Episcopal Church offers resources for end-of-life issues

March 22, 2005

While the Episcopal Church’s General Convention has not specifically addressed the situation of Terri Schiavo -- the Florida woman who suffered severe brain damage in 1990 and has relied on a feeding tube to keep her alive since -- several resolutions have been passed regarding end-of-life issues. These include a 1991 resolution regarding prolongation of life.

A helpful resource for Episcopalians seeking to understand the issues is the following book:

Faithful Living, Faithful Dying: Anglican Reflections on End of Life Care
by The End of Life Task Force of the Standing Commission on National Concerns

Morehouse Publishing
March 1, 2000
176 Pages

What do faithful living and faithful dying mean as we near life's end? With all the technology and choices available to us today, making decisions about the end of life grows ever more difficult. As a result of all the theological and ethical issues that have arisen around the dying process in recent years, the 72nd General Convention of the Episcopal Church created a task force to study and report on these concerns. This is the report of the End-of-Life Task Force. In it, the Task Force responds to the broad range of theological, ethical, pastoral and policy issues that are generated by the need to provide loving and fitting care at the end of life.

Intended as a teaching document, Faithful Living, Faithful Dying will be useful as a discussion tool for the church, for individuals facing difficult decisions, for professionals, such as clergy and health care providers, and for those who make public policy.

Reviews for Faithful Living, Faithful Dying

"This book will prove most worthwhile for pastors and parish ministers and ministry committees, a very useful study/discussion guide for small groups, and a helpful tool for chaplains who continue to seek ways to bring the spiritual and prophetic voices into the arenas of healthcare and ethical decision-making." -- Resources Hotline, August 2000

Resolution Number: 1991-A093
Title: Establish Principles With Regard to the Prolongation of Life
Legislative Action Taken: Concurred As Amended

Final Text:

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That this 70th General Convention set forth the following principles and guidelines with
regard to the foregoing of life-sustaining treatment in the light of our understanding of the sacredness of human life:

  1. Although human life is sacred, death is part of the earthly cycle of life. There is a "time to be born and a time to die" (Eccl. 3:2). The resurrection of Jesus Christ transforms death into a transition to eternal life: "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead" (I Cor. 15:21).

  2. Despite this hope, it is morally wrong and unacceptable to intentionally take a human life in order to relieve the suffering caused by incurable illness. This would include the intentional shortening of another person's life by the use of a lethal dose of medication or poison, the use of lethal weapons, homicidal acts, and other forms of active euthanasia. Palliative treatment to relieve the pain of persons with progressive incurable illnesses, even if done with the knowledge that a hastened death may result, is consistent with
    theological tenets regarding the sanctity of life. However, there is no moral obligation to prolong the act of dying by extraordinary means and at all costs if such dying person is ill and has no reasonable expectation of recovery.

  3. In those cases involving persons who are in a comatose state from which there is no reasonable expectation of recovery, subject to legal restraints, this Church's members are urged to seek the advice and counsel of members of the church community, and where appropriate, its sacramental life, in contemplating the withholding or removing of life-sustaining systems, including hydration and nutrition.

  4. We acknowledge that the withholding or removing of life-sustaining systems has a tragic dimension. The decision to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment should ultimately rest with the patient, or with the patient's surrogate decision-makers in the case of a mentally incapacitated patient. We therefore express our deep conviction that any proposed legislation on the part of national or state governments regarding the so called "right to die" issues, (a) must take special care to see that the individual's rights are respected and that the responsibility of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter is acknowledged and honored, and (b) must also provide expressly for the withholding or withdrawing of life-sustaining systems, where the decision to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining systems has been arrived at with proper safeguards against abuse.

  5. We acknowledge that there are circumstances in which health care providers, in good conscience, may decline to act on request to terminate life-sustaining systems if they object on moral or religious grounds. In such cases we endorse the idea of respecting the patient's right to self-determination by permitting such patient to be transferred to another facility or physician willing to honor the patient's request, provided that the patient can readily, comfortably and safely be transferred. We encourage health care providers who make it a policy to decline involvement in the termination of life-sustaining systems to communicate their policy to patients or their surrogates at the earliest opportunity, preferably before the patients or their surrogates have engaged the services of such a health care provider.

  6. Advance written directives (so-called "living wills," "declarations concerning medical treatment" and "durable powers of attorney setting forth medical declarations") that make a person's wishes concerning the continuation or withholding or removing of
    life-sustaining systems should be encouraged, and this Church's members are encouraged to execute such advance written directives during good health and competence and that the execution of such advance written directives constitute loving and moral acts.

  7. We urge the Council of Seminary Deans, the Christian Education departments of each diocese, and those in charge of programs of continuing education for clergy and all others responsible for education programs in this Church, to consider seriously the inclusion of basic training in issues of prolongation of life and death with dignity in their curricula and programs.

Citation: General Convention, Journal of the General Convention of...The Episcopal Church, Phoenix, 1991 (New York: General Convention, 1992), p. 383.