SOMETIMES in our newsletters it is necessary to indicate what a picture represents: however I am sure nearly all of you know that this is Westminster Abbey, one of the most prominent places of worship in London and a major tourist attraction; it sometimes seems to function as a sort of national shrine because of its use for coronations and national funerals. Of course from a Catholic point of view it is a holy place – the tomb and shrine of St Edward the Confessor, who founded it; and for the first part of its life it was a major monastery; at the same time as Catholics we are more likely to be drawn to the cathedral at the other end of Victoria Street.
On Friday the abbey hosted a major act of worship in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence. This is, according to the abbey’s website, A Service to Recognise Fifty Years Of Continuous At Sea Deterrent. Attendance was due to be by invitation only. The website did not say very much about what it was about – I suppose if you could only go if you were invited there was no need for the general public to know very much – apart from that it was to be ‘a service to recognise the commitment of the Royal Navy to effective peace-keeping through the deterrent over the past fifty years and to pray for peace throughout the world’. What this is about is the continuous maintenance under water of submarines bearing nuclear weapons, at unknown locations around the world, a key part of the UK’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent. This continuous operation began in 1969: this act of worship was a celebration of this country’s nuclear deterrent – its weapons and the policies which hinge on it. Presumably many of those honoured with a invitation to the abbey are veterans of these submarines.
Many of you know that every year the pope issues a special message for World Peace Day on New Year’s Day, which we celebrate in this country later in January. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI entitled his first such message, in January 2006, In Truth, Peace (available here ) – it is a theological reflection, profound as one would expect from such a renowned theologian, about the connection between the search for peace in the world and truth telling. In one key passage Benedict writes about nuclear deterrence:
‘What can be said, too, about those governments which count on nuclear arms as a means of ensuring the security of their countries? Along with countless persons of good will, one can state that this point of view is not only baneful but also completely fallacious. In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims. The truth of peace requires that all – whether those governments which openly or secretly possess nuclear arms, or those planning to acquire them – agree to change their course by clear and firm decisions, and strive for a progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament. The resources which would be saved could then be employed in projects of development capable of benefiting all their people, especially the poor’. (section 13).
The pope doesn’t mince his words: nuclear deterrence is baneful (German – assuming the pope wrote the original in his native tongue – verhängnisvoll) and fallacious (trügerisch). Wicked and a pack of lies.
So the Church of England in what is arguably its principal place of worship is celebrating something – a belief and a series of policies made real in half a century of a continuous military action – which our Church has condemned in the strongest possible terms: Benedict significantly strengthened Catholic condemnation not only of nuclear weapons but of national policies based on the threat to use them, although what he wrote was strangely unnoticed by many at the time; Pope Francis has continued this in public statements about nuclear weapons and deterrent policies. It can never be morally licit to threaten to do something which would always be morally wrong and wicked.
I don’t know whether the Dean of Westminster has ever read Pope Benedict’s 2006 World Peace Day message. Some Anglicans, if they were aware of what the pope wrote, might have recourse to the words of the Church of England’s Thirty Nine Article of Religion, ‘The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.’ However many Anglican clergy have been appalled at this travesty of Christian worship and signed a petition to try and stop it; and joined many other Christians in an act of worship outside the abbey during the service. Of course other Christian leaders are circumspect, and as a Catholic priest I have tried hard over the years to avoid criticising other churches: but this really is very grave. Benedict was writing about truth and falsehood. At the heart of the theological challenge to nuclear deterrent policies, so beloved of so many politicians, is the recognition that this is about moral falsehood and deception.
Peace-making, by contrast, is one of the themes of the Easter season. When the risen Lord greets his disciples after his resurrection, he uses the words ‘Peace be with you’. When he was arrested they ran away: but he’s not angry; he offers a message of peace and reconciliation. Amidst so much violence and war in the world men and women desperately need the Christian message of peace which Easter brings. It is sad that in what is one of the most prominent places of worship in this country a contrary message is being put forward.