Presidential Address – Governing Body, April 2016

There are a number of issues in Britain as a whole, and in Wales in particular at the moment, which impinge on the wellbeing of us all.

I am referring in part to matters we will discuss in due course at this GB – the election of a new Assembly for Wales which could change the political landscape of Wales, and the Referendum on Europe, which one way or another will affect our future as a country.

There is a new revised Draft Bill for Wales in the pipeline, which will affect the direction and nature of devolution, and of course the future of the steel industry is in the balance, which has implications for the country as a whole, but especially for communities such as Shotton and Port Talbot – towns which owe their existence to steel.

Now Christians have no easy, straightforward or definitive answers to any of these issues and there will be honest disagreement among us about how to respond to them. There is no one simple Christian answer to complicated political, ethical and moral matters. They are matters, however, which ought to be of concern to us all because they affect the kind of country and society in which we live, and if we, as Christians, have nothing to say about them or worse still aver, as some do, that these are not our concerns but should to be left to politicians to decide, then what we would be really saying is that the Christian faith is restricted to the purely personal and narrowly religious and has nothing to say about our life together as a society and nation.

That is at total variance with the teaching of the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke out against injustices to the poor and on behalf of the marginalised and voiceless, as well as being at variance with the ministry of Jesus who said He had come to rescue people from everything that enslaved and diminished them as human beings made in the image of God.

Let me then say something very briefly about each of these subjects and of course I am speaking in a personal capacity.

Cytûn and local Councils of Churches are involved in hustings for elections to the National Assembly, where they will question candidates on where their parties stand on the economy, industry, education and the Health Service to name but four issues. It is easy to forget that the right to vote in this country was won at a price, and that we, as Christians, have a moral duty to exercise that right. One thing that should cause concern is, that some politicians, with no connection with or interest in Wales up until now, are using these elections to pursue their own agendas and further their own careers. That cannot be of benefit to Wales.

On the European question, there is a real danger of being guided by how things feel on the spur of the moment, rather than by the principles, which should inform such a momentous decision. The outcome will shape the four countries of the UK for a lifetime or more and the debate ought not to be restricted to the two most talked about topics so far, namely economics and immigration. The European Union came into being originally not for economic reasons but as a union of nations, for the common good, to pursue peace and to advance the rule of law, the democratic process and human rights and has been instrumental in helping countries of the former Eastern bloc in achieving some of those aims.

As far as the Draft Wales Bill is concerned, the previous Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb, changed his mind about its content after representations from every party, law experts and many people in Wales, including the Bench. Intended to deliver a “stronger, clearer and fairer devolution settlement”, it was felt the Draft Bill did not live up to those aims and we now await a better Bill to emerge.

And so to the steel industry. The situation is changing daily. The prospect of redundancies some months ago galvanised the churches in the town of Port Talbot to support the community as it faced the crisis. That has now been overtaken by a far worse prospect of the closure of all steel making plants in the UK. A group of sixteen people from the town’s churches and chapels have formed a ministry team to help Tata’s chaplain support people struggling with stress. A debt advice centre has been set up in one of the churches and more food banks opened for the expected extra demand. All of that is highly commendable and we tend to forget at times precisely how involved Christians are in the lives of their communities. The future however looks bleak for the town of Port Talbot, as it did in the past for Ebbw Vale and Llanwern.

The Welsh Government has regarded the crisis as being so serious that it recalled the Assembly, and the UK Government is hoping to find a solution. It is not merely a crisis for Port Talbot and Shotton or even Wales. It is a national crisis. It raises the question of an industrial strategy for the UK, since steel is the foundation of the manufacturing base of this country and affects many other industries.

What can be done? I am not an economist but it is a fact that business rates in the steel industry in the UK are much higher than in other parts of the EU and energy costs per ton of steel made in the UK are more than double those of Germany. Other countries have imposed tariffs on imports and massively subsidised steel production. The danger is that if all steel making plants are closed, once they are gone, the price of steel will increase and that will have far reaching repercussions on our economy and industry. It will be too late by then and people in places like Port Talbot, whose lives and communities have been shaped by the steel industry, will have been crushed.

If the banking industry, which still does not fully appreciate the extent of its rescue, judging by the behaviour of some of its members, was deemed worth saving, surely it is worth securing a sustainable future for the steel industry in Wales and the UK. 1055 companies in the UK list one of their main areas of business as the manufacturing or casting of steel. Its survival affects the employment prospects of many thousands of people.

I would now like to speak about something more personal.

Presidential address might be a bit of a misnomer for what I am about to deliver, because although I do preside over this body, my address today is more personal than the ones I normally give. I want to begin by thanking those of you who have written to me after Hilary’s death in January. I have now received well over a thousand letters, e-mails and cards and it is impossible for me to respond individually to each one. Please don’t take that as meaning that I did not appreciate receiving them. I was deeply moved by people’s care and concern but I hope you will accept my thanking you as a body and for your outpouring of concern for us as a family.

In speaking to you as I am going to, I hope I am not being either self-indulgent or maudling. That is certainly not my intention. But theology is about making sense of one’s belief in God in the light of one’s experience of life or as the present Archbishop of Canterbury put it “Christianity is about the lived experience of the presence of God in all circumstances and at all times including everything that life can throw at us”. And so I intend talking about cancer, death, dying and bereavement, in the hope that what I have to say may be of some help to others, because many of you will have either direct or family experiences of all these things.

What is amazing however is that even in this third millennium, people still mention the word “cancer” in hushed tones, if at all, or they just say “c”, and there is still hesitation about using the words “death” and “dying”. The words most commonly used are “passed away”, “gone to sleep”, “passed on”, “started a journey”, and “lost”, as if somehow these words are not quite so final or as brutal as the word “death”.

In Victorian times people died much younger and usually at home so they were more used to talking about death and dying. That is no longer the case. The paradox is that the television and radio often offer serious programmes on death, dying and bereavement, so that on the public level a great deal of discussion is going on about this topic. We also live in a world where we are confronted daily with dreadful accounts of violence and death in our world.

Yet in our society, more and more people have grown up without having witnessed the natural death of a relative. Many people reach middle age without having had any direct experience of bereavement and now over 70% of deaths take place not at home but in hospitals, residential homes and hospices. Death, when it happens, is also often seen as something private.

In a recent series of television programmes on death and dying, whereas those with a professional interest discussed it with ease – counsellors, undertakers and doctors, they changed the subject if they were asked to talk about their attitude to the prospect of their own deaths. There was a marked reluctance to talk openly about their personal deaths. John Hinton, in his book on Dying says “It is rare for humans to talk openly about dying.”

I once wanted to intern ashes on a Sunday in a crematorium cemetery. The letter I had back from the crematorium supervisor (this was in England) said:

I am sorry that we cannot allow you to do this outside the hours of 9.30am – 3.00pm Monday to Friday, for we cannot have bereaved people, tending graves or witnessing funerals because this causes them anxiety.”

But unless we, as Christians, are willing to face the reality and the finality in one sense of death, who is going to? And if Hilary taught me anything, (and she taught me a great deal about many things over the years, through being the kind of person she was rather than anything she said overtly, which in the end is the essence of being a Christian disciple), it was her willingness to face up to the reality of what was happening to her as the cancer progressed, by being totally open and frank about it to the amazement of many, even of her friends.

Cancer of course is not one disease but a whole family of diseases, some more serious than others. Some can be removed or even cured, whilst in some cases, death is quick and in others illness can be long drawn out. In fact, in Britain, 900 people are diagnosed with some kind of cancer every day. Some people of course don’t want to know what the prognosis might be.

We did want to know and we were told that whilst the average survival rate for Hilary’s kind of cancer, a breast cancer initially, which had now spread to other major organs of the body, was two to three years, she with her sharp legal mind pointed out that that meant some did not live for two to three years. I added rather feebly that that also meant that some people lived longer. “I will not be one of those. My cancer is aggressive and is present in many of my organs” she said quietly, and that proved to be the case – she lived for twenty months to be precise.

What we now have to do” she went on to say, amidst our upset and tears, “is to try and live life to the full, not worry about what we will not have but concentrate on what we do have, or we are going to waste the time we have left together and at least we know what is coming”. It is what one mystic called “the sacrament of the present moment”. And again she was much better at that than I was. She was able to face the fact that death was staring her in the face and was not afraid, whilst still of course wanting desperately to live.

I was reminded of Bishop John Robinson of “Honest to God” fame, who in the 1980’s was also diagnosed with terminal cancer. He wrote that “Although the prognosis is poor, we are concerned not with duration but with depth and quality of living which we intend to explore to the full.”

Of course we are all different, and some people I have ministered to did not wish to talk about it. Dame Cicely Saunders of St Christopher Hospice fame has written that some do not want to discuss it and one has to respect that kind of reticence. But that is different from people where, as Archbishop Anthony Bloom once put it, “The person knows, in body and soul, that death is coming; but the husband smiles, the daughter smiles, the nurse smiles, the doctor smiles, everyone smiles in such a way that the person knows it is a lie…and the result is distress, and leaves the dying person facing terrible loneliness”.

Well, we knew what lay ahead but Hilary kept on maintaining that I was in denial, and as I look back, I see that I was. As she put it “You keep on thinking and hoping it is not going to happen, and it is no good thinking like that because it is and we have to face it.” Again I am reminded of the words of Bishop John Robinson, in the last sermon he preached at Trinity College Cambridge. “Christians ought to be able to bear reality and show others how to bear it, or what are we to say about the cross, the central reality of our faith?” I want to say yes to that but I have to confess that I found it enormously difficult. But Hilary did not want to be defined by her cancer either, as if that was the only important thing about her life. She said “I am still me, I just happen to have cancer and I want to carry on with the rest of my life as best I can.”

The Litany contains these words “From sudden death good Lord deliver us.” We do not have a choice of course of how or when we are going to die, but being told one has a terminal illness gives a chance to the dying person and the family to begin to prepare themselves for what is coming, although the reality is that you can never prepare yourselves sufficiently, if at all. All one can say by contrast is that a sudden death can leave relatives feeling that they have left things unsaid because they did not have the chance to say what they might have wanted to say had they known.

It is not uncommon for people suffering from a terminal illness to blame God through fear or anger. Even CS Lewis, in his “Grief Observed” calls God a “cosmic sadist” when his wife, whom he had married late in life, died of cancer. Other people, like Job’s friends, see it as God’s punishment for something they have done. Job, rightly to my mind, totally rejected that argument. Hilary never said “Why has this happened to me?” or “Why me?” On the contrary, she said “Why not me?” and talked of people we knew who had died without warning, leaving a young family, or people who had had no chance at all in life because of family circumstances or poverty, or people who had died from terrible diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Motor Neurone Disease, which she regarded as being far worse than cancer. So she gave thanks for all that she had been blessed with in life – the family, children, her work and her faith.

Teach me to number my days” says the psalmist “that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” The Rev’d Professor Charlie Moule at Professor Geoffrey Lampe’s funeral, a man who had also died of cancer, said of him that when diagnosed “he had the ability to enjoy life to the full and to affirm material goods positively, precisely because they were not possessively clung to, but used by and used up in an open handed generous way”.

Or to quote Bishop John Robinson again, “learning really to live, not just concentrate on keeping alive – becoming more concerned with contributing to and enjoying what matters most – giving the most to life and getting the most from it whilst it is still on offer. Therefore when one is dying” he said “it is not about concentrating on some kind of other worldly pious exercise, turning away from earth to the things of heaven but real living. It is about abundant life now.”

We will all die and all of us are, in some way, from the moment we are born, in the process of dying and the fact is we never know what is in store, for we are finite creatures and life is unpredictable. We fear it of course because it is a step into the unknown and we all, in the end, have to face it on our own. It is not just death we fear but the process of dying, whether it will be painful or pain-free. One of Hilary’s greatest fears was that she would die in pain. She remembered her own grandmother dying of cancer in their front room 50 years ago, crying out in agony.

Palliative care and the hospice movement have come a long way in 50 years and pain can now be alleviated. If I was not already persuaded of the arguments against assisted dying, watching the care and the gentleness of the hospice nurses who came to minister a few times every day, for whom nothing was too much trouble, and for whom time did not matter even when they were approaching the end of their shift, would have convinced me. Their care and a careful calibration of drugs ensured that the end was peaceful and at home, and I realise too that that is not possible for everyone.

As Christians we take great comfort from our belief that death is not the end but that life, our relationship with God, continues beyond. “It is not my death I am concerned about” Hilary told friends. “It is how those I leave behind will cope when I am gone.”

People often do not know what to say or how to deal with those who are bereaved. I remember as an archdeacon going to one parish to address a group and talking to it about the nature of grief and its intensity. One of the members had been recently bereaved and sat weeping in the corner. The Chair was very angry with me for talking, in her words, “about such a morbid subject and for making one of her ladies cry by reminding her of the death of her husband”. As soon as I finished speaking, the tea was hurried in and had I not insisted on a discussion (which proved to be very good), none would have taken place. If we effectively deny death in public, then we also limit the scope for the public expression of bereavement. Weeping in public is often regarded as terribly bad form and yet we know that Jesus wept openly for his friend Lazarus.

The grieving process is a natural process. Even though one may believe that death is not the end, that does not stop the heartache of missing those whom we love. We shall not see them again in this life. Grieving is the cost of commitment, the cost of loving. There is no right or wrong way to grieve – there is only the grief itself – a slow gradual journey undertaken by those who feel bereft. Some of our hymns do not help the grieving process either:

Rejoice for a sister deceased
our loss is her infinite gain;
A soul out of prison released,
and freed from its bodily chain.”

That just adds guilt to everything else one may be feeling, for seeming to be lacking in faith at a time of deep mourning. Much more helpful are the words of the theologian Bonhoeffer:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God does not fill it; on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.”

The New Testament talks about preparing for our final death by dying daily, of losing life in order to find it, of a grain of wheat needing to fall into the ground and die if it is to bear fruit. When you give of yourself in love, in marriage, to your family, or to being a disciple of Jesus, then it entails a willingness to die to yourself and to let go of your own needs and desires and a readiness to die to everything that is unlovely and destructive and violent. All that is a kind of preparation for the last letting go of all.

The New Testament also asserts that we are already in a relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus as members of His Body. We already participate in God’s eternal life now because of that and nothing can destroy that relationship, not even death itself. As St Paul puts it in his Epistle to the Romans “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor height, not depth, nor anything in all creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In other words, we trust that the God who has created us in love and who has begun a relationship with us, will want to continue that relationship and will not let us go. As John Donne puts it “Whom God loves, he loves to the end and not to their end and their death but to His end and His end is that He might love them more”. To believe in the God of Jesus is to believe in a God of compassion and hope and therefore of endless possibilities. God’s faithfulness and love therefore abide, for He is the God who can and does make all things new, for He is the Alpha and the Omega.