Moving the church from military complicity to the mission of peace

By Keith Hebden
July 24, 2014

It is is over a month and a half since the last RUSI conference at Church House, focusing as it did on land warfare, [1] and they have been back for more with a focus this time on the “future of air warfare”: Drones to you and me.

On 9 July 2014, Church House hosted an event sponsored by the arms industry to discuss drone warfare. Church House is the administrative headquarters of the Church of England and so plays both a real and symbolic role in representing what the Church of England is about. So how come, when the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) says that it is not appropriate to profit from arms firms, [2] Church House is such a repeat offender? The day conference held at Church House was sponsored by six major arms manufacturers working on the more legally and ethically controversial armed Drones.

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), founded in 1831 by no less than the Duke of Wellington, is a think-tank. And the patron of RUSI is no less than the lay head of the Church of England: her Majesty the Queen. These days however, RUSI is an expression of the existential crisis facing British elites who find they lead what the Chinese state paper calls a “petty” and “declining” nation in June 2014 [3]. Its website makes the claim that it is an “Independent” think-tank which of course it is not. General Sir David Richards, Ministry of Defence (MoD) Chief of Staff, describes RUSI as “Defence’s conscience”. RUSI brings together those who study war, academically, those who make decisions about war in practice, and those who profit from war consistently.

In their three-yearly review conducted in 2013, the Church of England’s EIAG reminded us that, “The Church of England is also mindful of the need to avoid undermining the credibility, effectiveness and unity of the Church’s witness by profiting from, or providing capital to, activities that are materially inconsistent with Christian values.” [4] Which is why the Church of England does not invest in companies whose profits from war make up more than 10 per cent of its turnover. All six of the sponsors of the recent RUSI gathering are primarily arms companies and it is they who footed the bill for Church House.

Archbishop Emeritus, Rowan Williams has criticised the dependence of the UK economy on the arms industry when he rallied to the defence of peaceful protestors arrested at the bi-annual Arms Fair Expo in London last year (the protestors were later acquitted). [5] Pope Francis too has denounced the arms trade as the “main reason for war”. [6] Is it not odd, then, that Church House does not seem to have ‘got the memo’?

One might argue that, since Church House is autonomous, it isn’t obliged to follow the instructions of the EIAG. Technically, that is true. In fact a local Parochial Church Council can, if they want, invest money in arms companies with absolute legal impunity. Holy Trinity Brompton, home of the Alpha Course, has an annual Leadership conference which regularly showcases CEOs of the arms industry, including a nuclear weapons manufacturer. [7] It is only the Church Commissioners, the state regulators of the state church’s central finances, who cannot do this. It is also true to say that Church House is not investing in arms companies, merely profiting from their sponsorship. But both of these arguments miss the point that the witness and mission of the Church as set out by the EIAG is grossly flouted by this consistent ‘getting into bed’ with arms companies and the Ministry of Defence by Church House. The ‘arms length’ financial approach merely disguises this.

Moreover, in case anyone has bought into the idea that this country like it or not, is dependent on arms exports to hold up our ever-precarious GDP, it is worth taking some time to do the maths. Military exports are heavily subsidised by the UK government in a dozen different ways. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) estimates that UK arms exports receive a subsidy of around £890 million per year. Given the 65,000 employees estimated to be working on military exports the subsidy amounts to over £13,000 for each job each year [8].

I live about an hours drive from RAF Waddington where UK Drones in Afghanistan are piloted from. In 2013 I went with five friends to the air base, with legal papers from the Public Interest Lawyers group that demonstrate that UK use of Drones is illegal under both national and international law. We were arrested on site as I planted a vine and fig tree, confessed my own complicity in the arms industry, and prayed for peace.

As the MOD plans its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it faces a dilemma: you cannot sell a weapon you are not using and they have no reason to use the Drones. The answer, if we continue to sleepwalk into more carnage, is to shift our Drones to Africa. That is the conversation that was being had at Church House: can we get away with keeping our Drones in the air post-Afghanistan?

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah spoke of a time when “swords are beaten into ploughshares” and "they shall not study war anymore”. The mission of the churches is not to keep war machines on the road but to tread a new path on its knees: asking forgiveness and building a new world in the shell of the old.




© Keith Hebden is author of Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus. He is a writer, activist, and associate of the think-tank Ekklesia. Keith is also an Anglican parish priest and 'Seeking Justice' adviser to the Mansfield Deanery in Southwell and Nottingham.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.