Yesterday the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approved a limited form of experimental gene editing of human embryos (see BBC report here). For anyone who believes that life begins at conception, irrespective of whether that life lasts for only a few hours or many years, is born or is not born, as we commonly understand that term, it is a decision of enormous consequence. But because it is ‘science’, because it is presented in the language of compassion for those who are infertile or whose children miscarry, most of us are probably not thinking through the questions that follow in its train. By saying the embryos must be discarded after seven days and destroyed after fourteen, are we not saying, in effect, they are not human, they have no rights? The caveat that embryos which have been experimented on should never be implanted or allowed to grow to term may not cut much ice with those of us who remember the debate around the 1967 Abortion Act and the way in which many of its provisions seem to have been ignored. The prospect of GM human beings just came another step closer.
You notice that I have been careful to write of embryos whereas I naturally think of the unborn as babies. (Whoever said, ‘We’re expecting an embryo!’ or ‘I can feel my embryo moving!’) That is because I think the Church often fails to speak or even understand the language of those to whom she must proclaim the Gospel. Today, on the feast of Candlemas (also known as the Presentation of the Lord or the Purification of Mary), when we think of Simeon and Anna keeping faith through long years of hardship and disappointment and finally seeing the Glory of Israel, we tend to think of the elderly, of the gifts they bring to the Church, and we look backwards, perhaps to a Golden Age that never was. We forget the wars, the poverty, the ill-health, the sheer ignorance that marred the lives of many (as they still mar the lives of many in other parts of the world) and indulge in a little nostalgia. We think of peace after the day is done and the quiet tones of the Nunc Dimittis as night falls. The HFEA’s decision is comfortably forgotten in the soft gleam of candlelight and the sprinkle of holy water.
Let us be grateful, therefore, that today is not only the last of the Infancy feasts, a reminder of what the Incarnation means and Jesus’ purpose in becoming man, it is also the Jubilee marking the end of the Year of Consecrated Life. Quite a lot of people see religious life as irrelevant or a refuge for the stupid and are astonished when they discover that it is not necessarily either. Indeed, whether apostolic or contemplative, religious are great shakers-uppers of fixed ideas or accepted notions. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Mary Ward, Mother Teresa, they were all very different, but they exposed and overturned many of the fashionable complacencies of their day. The Church has never had greater need of people whose whole lives will proclaim the absolute transcendence of God and the importance of the Gospel in defiance of whatever society endorses as ‘acceptable’ or even ‘good’.
Today, as we process holding our flickering candles, let us pray that God will continue to call and uphold those whose service of the temple is, in many respects, hidden but who, by their very existence, assert the reality of values that go beyond the present and reach into eternity. And may those privileged to serve in the temple continue to pray that we may never lose sight of our humanity or fail to be humble in the presence of Life.