Every time that I think I can no longer be surprised by the behaviour of church institutions, I am proved wrong. Like many other Christians who campaign against cuts and war, I often find myself in conflict with church authorities as well as corporations and governments. I've been dragged from the steps of a church while praying, misled by the authorities of St Paul's Cathedral, struggled with outright lies from homophobic Christian lobby groups and spent enough time looking into various denomination's investments to leave me (or so I thought) with no illusions about the practices that they can sometimes engage in.
But even I was shocked to learn that on Thursday, a conference for arms dealers will take place in Church House, the Church of England's administrative headquarters.
Since the story broke, church authorities have come up with frankly feeble excuses for hosting this event. First, they insisted that the conference centre was a separate entity from Church House. I have made some effort to look into this claim. The distinction is a legal technicality. The conference centre is a wholly owned subsidiary company of the Church House Corporation, whose president is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The church authorities now seem to be relying on the rather obtuse argument that the booking had been made by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an "independent thinktank". The Church of England's head of communications told me Church House would "probably" not have accepted a booking made directly by an arms dealer. However, "independent" does not mean "impartial". Thinktanks have their own views and positions (including Ekklesia, who I work for). RUSI lobbies in favour of the arms trade and high military spending.
Church House are relying on a distinction between a booking made by an arms company and one made by a pro-arms lobby group to host a gathering of arms companies. This distinction is at best naive and at worst misleading.
The conference's sponsors include some of the world's largest multinational arms companies, such as BAE Systems, Raytheon and Finmeccanica, all of whom arm some of the world's most vicious and repressive regimes, including several that have turned weapons on their own people. Many people now recognise that the arms trade is not a legitimate business. As arms firms move jobs out of Britain, the government could create far more skilled jobs in renewable industry if arms industry subsidies were reinvested. The National Gallery recently broke off a sponsorship deal with Finmeccanica in response to protests by artists and customers. So why is the National Gallery showing more moral leadership than the Church of England?
In recent decades, Christianity in Britain has moved from the centre of power and culture to being one option among many in a multifaith society. This is a welcome opportunity to turn away from Christianity's collusion with wealth and power and look again at the radical life and teachings of Jesus. Many Christians - including several church leaders - are speaking out against the arms trade, Trident, homophobia and government cuts. Some of them will be praying outside the arms conference at Church House on Thursday. Sadly, other Christians cling on desperately to an ultra-conservative agenda, promoting homophobia and attacking Islam while overlooking the sins of economic injustice and environmental destruction.
Others simply carry on as before, ignoring the change and chaos around them and operating more like businesses or government departments than the followers of a radical messiah. A senior official at the Church of England told me that if an anti-arms group made a booking, Church House would host them as readily as it has hosted the arms conference. I think this was supposed to be an argument in their favour. It implies that they will host both sides, that they are neutral.
Jesus advocated love for all people, including enemies. But he did not teach his followers to be neutral. There can be no neutrality in the face of injustice. If I saw someone being killed and I did nothing, I would not be neutral, I would be siding with the killer. The government is cutting services for the poorest people in society while promoting the arms trade and ploughing billions into nuclear weapons. Churches have no business being neutral.
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion. For links to more of his writing, please see http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.
There will be an act of prayer and witness outside the Church House arms conference, from 7.45am on Thursday 1st November. It will bring together concerned Christians of many backgrounds. It has been backed by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, Christianity Uncut, Pax Christi and Christian CND. For details and to join in, please see http://www.facebook.com/events/211310789001827/permalink/211490078983898....