Into the lions' den...
My first sermon of the year touched on the issue of abortion, and it certainly got people talking. I’ve had more feedback about this than anything else I’ve said over my time at SMOB, so I thought it would be worth unpacking a few thoughts here.
With a subject as emotive as abortion, people often come to it with their own filters. If you have a strong emotional reaction to a talk, it’s worthwhile going back and listening to it again (as indeed several people did before they got in touch with me). Did the preacher say what you think they said? Did they unpack what they meant? Are there any phrases which could be interpreted in different ways? If you are feeling upset, try listening with a slightly more generous ear.
One question that came up was about the ongoing trials and tribulations of the congregation at St Ethelburga-without-the-Cupboard. Are these real people in our congregation, someone wondered. Am I trying to make pastoral points in public rather than talking to people directly? Certainly not! St Ethelburga’s is a device to bring issues close to home. Most of the people I talk about are either real people or combinations of people I have known. Their stories are always anonymised and I am never talking about someone in the room. I have found that making challenging points in a humorous way like this can help ideas to land effectively for people; they are not intended in a passive aggressive way and I always handle pastoral issues directly with the people concerned. If I have something to say to you personally, you’ll hear it directly from me, not from the pulpit.
One of the key things I said about abortion is that it is an enormous source of unacknowledged pain in our society. It is one of the last taboo subjects; no one talks about it, and yet the sheer number of people it affects is enormous. There are millions of people out there who have decided to abort, for all sorts of reasons. One of the most important things a local church can do is to name this pain and sit alongside those who feel it. We won't do anyone any favours if we pretend the pain is not there.
SMOB is a church which embraces people in emotional turmoil. Like any authentic Christian community, we provide care, support and a listening ear to all sorts of people without judgement. This goes for abortion too. We are able to talk about it and unpack the complex issues around it, without judging or condemning people who have made these very difficult decisions. With any big issue we might mention, we always have pastoral care available from trained people; this is something we could talk about more.
One of the women I mentioned in my talk struggled with the idea that she could not mourn her child, because she had decided to end its life. I told her that she needed to mourn in order to move on with her life, whether or not she regretted what she had done. She had received a diagnosis of disability, so it would have been fair to have mourned for ‘what might have been’ if her child had been born healthy. It would have been quite fair for her to lament and ask why she had gone through this.
I used two examples involving disabled children. It’s worth pointing out that only around 2 per cent of abortions in the UK are carried out because of a diagnosis of disability (2018 figures). These decisions are terribly hard and put parents in an incredibly difficult position.
One statistic which is hard to find and rarely quoted is that up to one third of babies aborted because of disability or abnormality turn out to be completely normal. I only know this because friends of mine decided to have a child after a very serious diagnosis of disability, and she was born with no illness. It seems particularly tragic that parents would have made such an agonising choice in vain.
In general, churches are rich and diverse communities containing all sorts of people. My own experience of church (including SMOB) has been enriched greatly by the disabled people I have met. When I go to Christian festivals like New Wine, it is very special that you see large numbers of disabled people. Christians affirm the full, perfect personhood of every human being, and we believe that we are all made in the image of God. This does not mean that raising a disabled child is easy, but I think people facing huge challenges in life do not always realise what they will be capable of. Time and time again I have seen people coping with situations they would never have been able to face if you had told them about it in advance. For those who have made a different choice, we believe in the grace and redemption that comes from God, who meets us in our mess and puts us back in a level place. In Christ there is always forgiveness and a fresh start.
However, we need to face the fact that 98 per cent of abortions are undertaken by choice, and our society holds sacred the ‘woman’s right to choose’. Christians would say that those rights need to be balanced with an unborn child’s right to life and a father’s rights too. Some people questioned my talking about women in my sermon, rather than parents. However, this is what our society does: legally the mother makes the decision about abortion alone, with the father having no legal standing. One correspondent tried to find out how many fathers are affected by abortion, but there are no figures, which says something by itself.
Statistically one in four women in the UK has had an abortion. I pointed this out when I spoke and invited people to look around the room, an invitation aimed at highlighting the sheer number of people involved, rather than putting anyone on the spot. This was not well understood so clearly I should have chosen my words more carefully, and I hope this has clarified things.
All of our preachers value people’s direct feedback, even when you have found something particularly challenging. We can always improve and there are often things we need to think about more. You can be confident that we will not steer away from difficult issues; we will continue to teach the whole counsel of God even when that raises big questions.