The recent murder of Sir David Amess, a Catholic Member of Parliament, has proved an unwelcome if timely reminder of how central death is to the life of the Christian. The entire culture surrounding death is one of the most engaging, alluring, rewarding, and comforting aspects of the Catholic faith. It’s also one of the things that makes Catholicism so strange to the culturally secular.
For the Catholic, eternity is important, and therefore so are the final moments of earthly life. The last rites prepare and strengthen the soul for these final moments, and usually involve sacramental confession and absolution, the anointing of the dying body, and the final reception of the Eucharist (the Viaticum—which literally means “with you on the way”). These rites reflect the mercy of God and his love for each and every individual as well as his desire for them to share in the beatific vision.
On October 15, reports began to emerge that Sir David Amess had been stabbed—allegedly several times—while holding his weekly “surgery” meeting with constituents in a Methodist church hall in Leigh-on-Sea. Sir David knew the leaders of every religious community that practices in the Southend West constituency. Among them was Fr. Jeffrey Woolnough, the priest of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the town—a parish in the care of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Fr. Woolnough drove to the scene and tried to gain access to offer the last rites in case Sir David was in danger of death, as turned out to be the case. Police on the spot refused him access, however, saying it was a crime scene.
Canon law effectively grants Catholics a right to receive the sacraments in the appropriate circumstances. Clashes between the temporal and spiritual order are not unheard of—least of all in England, where Sir David was attacked some twenty-five miles (as the crow flies) from the shrine of St. Thomas the Martyr at Canterbury.
For many, death comes at the end of a long illness. In these circumstances, the last rites can be administered gradually, as the priest prepares the dying man or woman both mentally and spiritually for eternity. But in emergencies, when the dying person is denied the privilege of a deathbed, the last rites can be reduced to the bare essentials. One priest of Sir David’s home diocese told me that “If David were conscious at the time it could have been done in a few minutes. If unconscious, it would have been even shorter.”
In this case, however, the police didn't give Fr. Woolnough a “not just yet” but a “no”—without any qualification or apology. The priest wasn’t sure of the MP’s condition, so he stayed on to hope and pray for the best. (Sadly, he later faced a torrent of abuse from people online who claimed he didn’t do enough to make sure Sir David could have the last rites.)
It should have been obvious to the police that Fr. Woolnough should be allowed to administer last rites to Sir David. As the priest I spoke to pointed out, “Priests are trained to work around emergency personnel, and to follow instructions to avoid messing things up in terms of evidence.” Ambulance personnel and first responders are likewise used to dealing with clergy. But in a society in which common sense is alas increasingly absent, each of the 45 police forces whose territory spans the United Kingdom should have access for clergy explicitly stated in the official guidance they issue.
Somehow I can’t imagine a cop from the NYPD—of any religion or background—forbidding a priest from giving the last rites to a dying man. Whether that reflects how secular Britain has become or just an extreme officiousness about rules, procedures, and regulations is difficult to determine.
Days after Sir David’s murder, parliamentarians gathered in the House of Commons to pay tribute to their fallen colleague, the Conservative MP from Essex. Opposition MP Mike Kane, the head of “Catholics for Labour,” pointed out that Sir David was “a man of deep Catholic faith” who, echoing the Gospel of John, “lived his life in abundance” in joyous service to others. Kane suggested the introduction of an “Amess Amendment” so that anyone in a similar situation in future will have access to the last rites.
In the upper house, four peers—Lord Patten and Baronesses Masham, Stowell, and O’Loan—have added such an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill (PCSC) currently being considered. Some parts of the PCSC Bill have already sparked controversy, and as peers have proposed hundreds of amendments, there won’t be time to debate them all. The chances of this particular one succeeding are small, but the principle behind it will have the sympathy of many, and cross-party support.
Here in Britain, history gives the final moments of life added significance. Charles II, when lying on his deathbed after a life of particular decadence and excess, was received into the Catholic Church by a priest—Fr. Huddleston—whom his Catholic brother (and heir) had smuggled into the room after expelling the Protestant clerics whose counsel the king had refused.
But death and the soul are embedded in English culture, too. In modern English literature, one of the most memorable death scenes is surely that of Lord Brideshead in Waugh’s eponymous novel. Though partly crippled and unable to speak, Lord Brideshead nonetheless makes the sign of the cross as a sign of belief and repentance. In music, think of the English composer Elgar’s setting of St. John Henry Newman’s poem “The Dream of Gerontius,” about the journey of a soul from the deathbed to purgatory.
It would be hard to think of a more fitting tribute to Sir David than allowing his untimely end to shine a light on the grace of the sacraments and ensure that those in peril in future are able to have a good and holy death.
Andrew Cusack is chairman of Catholics in the Conservative Party.
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