The other day I went with friends to see a showing of Allelujah, a film based on the 2018 Alan Bennett play. Set in a geriatric hospital unity in Yorkshire, it stars a galaxy of distinguished British actors including Judi Dench, Jennifer Saunders and Derek Jacobi. I confess that I went to see the film with some trepidation, because I had been warned that what appears to begin as a comedy toward the end takes a darker turn. A somewhat sensitive soul as far as the medium of film is concerned, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend my Saturday afternoon having my heart-strings pulled. I much prefer pure comedy. So I told my friends that if I find it all a bit too much, I would walk out and have a coffee while they watched to the end. But I didn’t walk out. Indeed, by the time film ended I was very pleased that I had sat through the whole film. It proved a most moving and thought-provoking experience. Indeed, when we were having dinner together later that day, I said to my friends that I thought Allelujah should be a set text for GCSE and/or A level students.
Strangely some film critics have well and truly panned the film. The Guardian in its review talked of Allelujah being “jarringly uneven” and dismissed it for “clumsily” swerving into ‘thriller territory’. The Evening Standard was no better and spoke of it being “an incoherent jumble of ideas and feelings” and like The Guardian wrote off the end of the film as being “spectacularly awful”. ‘Did they really watch the film?’ I asked myself. I strongly disagree with their verdict.
Over dinner with my friends we debated the many issues raised by the film, and not least the challenge we increasingly face of coping with ill-health as we grow older. How do we ourselves cope as we grow older with the challenge of poor health? Indeed, how do we cope when ageing loved ones develop chronic ill health? Or how do we cope when loved ones begin to suffer from dementia which can rob us of our God-given personality? Are their times when euthanasia is the answer?
Our English word euthanasia is derived from a Greek word, and literally means a ‘good death’. Is there a place for ‘mercy killing’, not least in those cases where dementia has been diagnosed and where our loved ones face ‘losing their dignity’?
At this point Christians are increasingly divided in their opinions. For some euthanasia is a form of killing, and traditionally Christians have viewed it as a form of murder. In the past the penalty for murder warranted the death penalty – and even today it normally leads to life in prison with no remission. In the Old Testament there are only four exceptions to killing not leading to the death penalty: accidental killing, killing in self-defence, killing in the context of a holy war, and of course the exercise of capital punishment.
However, today some Christians argue that that there is a place for assisted suicide. For instance George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2014 supported a change in the law to permit assisted suicide. Openly acknowledging that he had changed his mind, he wrote that “the old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering”. He went on to explain his position:
I began to reconsider how to interpret Christian theology on the subject. As I did so, I grew less and less certain of my opposition to the right to die… Both the Bible and the character of God laid far more importance on open-hearted benevolence than on upholding this particular law. As I reminded myself, one of the key themes of the gospels is love for our fellow human beings. Indeed, Jesus’s mission was underpinned with compassion for those suffering from the most dreadful conditions.
The Christian Medical Fellowship responded with a strong criticism of what Laurence Crutchlow described as ‘situationism’. “Love and compassion are key themes of the gospels”. But surely the law is also an expression of God’s love for his people. Carey and others believe that the law must give way to ‘compassion’ , which the CMF dismiss as:
an example of situationism. …. Effectively a Christian could be breaking God’s law, but still acting in love. This isn’t consistent with scripture…. Jesus was clear that obeying the greater commandments of the law didn’t negate disobedience over the lesser ones.
For Laurence Crutchlow the answer to the dilemma which we face when a loved one is in the kind of situation depicted in Allelujah is good palliative care where a person’s physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs can be addressed. But is that always so? In my experience that is not always the case. Hence I found the exploration of the theme in the film so riveting. Does Christian compassion ever justify euthanasia? Caring for the terminally ill is indeed a real challenge.