The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has said that the publication of the UK government's White Paper (formal legislative proposal) on replacement of the controversial Trident nuclear weapons programme should not be used to close down the debate - but to open it up around recognised issues of major concern.
His remarks came as Prime Minister Tony Blair, himself an Anglican, set his face against widespread church and public opposition to weapons of mass destruction, putting his personal authority behind Trident replacement.
Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and Reformed are among those who have called for Britain to be bold in reversing, rather than further fuelling, the global nuclear arms race on moral and strategic grounds.
In taking the diplomatic approach, Dr Williams, spiritual head of the world's 77 million Anglicans, said in response to the PM's statment yesterday: "I am very glad that we now have the Governmentís White Paper on the updating of Trident available for discussion. This is a serious matter which requires the widest possible public consultation."
He continued: "The Prime Minister accepted in his statement ... in the House of Commons that there are perfectly respectable arguments against the judgements the Government has made and that he both understood them and appreciated their force.
"It is essential that careful consideration be given to three distinct levels of concern about these proposals.
"First and foremost is the moral dimension. The ethical questions around the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons are no less grave now than in the days of the Cold War. Then, as now, these are weapons that are intrinsically indiscriminate in their lethal effects and their long-term impact on a whole physical environment would be horrendous. While there is evidently disagreement ñ among Christians as well as others ñ over whether the mere threat of use is morally acceptable, we should not lose sight of what the Government itself has called the 'terrifying power' of these weapons.
"Second there is the legal dimension. The White Paper recognises quite explicitly the need to justify any programme of modernisation in the context of Britainís obligations under the various non-proliferation agreements to which it is committed. Is the proposed programme compatible with these obligations? And even if it is technically not in breach, what message does the programme give? Will it restrain or intensify proliferation elsewhere?
"Thirdly, though this is not an area where religious commentators can claim any expertise, there is the issue of the tactical or strategic purpose of the programme. Many people who are not convinced by the moral arguments against renewing and improving Trident and who would be agnostic about the legal question would still be anxious about substantial expenditure on a weapons system that had no clear strategic pointing the present global context.
"[These people] would be particularly unhappy about this against the background of reductions in the resourcing of conventional forces, given the current acute pressures on the Armed Services of the UK who are actively engaged in the containment of conflict in a number of settings across the world
Concluded Dr Williams, whose own books include The Truce of God: "Many will never be persuaded of the morality of a nuclear deterrent; many more will feel that the case needs to be very strongly made for a programme of modernisation at this point if we are to avoid the suspicion that this is about reinforcing national status, at a very high cost to our actual military and strategic commitments at the present moment."
The Archbishop added firmly: "The White Paper must not close down discussion. We need a genuine debate in which Christians, and others whose consciences are disturbed by these proposals, will want to play a full part."
The PM has said there will be a parliamentary debate on the subject early in the New Year. But critics suggest that this is a political fig leaf, given that both Labour and Conservative MPs look set to fall meekly in line with Mr Blair, in spite of public and world concern.
Opponents of the rush to replacement want to see a much longer and wider democratic discussion - which the Prime Minister and his key allies are determined to prevent, they say.