Sunday, 8 April 2012

Abortion: re-opening a conversation on the level of culture..

The events surrounding the 40 Days for Life vigil in Bedford Square, London, gained much attention in the general media and on Catholic blogs.

Speaking on Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 30th March, in the morning of the time of prayer led by Bishop Hopes and accompanied by a noisy counter-protest, a spokeswoman for 40 Days for Life, Sarah Denorwel, used the phrase "re-opening this conversation on the level of culture" to describe the nature of what the vigil is about. [The programme is available to listen again on the BBC i-player. I think it is going to remain available, but let me know if this link does not work: The package on the 40 Days for Life vigil is at the beginning of the programme.] Fr Stephen Wang has a good account of participation in the vigil at Bedford Square here.

Amidst all the other descriptors that have been applied to the 40 Days for Life vigil in recent weeks, and by some degree of implication to similar vigils that are held at other abortion facilities, this seems to be the one that best captures what they are about.

They certainly are vigils of prayer and, within my own experience which I have no reason to believe is not the common experience, entirely peaceful. In so far as they also represent a public statement that there is another way than abortion, they also represent a witness to others about that alternative. They do therefore, in a constrained and restricted way, share something of the phenomenon of a demonstration. As we have seen in Bedford Square, the vigils have a cultural and political consequence, though one should say that that consequence is not of their essence.

Seen as a "re-opening of this conversation on the level of culture" the religious nature of the vigil is interesting, too. The Catholic Church is perfectly entitled to engage with the culture of the society in which it lives, whether that engagement is undertaken by the lay faithful or by priests and religious.  These vigils, in which all states of life in the Church - lay, priestly, religious - are represented, show in quite a particular way this engagement of the Church on the level of culture. They are interesting from an ecclesial point of view as an exemplification of the relative competencies of different states of life in the mission of the Church, as well as being interesting from a cultural and political point of view.

But the vigils also have what one might term a personal dimension. This refers to the people - those who work for the abortion facility, those who attend for abortion, those who take part in the vigil of prayer, those who act as pavement counsellors. For each, though perhaps in different ways and for different reasons, the vigil offers a degree of challenge. But it is precisely these people, most directly affected by abortion, who are the bearers of its culture. The "conversation on the level of culture" is also a "conversation on the level of the persons involved" and, as Sarah Denorwel suggested during her contribution to Woman's Hour, the prayer vigils can, away from the media attention, provide a space within which such a conversation takes place.

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