Edited by Andrew Goodhead and Nigel Hartley Jessica Kingsley Publishers

2017, 240pp (pbk) ISBN: 9781785921025 £19.99


The concepts of spirituality and spiritual care are complex. This book makes a distinctive and important contribution to the growing literature in this area. It is well organised and carefully written. The chapters narrate the experience of engaging in the support of those dying and others who accompany them. Their richness are due in part to the range of professional perspective which include medics, nurses, physiotherapists, educators, managers, artists, volunteers, psychotherapists, chaplains and social workers. There is a quality of reflexivity in each of the chapters. The editors have attracted both a breadth and variety of experience.

The book is published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the opening of St Christopher’s Hospice. It is a fascinating reflection on how our attempts to think about and deliver spiritual care continue to both change and develop.

It is an informative and illuminating book and I shall be certainly pointing some of my students wishing to enlarge their perspective on pastoral care to areas of discussion contained within some of the chapters.

Anyone who risks engaging with those who are embracing mortality will certainly be changed by the sheer complexity and difference within which an individual moves from life to death. It is a messy and complicated business where even the neatest of theories and definitions are bound to reach their limits. The balance, connectivity and gaps between what we know and what remains incomprehensible; between the relationship between religion and spirituality remain important to interrogate. There is further work for us all to do in this area. If we are to be faithful to our commitment to journey with those who are dying then language, metaphor, narrative and silence are wells of wisdom to be drawn from.

Potential and possibility are the hallmarks of these essays. They demand our careful attention and should challenge us into further thinking and action.


James Woodward

Sarum College




















Embracing our Mortality ?

Embracing our Mortality ?


Marion Carter

Helping children and adolescents think about death, dying and bereavement

Jessica Kingsley publishers 2016


ISBN 9781785920110


Carlo Leget

Art of Living, Art of Dying

Jessica Kingsley publishers 2017


ISBN   9781785922114


In the UK in recent weeks there has been a great deal of discussion about the ‘British stiff upper lip’ partly enabled by Prince William and Prince Harry talking openly about their struggles following Princess Diana’s death some 20 years ago. Their honesty about the stark reality of bereavement and coming to terms with unexpected loss has been widely affirmed as part of and need for all of us to pay attention to our inner life and to be honest about our emotional and psychological health.

Of course many of us are sheltered from direct experience of death and dying as the population grows older and, death, perhaps is much less a part of everyday life. It might be interesting to ask whether in past centuries when death was much more part of the experience of people in communities we  were more in tune with the rhythms and changes of life – more ready to talk and reflect. Put another way does direct and regular experience of death make us more able or empowered to reflect on loss and deepen our emotional and spiritual intelligence?

One of the organising questions for any of us who write or teach in this area is this: what kind of narrative best enables us to dig more deeply into the human, cultural, emotional and spiritual realities of loss, change and death? What kind of bridges need to be built so that knowledge can be put to work in and through our experience?


Marion Carter is a wise guide putting to use many years of work as an experienced chaplain and theological educator. She has a gift for good organisation, clear description and the constant eye and ear open to practice. Her book is a helpful resource that asks how children can begin to understand death and how adults might support and engage with children as they encounter this complex and bewildering subject.

This volume fills a much needed gap in the literature. Chapters cover the following subjects: What is death? Grief and Bereavement; Factors influencing Grief; Truth telling with children and adolescents; Schools coping with death; Funerals; Continuing care of children and Caring for carers. All of these chapters are supplemented with helpful appendices, a comprehensive reading list and an outline of useful websites and organisations.

Alongside this accessible narrative is another key feature which strengthens the helpfulness of this book. It is the way in which Carter draws in, users and explores experience. The voice of those who are facing bereavement are never very far away from the text. There are helpful activities used to elicit the reader’s experience at the end of each chapter.


Carlo Leget is an ethicist working out of Utrecht in the Netherlands who brings his experience of philosophical discourse and theological narrative to a reader who wishes to create some inner space within which to explore the many faces and meanings of death. He demonstrates that a spiritual care model can help us to discuss and engage with existential questions about death and dying. The aim of this book is to offer a framework within which we might interpret these questions. The author draws on extensive experience and uses his practice to offer a guide to deeper and wiser conversations with both religious and non-religious patients.

The first three chapters open up the framework by exploring the art of dying and our complicated relationship to death. Chapter 3 asks that we attend to the inner space within which the following questions might be explored (these form each of chapters 4 to 8) – who am I and what do I really want? How do I deal with suffering? How do I say goodbye? How do I look back on my life? What can I hope for?

The final two chapters imaginatively and insightfully discuss the mediaeval Ars Moriendi as a model for relating a wiser embrace of life in the light of our mortality.

Leget proves himself to be a wise guide and this book deserves the widest possible readership. I congratulate the editors at Jessica Kingsley for securing the text for publication.

These are good books that need to be read carefully and slowly. However – and in the end – this work of befriending death, embracing loss and change, being more emotionally intelligent about the relationship between living and mortality remains our responsibility. Those of faith would do well to consider how we build communities where this wisdom is part of the nourishing Wells from which people might drink for life and the letting go into new life through death.


James Woodward

Sarum College

Easter eve

Easter eve


Glorious Collect for Easter Eve


Grant, O Lord, that as we are baptized into the death of thy blessed Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,

so by continual mortifying our corrupt affections we may be buried with him;

and that through the grave, and gate of death, we may pass to our joyful resurrection ;

for his merits, who died, and was buried, and rose again for us,

thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.


who died?

who died?


who died?


When death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Long Dark Days

Long Dark Days

fall, leaves, fall


Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

Emily Brontë


Befriending Death

Befriending Death




Any Christian whether living in the world or in the Religious Life, active or enclosed, is being called as was St Antony of old to go down into the most frightening places of world history. If we are really trying to live this life in Christ, we are called to go down into the work! situation of today, which is rapidly be­coming divorced from God. It is only in prayer that those truly given to God can face this awful sense of disintegration, and face it united to Christ not only in his Passion but also in the power of his Resurrection.

We have got to live now in and through the dying, in order that we may bear witness to the Resurrection life … If we live in this glorious perspective, we do not have to wait for the fullness of life after death. Life in God is here and now, experienced first and foremost through experiencing death. Do not be afraid to die, do not be afraid when you are overwhelmed by the sense of your own weakness and sin and muck and desolation. Let everything which is in you, and everything which is thrown up against you by the power of evil, be held in Christ’s healing power. Do not absorb it or be overcome by it, but let it in you meet Christ’s power to heal; let it in you meet this almighty power of God, so that in you the mess can be transformed, answered.


from a Conference given to the Community, Sunday in the Octave of Prayer for Unity, 1968

Ways into death and its narratives

Ways into death and its narratives



Quietus: The vessel, death and the human body

An exhibition by Julian Stair Winchester Cathedral Autumn 2013

FB friends will have seen some (not very good) photographs of Winchester Cathedral caused in part by a failure to take my specs on my journey ! However the main reason for the visit south was to see this exhibition and it did not disappoint.

Stair tests the boundaries of subject and possibility in ceramics – he reminds us that art has always had the ability to express the most complex of ideas. here is a response to that which many of us avoid or deny – death.  The word Quietus comes from the medieval Latin and describes the moment of transition when the soul is released from life into death.

In the cathedral we see gathered a range of funerary ware but all have a close relationship to the human body.  The vessels are beautiful and textured and colourful especially in the September morning sunlight. It was fascinating to see visitors reactions – some avoiding contact – other tapping the pots while an older couple sat and looked closely at the sarcophagi.

I wondered what it might take to make our experience of death more meaningful – how might we be more open about death and see it as intertwined into our living?

v0_master[1] (3)

These cinerary jars are designed to hold cremated  remains – a columbarium is the room set aside to pay respect to the dead whose remains are housed here. The jars are displayed here at a high level in the Cathedral sanctuary – thrown and constructed in different ways displaying individuality and colour.


These are familiar horizontal forms with lead lids – I (almost) found myself wanting to climb inside…………!

The picture at the beginning of this piece show monumental burial jars. These vertical forms make reference to a tradition known as extreme inhumation, a ritual where the body was place in the ground upright and fully extended.

An excellent exhibition and in such a prayerful space – thanks to the Cathedral and Stair for honest and earthed creativity.


Learning about Loss – Book review

Learning about Loss – Book review


The Essential Guide to Life After Bereavement

Beyond Tomorrow

Judy Carole Kauffmann and Mary Jordan

Paperback: £12.99 Jessica Kingsley Publishers

2013, 176pp
ISBN: 978-1-84905-335-8.



In pastoral ministry there are many encounters that remain in the memory of the pastor. These find their way to speak about human resilience, our encounter with pain, the occasional impossibility of resolving conflicts  and the need always to be open and honest about our needs. The death of a loved one is always traumatic and how this loss is dealt with during the first weeks of bereavement can often shape the quality of life for families in the years that follow. We need to embrace the vulnerabilities of loss and find help to discover how best to live with our mortality and the challenges of change.


On this journey we shall need skilled friends. Those who seek guidance about bereavement will find a good guide and friend in the pages of this book. It is written by two women who have deepened their emotional intelligence by listening both to themselves and others. They have reflected with care on what we might need when someone dies and organized this advice with care and great clarity.


It is organized into nine chapters. The first two handle the difficult subject of breaking bad news and this is followed by a further two that open up the subject of grief. The book deals with conflict (in families) in chapter five. There are also chapters on personal effects, memorials and anniversaries. Chapter nine looks to the future with a chapter entitled ‘Beyond Tomorrow’ which holds out the hope of reconstructing living in the face of loss.

There is an especially good resources section and the book is strengthened with the provision of an index.


The narrative of the text is grounded in experience with short reflections that earth conversations in the reality of bereavement. There are gentle but searching questions of the reader in the text. The writers have a gift for a concise and clear expression of thought.


My shelves are full of books on death and bereavement but this one will stand out as a useful starting point for someone who might benefit from support and advice in the shape of a short book.










one day a day woke up and

was sky, air, light

and itself. Later, evening

tapped my shoulder:

a reminder, a privilege,

a job to do. Record, it said

the elegance of the day’s decline,

and the perfect curves

of all that is left

of a tulip.


Denise Levertov

Never Mind about Living what about dying?

Never Mind about Living what about dying?

A Sermon preached at Emmanuel College, Cambridge Chapel 18 November 2012

Joy and Woe are woven fine

A clothing for the soul divine

Under every grief and pine

Lies a joy with silken twine


It is right it should be so

Man was made for joy and woe

And when this we rightly know

Through the world we safely go 

(William Blake)


For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (Philippians 1:21)


If someone was to ask you what was distinctive, attractive or even transformative about the Christian faith how would you respond? I want to open up one area this evening against the back cloth of these terms sermons about the way we live now. Here it is –   faith helps to negotiate the geography of dying. Indeed it asks us to embrace this life of both joy and woe as the raw material for our wholeness. In the befriending of death there is colour and wisdom and truth.


It would be surprising if many of us have spent much time looking at death in the face. Most of us desire a life of peace and contentment where our anxieties contain and so the harsher or more fearful or more threatening aspects of life are either kept under control or just put off until we have to face them when they occur.


However, some have little alternative but to face the reality of loss and change and even death. The unexpected diagnosis of cancer; the loss of parents; adapting to life without dependent children; finding a partner and losing a partner; coping with transitions of older age. These and other life experiences confront us with a number of questions.

Our past experiences and memories shape us too. All aspects of our past combine to make this the kind of people we are today: for good and ill. We all have to live with the choices we have made and the experiences that shape our lives. So, perhaps, how we embrace our dying within our living is fundamental to our well-being, our hopes, our fears, our loves, our passions and in the end, our salvation.

This theme of living our dying is based on three convictions. The first is that death in itself is not important. It is not charged with meaning, though for those left it is often fraught with meaning: death is simply the point or moment when a person ceases to live stop. What then is important is not death but dying.

The second conviction is what we call living can in fact be rightly seen as dying. We are all die and embracing a range of changes and losses throughout our lives were all living in a dying situation, diminishing constantly and reacting to the experiences that make for diminishment. It is worth looking back at some of the key points of our lives and asking how these events or experiences have shaped what life means for us and how we drill for wisdom.

The third conviction is that our struggle to live in the light of coming or approaching death is always charged with meaning. In part, our salvation depends upon what sense we make of it all in the light of our faith in God. This is why this area of living is such an opportunity and challenge – worthy of all the attention paid to it by writers, poets, preachers and artists.


We are involved now in the contradictions between life and death. Our living is partly surrender and partly fight! Our lives are a wonderful and mysterious mixture of giving up and not giving up, of surrender and resistance. In these paradoxes, in both aspects, both living our dying and dying to live we encounter God.


Think for a moment about your lives. Our lives are made up of a complex series of losses changes, movements, partings and endings. The child’s in us has to die before we become an independent teenager, and we do not become such until we have put away some of the cosy privileges and protectiveness of the child. Another area of life where we successively die to be reborn is that of parting. I never get used to parting either from people or places. The places where I have lived and worked twined themselves around my heart like ivy around a tree trunk. Every corner has a memory that can target at the heart. Leaving people is, of course, even more difficult than leaving places.


Yet we know that unless we part from one place and stage in life cannot begin in another. Sometimes our affection for the old has to be released in purified before we can treat the new with seriousness and respect. So it is with colleagues and friends. However heartrending the breakup of a relationship it often has to happen quite brutally in order that we can grow and work seriously with other people, partners and friends. To refuse to accept the death of one relationship can hamper the making of a new one. Here is an example of where growth begins with a walking away and letting go. Indeed, love is often proved in the letting go.

Sometimes the parting is not of our choosing or indeed negotiated by us and that indeed is painful. Others may make the decisions that shape our lives and is very hard in these circumstances not to feel the kind of death and rejection. Failing to get a job, compulsory redundancy, bereavement, sudden death and failed love are all examples of the experiences of dying and loss that make up our lives. And you will know what shape these experiences take in you.

The Church is about to enter the season of Advent and next week’s Carol service will meditate on the themes of hope and expectation. When I reflect on my many years of listening to people there are many common threads that emerge – coming clean and facing facts honestly; encountering suffering, pain and loss; drawing close to people and refusing to be isolated; asking for and accepting help; confronting the reality and finality of death but above all being able and willing to be vulnerable.


One thread relates very much to our theme. We are   perhaps conditioned to avoid confronting fear, to avoid the wilderness and the desert places in our own hearts world stop. We live under a kind of tyranny of certainty where strength, confidence, life, success and security dominate our emotional, social, ecclesiastical and political lives. In our healing, our growing we seek those things that we can control, that reassure us rather than face us with our fears doubts. And if we seek to control, avoid, deny then the way we live now will always be dominated by fear. Frightened individuals build frightened societies stop fearful Christians build fearful lives where uncertainty, contradiction, paradox and ambiguity are dealt with by going for false security, strength and certainty. Instead of drawing people together fear polarises and it separates and isolates people from one another and people from their very selves.


There can be healing and growth. When we accept our need of others, when we let go of our independence and our drive to succeed and be always in control. To give is to be powerful; to receive is to be vulnerable. The gospel demands that we are drawn out of this tyranny of certainty. Dying to self means that we help each other to hold together the paradoxes and contradictions between life and death, fear and faith, hope and despair, love and hate, alienation and relationship, fragmentation and connectedness.

Christ is part of the same offering, the same sacrifice, which is completed on the cross. It is for his self-offering that Christmas exhorts God’s gift in this lowly baby. Our discipleship affirms the trust and the death of Christ and its power to create new life, to transform all the fragments of our living and dying.


The gospel message offers is only a certain promise of uncertainty, of continuing loss and sometimes pain. It reminds as the comprehending mystery is the process of discovery and engaging with the struggle to manage these profound ambiguities or paradoxes as a condition of our living. It is about being in touch with our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as the basis of our living, loving and dying.



Thinking about Death on All Souls Day

Thinking about Death on All Souls Day


Some of you may well remember that I spent a good deal of 2011 as part of a working group looking into the present law in this country regarding assisted suicide. The report, published at the beginning of this year, argued coherently (I think) that the present law is unsatisfactory and that, under certain restricted circumstances, should be changed to allow individuals the freedom of choice. I was the single dissenting voice to the report but supportive of the process by which we investigated the very wide range of issues and questions that this moral dilemma poses.

Since January 2012, I have had a fairly steady series of requests for me to address this subject to a range of audiences. Most recently I explored my own spiritual and theological perspective within the context of a number of very experienced health care professionals. The Church of England continues to be firmly opposed to any change in the law and both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Mission and Public Affairs Department have made their position clear. I do not wish to enter into any dialogue with that position here, except to say that the case is not as watertight and coherent as some have been led to believe. My own disagreement with the method of response to the Commission’s report and also the debate in general, is that it has had the effect of closing down any creative and constructive conversation about the nature and shape of death in 21st Century Britain. It may even have given the impression that the Church is not a place where this subject matter can be explored at a practical level (what will happen to me when I die? What can I expect from my funeral? How do I cope with spiritual pain?) let alone the significant divergence of coherent opinion that lies across the moral, legal and medical areas of thinking and practice.

Of course I can make no claim to be representative but it is certainly the case that having spoken to in the region of 1,500 people during this last year, there is any overwhelming majority of individuals who are in support of extending choice and particularly extending their own choice in this area of end of life care. A number of challenging critics following my presentations have asked me to get off the fence and to offer some clear and practical advice for those people who, in certain circumstances, would wish to have the freedom to choose at the end of life.

This needs further thought but at the moment, I am taking a different line of exploration. I have been looking at a number of narratives of individuals who talk in and through their experience of dying. What I am trying to understand is how people respond to the threat of death and what the shape of their dying looks like. As these individuals tell their stories, one is given a unique and often rather moving and disturbing inside story to what the death zone looks like.

Philip Gould on 29 January 2008 was told that he had cancer. He was stoical and set about his treatment determined to fight the illness. In the face of difficult decisions, he sought always to understand the disease and the various medical options open to him, supported by his wife Gail and their two daughters, Georgia and Grace.

In 2010, after two hard years of chemotherapy and surgery, the tests came up clear – Philip appeared to have won the battle but six months later, further tests confirmed that the cancer had returned and thus begins Philip’s long and painful but ultimately optimistic journey towards death. It was during this time that he began to appreciate and make sense of life, his work and relationships in a way he had never thought possible. He realised something that he had never heard articulated before: that death need not only be negative or painful, it can be life affirming and revolutionary. This book is absolutely extraordinary – deeply and wonderfully moving – raw in its honesty and openness but also full of courage and questions to the reader about life and its shape and purpose. Of course Philip Gould attempted to exert maximum amount of control. Of course he had access to the best surgeons and treatment and pain control but in all of this, never once was the question of assisted dying picked up. He faced the eye of the storm, the fear of death and moved in and beyond it to a richer, fuller and spiritual connectedness.

This is not a comfortable read. Any sensitive reader is bound to ask what death might look like to and for them. Any reader is bound to ask, in the light of this particular narrative, what their life means and how satisfying and fulfilling it is. Philip Gould manages to ask us questions not only about dying but also about living. And so – that is why I think that to move to a legal solution around the extension of choice at the end of life, is not the ultimate answer. It may in due course be part of the answer but for the time being we need a richer conversation about the nature and purpose of our life and Philip Gould offers us a wonderful starting point for this.



‘Control’ in this context( of death)  has two distinct meanings, both equally crucial.

In the first place, ‘control’, as you would expect, means priority and ability to manage, not to force, the compliance of others, to determine what others think or do. In the second, more elusive sense – a sense which, nevertheless, saves my life and which, once achieved, may induce the relinquishing of ‘control’ in the first sense — ‘control’ means that when something untoward happens, some trauma or damage, whether inflicted by the commissions or omissions of others, or some cosmic force, one makes the initially unwelcome event one’s own inner occupation.

You work to adopt the most loveless, forlorn, aggressive child as your own, and do not leave her to develop into an even more vengeful monster, who constantly wishes you ill. In ill-health as in unhappy love, this is the hardest work: it requires taking in before letting be.

Gillian Rose Loves Work

Changing Expectations of Death

Changing Expectations of Death




A Cumberland Lodge residential conference

Changing Expectations of Death



Friday 23rd November

17.00    Arrival, Registration and Tea

17.30    Welcome by Dr Alastair Niven, Principal, Cumberland Lodge

17.45    Changing Patterns of Death and Dying                                                                     Plenary 1

Dr George Leeson, Co-Director, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Institute of Population Ageing

            Professor Tom Kirkwood, Associate Dean for Ageing, Newcastle University


19.15    Reception in the Drawing Room followed by 19.30 Dinner


21.00    The Privacy of Death                                                                                                  Plenary 2

Nell Dunn, author and playwright of Home Death, with readings by Eunice Roberts


Saturday 24th November

08.15    Breakfast

09.00    What the End of Life Should be Like                                                                          Plenary 3

            Eve Richardson, CEO, The National Council for Palliative Care    

            Baroness Ilora Finlay of Llandaff, Professor of Palliative Medicine

10.30    Coffee

11.00    Bereavement and Grief Services                                                                               Plenary 4

            Dr Kate Woodthorpe, University of Bath

            Professor Douglas Davies, University of Durham

12.30    Lunch followed by free time to enjoy the Great Park

15.00    The Ends of Life                                                                                                          Plenary 5

            Canon Dr James Woodward, Canon Steward, St George’s Chapel, Windsor

            Professor Helen Small, Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford                   

16.30    Tea

17.00    Changing Rituals around Death                                                                                 Plenary 6

Professor Linda Woodhead, Director, AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme,

Lancaster University

18.15    Pay bar followed by 18.45 Dinner

20.30    Autonomy and Assisted Dying                                                                                  Plenary 7

            Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve


Sunday 25th November

08.15    Breakfast

09.00    How different communities cope with death                                                            Plenary 8

            Rose Thompson, Director, BME Cancer Communities

            Professor Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies, University of Bath

10.30    Coffee

11.00    Dying Young and Dying Old                                                                                       Plenary 9

            Dr Adrian Tookman, Director of the Marie Curie Hospice, Hampstead

            Bridget Lee, Psychological Therapies Team Manager, Marie Curie Hospice, Hampstead


12.20    Wrap Up

            Professor Tom Kirkwood

12.30    Lunch followed by Departure


Cumberland Lodge, The Great Park, Windsor SL4 2HP         T: 01784 497794

The Right to Die?

The Right to Die?

Sometimes life moves at such a busy pace that it’s easy to think of it as just one thing after another. I think we probably spend too little time processing things, though I was glad to be warned by a friend that too much self-introspection is not entirely healthy!


Last weekend I spent two nights in Zürich at either end of a very full public day of lectures on conversations about assisted suicide. It was the gathering of world right to die societies in a place, of course, that has become rather famous for its liberal laws in this area of living and dying. I think that I had not quite anticipated the shape and culture of this gathering – committed, energetic, political and very sophisticated groups articulating with some force and clarity the absolute right of the individual for choice and self-determination.


Speaker after speaker celebrated the achievements of EXIT and put a consistent case for an assisted suicide. If there was any sense of there being a rather complicated set of arguments against assisted suicide these were not apparent. With an evangelical fervour the large assembled group delighted in the stories of a good death by way of this kind of assistance.


Here is my central dilemma. I have some instinctive sympathy with wanting to live in a liberal and progressive democracy that offers freedom and choice to citizens. Who would really want to turn the clock back and see the forces of homophobia, racial prejudice, misogynism run havoc with people’s lives? Is it possible to see communities and society as inclusive and wholly orientated around human flourishing? How much further to we need to go in order to see barriers broken down and achieve a deeper and more lasting practice of equality and dignity? The present law in the UK is a strange mixture of incoherence and steady maintenance of the status quo. The critique of the law is powerful and persuasive one but in the end I’m not convinced that it is right to implement a change which would shift so many relationships and realities in this area of care and support. I think quite simply that there needs to be more conversation and outside of the narrow constructing frameworks of medicine and the law. At the heart of all of this is our own relationship with death and whether in the end it is right to allow us to control our deaths as we sometimes have the right to control so many other aspects of our lives.


As I sat scribbling away listening to speaker after speaker in Zürich I experienced a significant amount of unease. There is something about this debate that is out of kilter with our inner spiritual selves. The problem for the church is   that if we keep on insisting that assisted suicide or dying is always wrong then we run the danger of closing down dialogue and allowing some creativity to urge as people consider what it means to be human and what place lost change and death have in our view of what we might need to do to be whole and indeed free.


As I rose to my feet to offer my reflections I sensed that the group, though polite, had no time for this philosophy which even felt, perhaps, like confused procrastination.


Here are a couple of the core messages of my presentation.


We cannot demand the freedom to choose at any cost. I understand that there are significant difficulties in with the current law in the United Kingdom. My visit to Switzerland with the Commission last year to learn something of the law and practice here raised many more questions about the way a culture views life, death, and the freedom to choose. Legislation does not resolve some of the profoundest of questions about human life and the conditions for its flourishing. It left me feeling that, however complex this area of human life is, it cannot be dealt with through the law or medicine alone. We need a broader and richer narrative within which to locate our experiences of death and dying.

Part of this exploration must take into consideration the intense poverty of language and the purpose and shape of our words. How do we find the language within which to give any sense of the meaning and shape of our lives beyond the superficially immediate and physical ? Has modernity for all its progression left us content?


I think that we need to support a wider cultural engagement with our relationship to death. All of us swim in the one sea of our lives, trying to stay afloat as best we can, clinging to such preservers as we might draw about us: reason and science, faith and religious practice, art, music and imagination. But in the end, we all sink; we all die. I doubt whether many of us have really come to terms with our mortality. Somehow our fears can still take hold. We may want to assert our right to control without attending to the hinterland of our inner world.  The map of dying and death remains foreign, an un-negotiable land. We should all attempt to humble ourselves before this reality. We need to engage in dialogue to own and perhaps even change the map of life and death — to enable people and systems to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to live well and die well in the place and manner of their choosing.

There is a fundamental question about how and whether we own our death.


I doubt very much whether any of this made much difference but one of the things that I do need to think further about is how all we might be able to move this debate into the public arena so that a richer dialogue and narrative can take place.Is there any space between the two polarised views for wisdom?


Go straight to terminal one! Further musings…

Go straight to terminal one! Further musings…

I think that some of you know that for much of last year I was involved in the Falconer Commission on assisted dying.Itwas a fascinating year and one  not without its measure of controversy.Much is made about my dissension from the main recommendations to change the law to allow  a very restricted group individuals in certain circumstances to seek assistance in ending their lives. I see from the editorial of today’s British medical Journal that there is a strong plea for medical organisations to stop their organised resistance to any shift in UK law.

So I’m just about to pack a bag and to fly off to Zürich to speak tomorrow at the International Convention of rights to die societies! Quite a gig as some might say… I’m not quite sure what I want to share with this large group will go down terribly well but I shall be fascinated to see the shape and culture of these groups gathered from across the world.

I’ll report back – if you are at all interested – but in the meantime in an airport terminal and exit take on quite a different shape and meaning…

Back on Saturday – I hope in one piece!


Who understands Death?

Who understands Death?

Following a conversation yesterday about the narratives of death and particularly our own relationship to death I turned to that extraordinary narrative by Gillian Rose that asks  us all whether  we have faced our mortality

Gillian Rose  LOVES WORK Page 72 & 73

With a man in clerical orders, one may legiti­mately expect him to have faced eternity. The source of his authority will be this humility in relation to his own mortality. It should seal him from violence in love, from joining the hierarchies of exterminating angels.

With a consultant surgeon, alas, you cannot expect him necessarily to have faced his own finality. Surgeons are not qualified for the one thing with which they deal: life. For they do not understand, as part of their profession, ‘death’, in the non-medical sense, nor therefore ‘life’ in the meaningful sense, in­clusive of death. When they fail to ‘cure, according to their own lights, they deal out death, ‘You won’t die at eighty of boredom.’ ‘Since you may well die within a year of your operation, it is not worth spoiling your remaining time with more chemotherapy that will make you deaf’



There is a grace approaching
that we shun as much as death,
it is the completion of our birth.

It does not come in time,
but in timelessness
when the mind sinks into the heart
and we remember.

It is an insistent grace that draws us
to the edge and beckons us surrender
safe territory and enter our enormity.

    (From Stephen Levine, BREAKING THE DROUGHT:
    Visions of Grace, Larson, 2007).

Why I dissented from Falconer

Why I dissented from Falconer

 The Commission on Assisted Dying published its report yesterday. It has concluded that it is possible to devise a legal framework that would set out strictly defined circumstances in which terminally ill people could be assisted to die. The work was funded by Sir Terry Pratchett and Bernard Lewis, both advocates of assisted dying.

 I joined the Commission against the advice of fellow clerics. I had an undecided mind, but was sympathetic to the values of freedom of choice, and supportive of a progressive and humane society. Many of the commissioners had already declared their sympathy with the need for a change in the law. We were all clear, however, about the necessity to strive for independence (of government and other cam­paign­ing groups) and to use our ex­pertise to produce a fair report, firmly rooted in the evidence.

The recommendations are more conservative than many have pre­dicted. The conditions whereby an indi­vidual might be assisted in ending his or her life are tightly defined. We have spent 12 months sifting through 1200 responses from practitioners, professionals, and mem­bers of the public. There is new research that bears on the argument that the present law is unsatisfactory. It has been a privilege to travel alongside my fellow commissioners, but we have not ended up in the same place. In the end, mine was the single dissenting voice from the con­clusions. My fellow commissioners have accommodated my divergence with generosity. I support the co­herence, rigour, and quality of this work, and hope that it will be read and used as a basis for further research, work, and public debate.

 Here are my reasons for affirming the report, but in the end not being able to support the conclusions.

 Fundamentally, we cannot de­mand the freedom to choose at any cost. I understand that there are sig­nificant difficulties with the cur­rent law. Yet my visit to Switzerland with the Commission to learn something of the law and practice there raised many more questions about the way in which a culture views life, death, and the freedom to choose. It left me feeling that, however complex this area of human life is, it cannot be dealt with through the law or medicine alone. We need a broader and wiser reflection on our experi­ences of death and dying.

To assist this, the Churches need to support a wider cultural engagement with our relationship to death. All of us swim in the one sea of our lives, trying to stay afloat as best we can, clinging to such preservers as we might draw about us: reason, science, faith, art, and so on. But, in the end, we all sink; we all die. I doubt whether many of us have really come to terms with our mortal­ity. The map of dying and death remains foreign, an un­negotiable land. We should all attempt to humble ourselves before this reality. The work of this Com­mission has further con­vinced me of the necessity of the need to change the map of life and death — to enable people and systems to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to live well and die well in the place and manner of his or her choosing.

 Christians can contrib­ute by sharing their theo­logical wisdom. They have answers to ques­tions about suffering, personhood, and the value of the vulnerable that could inform a more open conversa­tion about death in Britain today. Also, I have a particular concern for the nurture of values that seek to increase choice, reduce inequality (especially for women and older people), and, by better planning, intervention, and care, to enable us all to travel safely through this fearful land. I am disturbed by the inade­quacy of UK health and social care, where dignity and compassion are universally affirmed, but often not part of the day-to-day practice of those who are tasked to care. What is necessary here is a spir­itual task: that of nurturing imagina­tion and compassion. Can health professionals and structures demon­strate an imagination of the sheer fragility and preciousness of life in the face of death? This has political implications for the use of resources, investment in staff training and support, and our desire to organise systems — with the constant re­minder that it is the patients who pay our wages.

Furthermore, more ethical reflection needs to take place. Much has been made of the religious (and at times unhelpfully ab­stract) principle of “the sanctity of life”. This needs to informed by an affirmation of life in all its mani­festations. My theological conviction is that there is no stage of human life, and no level of experience, which is intrinsic­ally incapable of being lived through in some kind of trust and hope. More than 25 years of pastoral work has shown me that even experiences of pain and helplessness can be passed through in a way that is meaningful and communicates dignity and assur­ance.

We NEED a spiritual framework and signposts that will assist us in talking about the sheer wonder and diversity of human beings and their experience seriously — an approach to life and death that notices just who we are. I suspect that the coming days will be characterised by careless comment and dismissive rhetoric about the report, not least by people of faith. The Church needs to ask itself how it might contribute to the process of discussion, engagement, and listening which has characterised the Com­mission’s work.

The Commission on Assisted Dying – more news reports

The Commission on Assisted Dying – more news reports

‘Why I Rejected the Report Calling for Assisted Suicide in the UK

One of the commissioners who worked on a report into assisted dying has rejected its conclusions. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

One of the commissioners who worked on a report into assisted dying has rejected its conclusions. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

A report by the Commission on Assisted Dying which claimed there is a “strong case” for allowing assisted suicide was “not in the position to make sweeping suggestions for a change in the law”, claims the sole commissioner to reject the conclusions.

“I started off with some sympathy for a liberalisation of the law which would maximise a person’s freedom to choose,” Reverend Dr James Woodward, who was one of the 11 commissioners working on the report, told International Business Times UK.

“It seemed to me that only discussing the issue of end of life care, dying and death, within the narrow context of both the law and medicine, failed to offer a kind of holistic picture of the complexity of both the reality of dying and death but also the ethical issues around choice and right and wrong.”

He said the view of changing the law was “informed by a rather functionalist, medicalised view of the person” which was “unsatisfactory”.

Discussions about assisted dying, especially when making policy recommendations, must consider the ethical and philosophical questions around life and death, argues Woodward.

“I think when we’re faced with the reality of our own death that one of the things we do is … the apprehension of death is something we do with our heart as well as our head and that actually it is impossible for us all to take a completely rational detached view of the nature of death and its reality for us.”

He added: “We’ve got to ask what this experience means, as well as assert the absolute right, if it is an absolute right, of people to be able to choose, in certain circumstances, to end their lives.”

Woodward was “very affected” by a trip to the assisted suicide clinic Dignitas in Switzerland.

“Wandering around the Dignitas house had a kind of odd, eerie coldness about it, that seemed very detached from human life as I’ve come to see it and know it,” he said.

Report’s Criticism of Bias ‘Not Fair’

Attacks by anti-assisted suicide campaigners have labelled the report as biased, because it was set up and funded by pro-assisted dying campaigners, and some of the commissioners have stated in the past that they are in favour of a law change.

These criticisms are rejected by Woodward as “not fair”.

“I think if you go on to the commission’s web page and you look at the way in which we interrogated the evidence … [it] was listened to, interrogated, reflected on, so I think there is a rigour and a quality to the work,” he said.

“To be fair to the work of the commission, it was never quite the brief to have a wider, sociological, philosophical, theological debate.

“In the end I wasn’t able to sign up to the recommendations as unless we have that debate, we’re not in the position to be able to make sweeping suggestions for a change in the law.”

Woodward added: “I think it is a very, very serious piece of work. It absorbed a huge amount of time and effort … but what I’m saying is let’s take the report and try an engage with people about what death means for them and what choice the feel they may need to have in the face of death.”