Christopher Smith reflects on sixty years of rapid change

Like most of the rest of the nation, ND is celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. No doubt Holborn will not be the only parish to be putting on a thanksgiving mass, and there will be street parties and other celebrations here and all over the country.

Readers of this magazine will not need reminding that we seem to live in a world of constant change. As we come to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, it strikes me quite forcibly how much has changed during Her Majesty’s reign, and at what Speed!

In 1953, Coronation year, the then Bishop of Exeter, Robert Mortimer, wrote a book called Western Canon Law, a subject in which he had lectured at Oxford. In the final chapter, he drew a distinction between those parts of the canon law which are of divine origin, and therefore immutable, and those which are ecclesiastical, and therefore mutable. What God himself has ordained, he says, cannot be altered by the Church.

So, the Church might Specify ‘the minimum age at which a man may be ordained to the priesthood’, and this ‘may be altered from time to time, or even to meet particular cases. That the candidate for ordination must be a man and not a woman, however, admits of no alteration or exception, because that is part of the determination by the Church of what is divinely required for the validity of the Sacrament of Orders.’

Yet a mere twenty-two years later, the General Synod assented (by voting, of course) to the proposition that ‘there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood’. Another six years on and it had voted for the ordination of women to the diaconate, and just five years after the ordination in 1987 of the first female deacons, it voted to allow women to be ordained as priests. What had seemed entirely self-evident to Bishop Mortimer in 1953 had purportedly been turned on its head by votes in General Synod less than forty years later.

And it has not only been internal church affairs which have been subject to a breathtaking rate of change. It has also been the case with issues in the national, moral sphere. To take only one example, procuring an abortion was, and still is, illegal under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, carrying a penalty of life imprisonment. The law, although it does not afford a person protection under the law of homicide until it has become a ‘life in being’ on drawing its first breath, clearly recognized that to destroy the life of the unborn was equivalent to murder.

When the Abortion Act was passed in 1967, it created an exception to that law (although there were already some defences at common law) in certain circumstances, mainly in relation to the condition of the unborn child, and where there is risk to the physical or mental health of mother. Usually, the decision for an abortion to be legally carried out is dependent on the opinion of two medical practitioners, but it can be performed on the opinion of only one if the abortion is ‘immediately necessary’.

It is, of course, impossible to know how many illegal abortions were taking place before 1968, but the British Medical Association website gives statistics for the years after the coming into force of the Act. Numbers increased very quickly. Even in 1969 there were nearly 55,000 abortions; now there are over 200,000 annually.

Readers will have their own opinions as to the rights and wrongs of the legalization of abortion, but its consequences have been far-reaching. There can be little doubt that the idea of a small number of Specific exceptions from a general legal prohibition has been all but entirely eroded in favour of a perception of the availability of abortion on demand.

And for some, this is progress. Such is the nature of that ‘progress’ that it seemed unremarkable to some when it was discovered recently that certain women were asking to have their unborn children aborted on the ground that they were female, and that some of their doctors were approving those requests. The only factor worthy of consideration, according to many commentators, was that this was the women’s choice.

Now, the nature of this warped understanding of ‘progress’ can only lead in one direction. The calls for the legalization of infanticide have already begun. It only just made the general news in February that the Journal of Medical Ethics had published an article by two bio-ethicists arguing for the moral acceptability of killing newly-born children in certain circumstances, and they did not restrict their thesis to disabled babies. They preferred to call it ‘after-birth abortion’, squaring the moral circle by claiming that new-born babies are not ‘proper persons’, and therefore have no right to life.

Could we possibly have imagined, in 1952, that this is where we would have got to sixty years later? Those two issues, one internal and ecclesiological, the other national and moral, seem to me to epitomize the problematic nature of a modern understanding of ‘progress’ which I cannot recognize as such.

There is plenty to be thankful for as we look across these sixty years, of course, but there is part of me that wishes we could go back to 1952 and start again! ND