Westminster Abbey is this morning hosting a “National Service of Thanksgiving” to mark 50 years of British nuclear weapons being on constant patrol at sea. I think this is the wrong kind of message for the church to send and I won’t be attending.
There is no doubt that the service personnel on the submarines do their work with diligence and we must always be mindful of the sacrifices they make, often spending long periods of time isolated from their family and communities. They are all too often forgotten.
That said, the Ministry of Defence has been clear that the celebrations planned for this year also act as recognition of the innovation and skill of those who designed and built nuclear weapons. That is something that I cannot condone in a place of worship.
We must not lose sign of the fact that the UK is obligated to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. The year before the continuous patrols commenced the government of Harold Wilson signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That Treaty calls on the nuclear-armed states to enter into negotiations on disarmament “in good faith”. While the number of warheads in Britain has fallen, the plans to replace the current Trident system are surely contrary to that obligation.
Nuclear weapons have the capacity to kill millions of people; each one of the warheads on patrol at the moment is many times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their use would bring about catastrophic climate change and the end of God’s creation as we know it.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, is clear. We are to live in peace with each other as much as possible. Jesus’ death on the cross made peace between humanity and God, and inspires us to seek peace on earth. Any weapon with the capability to indiscriminately kill and destroy on such a massive scale must have no place in our world.
Churches have been embracing this message of peace for hundreds of years. In the UK there is a long and proud tradition of Christians working and praying for peace. The vast majority of denominations are opposed to nuclear weapons and just last year the Church of England General Synod passed a motion which called on Christians to “work tirelessly” for the eliminations of nuclear weapons “due to their indiscriminate and destructive potential”. Many will find it impossible to square the circle between that motion and the service today.
The Church of England has a duty to stand up as a force for peace in our communities and for the flourishing of all humanity. It cannot do so if it celebrates, even tacitly, nuclear weapons.
I am heartened by the fact that over 200 Anglican clerics have signed the Christian CND statement opposing the service, and that Christians from a range of backgrounds will be gathering outside Westminster Abbey today to give an alternative view. Organisations like CND and Christian CND can have a role in prompting the church if it begins to veer off the course it should be taking. I only hope that we don’t find ourselves in this position again in ten years time.
The Rt Revd Roger Morris is area bishop of Colchester and an anti-nuclear activist.