Editor’s Introduction: Dying Well – What Have Churches Said?

What does it mean to die well in this culture? Last January that question brought together nearly 50 Lutheran ethicists, pastors, chaplains, hospital and hospice care-givers at the annual Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering for a rich and wide-ranging discussion. The April and May issues of JLE are dedicated to sharing key insights for its audience by presenters to the Gathering. Like sharing news of a superb hole-in-the wall restaurant, we want others to benefit from the excellent fare of last January. ​

Last month’s writers looked back and forward, if you will; back to the Reformation and forward with a proposal for improving on standard approaches to ethics used in end-of-life questions. This month’s writers introduce and thereby juxtapose a U.S. and a European church document respectively, that provides perspectives on the moral and pastoral issues of faithfulness in dying.

JLE is grateful and very fortunate to be the first U.S. journal to introduce a general audience to “A Time to Live — A Time to Die” (http://www.leuenberg.net/statements), an extensive statement written on behalf of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe in 2012. We are grateful to Dr. Ulla Schmidt (who helped draft it and who believes her introduction is a first in the U.S.) for modifying her verbal presentation from January into an article for JLE.

We are fortunate because “A Time to Live” is a substantive piece of work speaking from a perspective of faith to a European public and pastoral context, where end-of-life issues are widely and actively being debated. This timely document engages at length the pressing questions that churches around the world face as to how to interrelate key components of the Protestant tradition with concrete realities brought into being by sophisticated medical advances.

In the second article of this issue, chaplain Aaron Klink, writing from the perspective of the hospital bed and the hospice, assesses the ELCA’s 23 year old, social message on “End-of-Life Issues” (Available at www.elca.org/socialmessages). Klink finds the gift of the social message in its six framing convictions that allow Christians to come to dying with a firm confidence and awareness of God’s inexhaustible graciousness even in the face of life’s finitude. He suggests that these six convictions also allow the message to provide sound guidance, if dated, on issues such as Artificially-administered Nutrition, Refusal of Beneficial Treatment and Physician-Assisted Death. At the same time, he offers a set of corollaries and questions probing those convictions and he ponders notable omissions that perhaps could have been addressed then, but certainly should provoke some important conversations now.

A careful reading of both suggests, happily in my view, clear family resemblances between the lean ELCA message of 1992 and the robust document of a “Time to Live.” Both operate from an ethics of responsibility grounded in an understanding of Christian freedom and a call to love of neighbor that rejects the modern insistence on autonomy above all. Both lift up a basic duty to protect human life linked with a rejection of the drive for self-fulfillment, perfection, or sheer quantity of life at all costs.

Ars Moriendi (literally in Latin “the art of dying”) is an ancient pondering with a rich heritage and yet is a very personal, new challenge for each of us mortals. May these two JLE issues inform and challenge readers of JLE to fresh reflection and discernment for the times when you and I come, as all must, to the final baptismal journey we call dying.

Roger Willer

Rev. Dr. Roger Willer serves as Director for Theological Ethics on the Theological Discernment Team in the Office of the Presiding Bishop. He also serves as Publisher for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.