By Diana Swift, Anglican Journal, October 25, 2011
The Anglican Church of Canada is making progress toward overcoming a longstanding negative stereotype and becoming an effective partner in preventing suicide. “It’s a challenge because the church has not traditionally been a welcoming place for the families of suicide victims,” explains Cynthia Patterson, coordinator of suicide prevention since 2009 for the Council of the North, Anglican Church of Canada. “Suicide was considered a mortal sin and the deceased could not be buried in consecrated ground.”
According to Patterson, “We have a lot of teaching to do to explain that this is not our attitude now. We are working away, one partner at a time, and we are gaining more acceptance.”
The good news is that the church is moving in a healthy direction, finally, after burying its head in the sand, not really wanting to acknowledge the issue, even within its own ranks. The bad news is that the church's "concept of sin" as the defining feature of human nature, and therefore the starting place for a relationship with it, and through it with God, is counter-intuitive.
I once recommended to an Episcopal bishop in the U.S. that he read Matthew Fox, the author of such liberating thelogical texts as Original Blessing in which he turns the "original sin" story on its ears through the gift by the grace of God, of human consciousness, awareness and insight. Without having read any of Fox's work, he immediately retorted, "That's too radical! I will not read it!"
And yet that same bishop published a diocesan letter condemning (now retired) Bishop Spong of New Jersey for being a "heretic". The letter was to be read in all churches, at the direction of the bishop, as a way of demonstrating the diocese's distancing from Spong's challenging texts on various aspects of biblical interpretation, including Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and the need for the church to change, or die.
For the last century, many Canadians have considered suicide an aspect of a subject entitled mental illness that is virtually outside the purview of the church. There is a lingering "devil" aspect to discussions of mental illness, as if there were a Satan living in each of the people whose lives are made more painful by their psychiatric diagnosis. It has been, almost, as if God was absent from such people, because the devil was in charge.
And yet, when theological or seminary students were assigned to train as chaplains in mental hospitals, the fundamental learning from such experiences, as retold by those gifted by such an experience, was that God loved those people, and, by working with them, these students were specially blessed to have been given the opportunity.
If one reads Henri Nouwen's work on Daybreak, the Toronto home of L'Arche, founded by Jean Vanier as homes for the mentally challenged, one is struck by the impact these people had on Nouwen, a gifted scholar, theologian and pastoral counsellor.
There are too many places, such as the church's historic stance on suicide, where human life, in all of its messiness and its uncontrolled aspects on the part of those living those lives, is/was/and likely always will be considered "sinful" and therefore requiring the changes proposed by the churches. It used to be that a couple living together could not be married in the church by a licensed clergy; however, that fell by the wayside. If the church wished to continue to conduct marriages, it would have to accept, indeed welcome, those living together prior to their marriage.
Explanations, like the "evil" of suicide, condemned by the church for a long period, were never satisfactory, while the church's position rendered those families in which the act occurred "troubled" even "dangerous" and certainly, "not christian."
Not until all the catalogue of human emotions, actions, spoken words and beliefs are brought to light within the church, as an integral part of the landscape of God's creation, and not until all people are seen to be either potentially, or in fact, part of all these messes and inconsistencies, conflicts, self-abuse, and even self-loathing will the church become a willing and a competent and an open and receptive agency for the teaching and the learning that the gospel holds for its adherents...and that includes the tearing down of walls between those the church considers "sinners" for whatever reason, and those the church considers "children of God"...
I have not seen a piece of ecclesiatical research documenting the level of merciless gossip that flows through every congregation, whereby parishoners debase those sitting in the same pews for their "wayward ways"; however, when the church is able and willing to confront such diabolical arrogance, it will have gone a long way toward bringing the gospel to life within its sanctuaries.
The change in the church's position on suicide, while welcome, may be only a small beginning.