Westminster Abbey and the Prince of Peace

By Jill Segger
April 2, 2019

Trident submarines are continuously at sea. Each one carries up to 96 nuclear warheads, and each warhead has a yield eight times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The capacity of these weapons to inflict catastrophic damage on cities and their hinterlands is beyond anything the world has experienced. Their use would impact the climate in a way which would affect the entire planet. Not one of us – however far away we may be from any ground zero – will escape the physical and mental horror of destruction on this scale.

CS Lewis, a more considerable poet than he is often given credit for, described the threat of nuclear apocalypse in words which lodged themselves in the fibres of my memory as a Cold War era child:

So, you have found an engine

Of injury that angels

Might dread. The world plunges,

Shies, snorts and curvets like a horse in danger.

His co-religionists in the Established Church passed this motion at their General Synod in 2018:

That this Synod, mindful that a faithful commemoration of the centenary of the 1918 Armistice must commit the Church afresh to peace building; and conscious that nuclear weapons, through their indiscriminate and destructive potential, present a distinct category of weaponry that requires Christians to work tirelessly for their elimination across the world:

(a) welcome the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the clear signal it sends by a majority of UN Member States that nuclear weapons are both dangerous and unnecessary;
(b) call on Her Majesty's Government to respond positively to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by reiterating publicly its obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its strategy for meeting them; and
(c) commit the Church of England to work with its Anglican Communion and ecumenical partners in addressing the regional and international security concerns which drive nations to possess and seek nuclear weapons and to work towards achieving a genuine peace through their elimination.

But Westminster Abbey – 'the nation's parish church' and the place where Empire so often conducts the pageantry which seeks to colonise faith, is to hold a 'National Service of Thanksgiving' on 3 May 2019, to mark '50 years of Continuous at Sea Deterrence'. That is, a celebration of weapons which, even if you subscribe to the doctrine of the Just War, cannot be justified: it is impossible for these weapons of mass destruction to fulfil the requirement of Just War theory that the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

I belong to a faith tradition which some perceive as being unrealistic in relation to armed conflict. But for myself, I believe that these words, from the declaration made by Quakers to Charles II in 1660: "...we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ which leads us into all Truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world", should be in the minds and hearts of all those who call themselves followers of Jesus.

If this declaration was forceful in an age of swords and musketry, how much more should we make them our own when faced with the morality of not only developing and deploying nuclear weapons as a symbol of perceived global power, but of conducting an act of thanksgiving for their continued existence.

In 2017, negotiations at the United Nations resulted in the adoption of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. By September 2017, this had been signed into force by 53 nations. Of the 192 UN member nations, 140 now support the ban which prohibits the development, testing, production, financing, transferring, stockpiling, use and threat of use of any nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom, a major nuclear power, is not a signatory to the treaty.

The 'Royal Peculiar' of Westminster Abbey – a Church of England building of worship outside the authority of traditional Anglican structures – shows itself as standing, like the UK government, outside the family of nations which reject nuclear weapons. Worse, it appears to be at odds with the household of believers. Let us hope that its Dean and Chapter will find the time to reflect on the prophecy of Isaiah:

Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.

To bring together leaders of governments and armed forces to 'give thanks' for a policy demonstrating the terrible failure of politics, diplomacy, morality and reason is a repudiation of the mission of the church. In the words of British Quakers' representative body, Meeting for Sufferings: "We believe that no one has the right to use [nuclear] weapons in his defence or to ask another person to use them on his behalf. To rely on the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent is faithless; to use them is a sin."

* A petition calling on the Dean of Westminster not to go ahead with the service can be signed here 

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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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.