The following is a transcript of an interview with the Liberal Elder and Paul Gillies, spokesman for the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, by Roger Bolton on “Sunday” – BBC Radio 4, l4 June 1998
Roger Bolton (EB) – Now all most of us know about Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they knock on the door from time to time and that they refuse to accept blood transfusions, sometimes with fatal results. But a dissident body of Jehovah’s Witnesses have now begun a campaign via the Internet to end the religious group’s opposition to transfusions altogether. These rebels insist on remaining anonymous because they believe that to speak openly would result in immediate excommunication. I talked to one of the anonymous dissidents earlier. He calls himself the Liberal Elder and asked us to disguise his voice.
Liberal Elder (LE) – Let me start off by saying that Witness teachings on blood have been in a state of perpetual change. Most Witnesses and doctors are very unclear about the Watchtower’s current blood policy since it’s been revised so many times.
R.B. – I mean, what is now allowed? I gather that transplants are allowed; some blood products are allowed; but blood transfusions aren’t. Is that the situation?
L.E. – The organ transplant issue came up in 1967, beginning of 67. That lasted for 13 years and then was finally dropped in 1980. Blood transfusions continue to be banned.
R.B. – The Jehovah’s Witnesses have traditionally quoted Acts 15:28-29 as the key, believing that Christians must abstain from eating blood and meat of animals from which the blood has not been correctly drained. How has that been used to argue that blood transfusions aren’t allowed?
L.E. – The essence of the argument is that a blood transfusion is in fact the equivalent of eating blood. So what they’ve done now is in effect created a new law for Jehovah’s Witnesses, saying that it’s wrong to sustain life by means of blood. That’s the expression your consistently hear used in the Watchtower and by Witnesses. Unfortunately, that expression cannot be found anywhere in the Bible; so they have a policy that is basically an organisational policy, without Scriptural merit.
R.B. – Do you think people have died unnecessarily then as a result of this belief?
L.E. – There’s no doubt. We would estimate about 3 a day so that the figures we are talking about are perhaps 1,000 Witnesses or more per year.
R.B. – How much support do you and your colleagues have in this?
L.E. – that a difficult question to answer since even discussing the subject has potential lead expulsion from one congregation. It probably fair say number is in tens of thousands and figure grows every day.
R.B. – But if you were to come into the open now and if we were to call you by your name and so on, expulsion, you think, would be inevitable, would it?
L.E. – Absolutely.
R.B. – Why is the Watchtower, as you put it, so opposed to that form of debate? Is there no democracy within the church?
L.E. – There certainly isn’t. They believe that the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is God’s channel for communicating with Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s that simple. Once you accept that someone speaks for God then to disagree with that person or, in this case, that group is to disagree with God.
R.B. – In the end, if you can’t get your way and the Watchtower Society won’t move, would you consider a breakaway movement, a breakaway church?
L.E. – Me, personally, no, that’s not my intent. They’re certainly entitled to teach whatever they want; they have that right. Unfortunately for those who are, like myself, born into the organisation, who have all their family members, all their friends and, in some cases, even their business associates all Jehovah’s Witnesses, the options are not very good. So, really, all that we’re really looking for is the opportunity to be able to make free choices without, as they promised to the European Commission on Human Rights, without sanction or control.
R.B. – And act according to your conscience?
L.E. – That’s correct.
R.B. – Well, with me now is Paul Gillies, a spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United Kingdom. Paul, can we deal with the democracy question first? If you knew who our previous interviewee, the Liberal Elder was, would he be excommunicated for his views?
P.G. – Well, let me say this. His implication is that we have an automatic disfellowshiping procedure if somebody breaks Bible law. That is certainly misleading and not the case. It doesn’t emphasise the care that we have for one another. Because initially when somebody is a prospective Witness they study these things in depth right at the beginning and they think about the Bible’s law on blood. They think about all the Bible’s laws and many Witnesses will take many months or years to study these things in advance of putting themselves forward as a baptised Witness.
R.B. – Is that a way of saying though that if he holds the views now, these views, he would have to leave because they are wrong in your view?
PG – Well, what we’re saying is that people are free to make their own choices medically and religiously If they stop believing these things that they formally heard then, of course, they’re free to leave the organisation. But we have no automatic sanction that we would institute; our first priority is to give people spiritual help and care.
R.B. – But if he thinks blood transfusions are right and your policy is wrong, are you saying that he should not remain in your church?
PG – Well, let me use an illustration. If somebody was a member of the Temperance Society and he decided to go out and drink a pint of beer, then they would give every evidence that they didn’t want to be a member of the Temperance Society.
R.B. – The question here I suppose is, Is there any scope for democratic debate among Jehovah Witnesses I mean, you could argue, you know you’ve changed your mind on transplants, couldn’t you change your mind on blood transfusions? Shouldn’t there be an open debate among members?
PG – Well, we do encourage open discussion. In fact; we encourage every family head to discuss with his family all the various medical procedures and implications of blood with his family so that, if a medical situation arises he’s quite clear in his own mind what various choices he has and what he can do. In our meetings too we have open discussions. And you mentioned that what people know about Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they call from house to house. Now every single member of Jehovah’s Witnesses makes a public defence of their faith on a day to day basis and, because this is the only thing that people know about Jehovah’s Witnesses, our stand on blood, you find that Jehovah’s Witnesses are defending this issue every day.
R.B. – Yes, but if you are so open and so on, why does this man feel he has to be anonymous? Why are this group of people, significant numbers as far as one can gather from the Internet, scared of debating in public? I mean, are they deluded?
PG – That’s a very good question. But is he who he claims to be a Witness?
R.B. – Well, we believe him to be so; and it’s certainly the case and there are significant numbers of Witnesses who are communicating on the Internet anonymously about their reservations about your policy. So I can’t understand this, on the one hand your calm rational approach saying, “Let’s discuss these things” and their fear.
PG – Well that’s a good question. That’s something you really have to put to him. But we believe that this is really just mischief making by ex-Witnesses and ex members of organisations do not really represent the views of 6 million people from 232 countries who have thought about this issue and made decisions according to what they understand the Bible to teach.
R.B. – Finally and briefly, you have changed your mind on transplants. Will you ever, is it possible you will ever change your minds on blood transfusions?
PG – Well, the difference is that the Bible does not comment on organ transplants. We’ve looked through the Bible and it doesn’t say anything about it. It’s specific with regard to blood. When Doctor Barnard first performed the first heart transplant operation, major religions – there was an outcry by them about the procedures and the ethics of it. So, like everybody else, we thought about the ethics of organ transplants and now we’ve settled on a view that we feel is the right view, but it’s different from blood which has been consistent from the time of Genesis right the way through to the first century and to today.
R.B.- Paul Gillies thank you very much. No change on blood transfusions.