On 4 January 2015, the Mail on Line carried the headline Church of England to ‘legalise’ suicide in historic U-turn on funerals, which continues:
“The Church of England is embroiled in a row over proposals to sweep away laws that forbid a full Christian funeral to people who have taken their own lives. Most clergy now regard suicide with far more sympathy than when ‘self-murder’ was still a crime, and the move will be seen as reflecting a growing acceptance as more Britons choose to end their lives in clinics such as Dignitas in Switzerland. But some critics within the Church say the reforms will ‘legalize’ suicide, which should still be regarded a serious sin.”
The underlying story relates to the Revd Canon Dr Michael Parsons’ proposed Private Member’s Motion on Canon B 38, to move:
“That this Synod call on the Business Committee to introduce legislation to amend Canon B 38 so as to allow those who have taken their own life, whatever the circumstances, to be buried in accordance with the rites of the Church of England.”
Private Members Motion
The motion, which was laid in February 2014, had attracted 113 signatures by 27 November and is scheduled to be debated on the morning of Thursday 12 February 2015 at the next General Synod . In summary,
- the motion relates to services that are permitted to be used on the burial of someone who has taken his or her own life:
- it does not address the Church’s attitude to suicide;
- it does not conflict with the Church’s opposition to “assisted suicide”;
- if passed, it would trigger the beginning of the lengthy process of modifying the Church’s Canon law, which itself would require the approval of Synod; it would also need to address a number of related issues, see below.
“7. Canon B 38 . . . reflects the current canonical and legal position . . . it is the minister’s duty to bury any deceased parishioner, including a person who has taken his own life while of sound mind, a person who is excommunicate, or a person who is unbaptized. But the law provides that, instead of using the normal funeral service (whether from the BCP or Common Worship) the minister
“shall use at the burial such service as may be prescribed or approved by the Ordinary, being a service neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter: Provided that, if a form of service available for the burial of suicides is approved by the General Synod under Canon B 2, that service shall be used where applicable”. (Canon B 38, paragraph 2)
- As Canon Parsons’ background note suggests this distinction appears in practice to be honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Clergy do not generally ask the bereaved whether the deceased was baptised and even where suicide is suspected or confirmed many clergy will use the normal burial service with few if any modifications. Moreover, despite the fact that provision has been in place since 1968 for the approval of a form of service for use where a person has taken their own life while of sound mind (and in relation to the unbaptized and the excommunicate), no such service has been approved either by the Convocations or by the General Synod. The responsibility for prescribing or approving forms of service for such use (either generally or on an individual basis) therefore rests with the Bishop or other ordinary.“
Other aspects of the PMM
In addition to those taking their own life, Canon B 38 identifies these two other categories of people for whom Christian burial should not, in law, involve the normal prescribed funeral service: ‘the unbaptized’; and persons ‘who have been declared excommunicate’. However, “it is not contemporary pastoral practice for clergy generally to inquire whether the deceased was baptised”; and since the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 came into force on 1 March 1965, “there has no longer been any legal machinery for declaring a person to be excommunicate.” Although Canon 38 is quite prescriptive in its reference to a person “of sound mind [having] laid violent hands upon himself”, the PMM is silent in relation to the present debate on “assisted suicide”.
In footnote 4, GS 1972B observes “Roman Catholic Canon Law no longer forbids the burial of those who take their own lives; see Canon 1184”. However, these provisions are not unconditional, and Dr Ed Peters suggests that not all suicide scenarios lend themselves to “‘a generous interpretation’ of this Canon”: one of these scenarios is “suicides committed in accord with civil euthanasia laws”. He argues that a key point of the relevant Canons is “to rule out suicide motived by depression, mistaken prognosis, third-party pressures, and so on . . . the observance of these laws eliminates the very factors upon which ministers can base their doubts about one’s personal culpability for self-slaughter and grant the Church’s funeral rites to those killing themselves.”
Implications of changing Canon B 38
The Secretary General’s background note outlines the issues that would need to be addressed were the canonical position to be changed, as proposed in the PMM. These would include:
- whether the minister would be under a duty to use one of those two services in the case of such a person, or should have a discretion as to whether to do so (or at least an opt out on grounds of conscience) in which case the minister could use another more standard form of service;
- whether the position in relation to the unbaptized should be similarly changed or whether different questions arise in such cases.
Were Synod to ask for legislation to be introduced to amend Canon B 38, a further question would also arise as to whether that could be achieved simply by means of a Canon made under s 1(1)(b) Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974 or whether it would be necessary for the Synod to pass a Measure which specifically authorised the making of an amending canon with the desired effect.
In summary, the rationale behind the PMM is:
- funeral services of suicides conducted by Church of England clergy may be in contravention of Canon B38; and
- removing this canonical bar [on the use of “the rites of the Church of England” in these circumstances] “would send a very positive message to society at large, particularly if presented in the context that it was actually recognising current practice.”
Not quite the “legalization of suicide” or a “U-turn on funerals” of the headline; essentially an alignment of canon law with current custom and practice that will have little perceptible impact on the families of those involved. If clergy adherence to canon law were a major concern to the Church, infractions such as these are not necessarily the place at which one would start. As the Revd Gavin Foster has observed:
“the requirements of Canon Law were perceived by clergy to be distant, ‘other’, far away and irrelevant to the everyday life of the Church. [Anglican] clergy seemed to be only vaguely aware of the requirements of canon law and would frequently (and quite often knowingly) breach them.”
 Gavin Foster, Dissertation on Clerical Disobedience of Canon Law in the Church of England in partial fulfilment of the degree to LLM (Canon Law),  Cardiff University.