Westminster Abbey has again drawn criticism over its treatment of peaceful protesters. The Abbey's staff threatened to evict Christian peace activists who were singing hymns outside a nearby arms industry conference while standing on the Abbey's land.
The incident comes less than two weeks after Westminster Abbey staff called the police to evict nonviolent disabled campaigners who had tried to camp outside the building while protesting against the closure of the Independent Living Fund. On that occasion, the police were accused of violent mistreatment of the campaigners.
Today, Westminster Abbey security staff initially agreed to allow Christian opponents of the arms trade onto its land to hold a vigil outside an arms conference. The conference was hosted by Church House Conference Centre, a subsidiary business of Church House, the administrative headquarters of the Church of England. One of the entrances to Church House is on Westminster Abbey's land.
After a time of silent prayer, and handing out leaflets, the campaigners began to sing the Christian hymn We are Marching in the Light of God. They were approached by a representative of Westminster Abbey who said that the Abbey would not allow them to sing.
She pointed out that she did not have responsibility for Church House, which was hosting the conference, but was concerned with Abbey land. She said the Christian group would not be allowed to stay on Westminster Abbey land if they continued to sing hymns.
She argued that the Abbey had already been "very generous" by allowing them onto private property.
When Christian activist Symon Hill asked if the Abbey was built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, she said “I work for the Dean and Chapter” and “I don't know what the church is built on”.
Although she then spoke with security staff, no attempt was made to remove the campaigners, who continued to sing hymns, pray and read aloud from the Bible as arms dealers and armed forces personnel entered the building. Conference participants enjoying a drink on the balcony above could hear the singing.
The activists are calling on Church House not to host events for the arms industry. The Air Power Conference, taking place today and tomorrow (9-10 July) is organised by Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and sponsored by transnational arms firms including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and Finmeccanica.
The Church of England today used its official Twitter account to argue that the event was not an arms dealers' conference because it was organised by RUSI, a thinktank. Campaigners suggest that this is either naïve or misleading, given that the event is sponsored by arms companies.
Emma Anthony of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) insisted that RUSI's conferences would not take place without arms industry funding. She added, “There is no way, with those sponsors, that these conferences are anything other than the repugnant preparation for war”.
The vigil of prayer and protest was backed by FoR, Pax Christi, the Speak network and the Christian Network of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).
FoR and Pax Christi are awaiting a response from Church House to a letter sent last month to object to the hosting of events sponsored by arms dealers. Meanwhile, around 200 people are reported to have already signed an message on the issue to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
To sign the message to Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, please visit http://act.caat.org.uk/lobby/churchhouse.