The Sacraments and the emergency services

by Dr Joseph Shaw

As the United Kingdom has secularised, so the role of Christian ministers has diminished. If you read stories of natural crises from fifty years ago, priests and Anglican vicars are often involved. At the 1966 disaster at Aberfan in Wales, when a heap of spoil from a coal mine engulfed a school, the local vicar was practically the only person regarded as having responsibility for the emotional and spiritual trauma suffered by the people of the town. One of the most memorable images from the “troubles” of Northern Ireland is of a Catholic priest waving a white handkerchief, escorting a group of people carrying an injured man to safety, on “Bloody Sunday” in 1972. Times, sadly, have changed.

As the role of the Church has diminished, so have priests’ opportunities to make a positive difference. Last week a prominent Catholic Member of Parliament, David Amess, was stabbed by (apparently) an Islamist fanatic. As he lay dying, a Catholic priest was refused admission through the police cordon to give him the Last Rites. The priest seemed to accept the explanation: Amess, surrounded as he was by police officers and medics, was in a “crime scene” which couldn’t be disturbed by anyone as trivial as a priest.

Similarly, time was when midwives were instructed how to conduct a baptism as part of their training. It is, after all, not very difficult. At a certain point this stopped. Now, if a baby of Christian parents is in danger of death the parents have to hope that someone who understands the issue notices and takes action, if they are unable to do so themselves. There are, of course, many Christian nurses and doctors, but for them to intervene to perform an emergency baptism is no longer a matter of carrying out their duties, but a private initiative justifiable by reference to the mother’s request. If it happens, it will be purely a matter of Providence.

I don’t know exactly when or by whom decisions have been made to ignore the spiritual needs of vulnerable people who find themselves under the control of the agents of our secular state. What would have brought it to my attention is some significant reaction from the Catholic Bishops, or their non-Catholic counterparts. I do not wish to single out the priest who failed to anoint David Amess for criticism, but I think his attitude is representative. He said to the press, “Yes I was refused entry but I respected that decision by the police.” Why respect that decision? Why not make a fuss?

Many people have noticed the tendency for the institutional Church to conform itself to the habits and culture of the state sector. Those who have to tangle with the state’s apparatus of education, health, social work, and welfare, are familiar with a culture which can easily slip into prioritising box-ticking over serving the public. The odd thing is that the culture the Church is taking on is instinctively anti-religious: hospital and prison administrators, head teachers, and the like, increasingly see the clergy as a nuisance, just as did the police officers in charge of the crime scene surrounding David Amess, because the spiritual aspect of life which the clergy serve is something they don’t take seriously. But perhaps this is not as odd as it appears, because the Church’s own bloated administration often doesn’t take it very seriously either.

The social media response to the David Amess story illustrated the theological background to this lack of seriousness. The outrage of some Catholics was countered by people asking: but what difference does it make? Surely no-one would imagine that Mr Amess’ post-mortem existence could be affected by whether a priest was able to anoint him, give him Absolution, Holy Communion, and the Apostolic Pardon? If there is such a thing as an after-life, surely it cannot be affected by the performance or non-performance of ceremonies before death?

It may be worth briefly rehearsing the explanation why it does make a difference. We do not know the state of Mr Amess’s soul; we cannot exclude the possibility in such a case that he was in mortal sin. Even if he were not, his time of purification after death is at issue. In either case, the ability of the ceremonies of the Church to foster a heartfelt act of contrition, the ability of sacramental absolution to restore or to increase sanctifying grace, the grace of Holy Communion, and the forgiveness of the temporal punishment due to sin by the Apostolic Pardon, all available in the Last Rites taken together, would make a material difference to any dying Catholic. For this reason he had a right to them: making them available when possible is part of the respectful treatment due to the dying. They surround the last acts of human life with dignity and meaning, for the dying man, and for those around him.

As a matter of fact, modern secular Britain does take account of some religious sensibilities. Police uniform, for example, is adapted when worn by Sikh men and by Muslim women, to allow them to cover their heads as their religions require. In a different way, almost the entire poultry industry has adopted the conventions of halal slaughter to make their products acceptable to Muslims. I don’t criticise Muslims and other religious minorities for asking for such concessions. They demonstrate the old adage, that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. It is because Catholic leadership has been so lacking, or so demoralised, that we find ourselves in the situation in which the English bishops actually requested the Government to force them to close churches during the Covid lockdown. Public health is a serious matter; the spiritual needs of the Catholic faithful, apparently, are not.

When Robert Persons and St Edmund Campion came to England to minister to Catholics in 1580, they were breaking the law in doing so. They took the view, however, that Christ’s mandate to the Church – “Go forth, and make disciples of to all nations” (Mt. 28:19) – overruled the human laws which attempted to stop them. This is not about religious liberty: it is not applicable to other religions or philosophies. It is about the rights and liberty of the Church, established by God.

Today, we are not, in general, faced with having to choose between obeying Christ’s precepts and conforming to the law of the land. Christ’s mission, nevertheless, should give us both confidence and urgency in arguing the case for the freedom needed by the Church and her ministers to carry that mission out. Christ gave us the mission because it is important: because it makes a difference.

For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved. How then shall they call on him, in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear, without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they be sent, as it is written: How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, of them that bring glad tidings of good things! (Rm. 10:12-15)