Was a service to honor nuclear-weapons crews at Westminster Abbey blasphemous?

Anti war demonstrators hold banners as they protest outside Westminster Abbey, as a service to recognize 50 years of continuous deterrent at sea takes place in London on May 3. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)Anti war demonstrators hold banners as they protest outside Westminster Abbey, as a service to recognize 50 years of continuous deterrent at sea takes place in London on May 3. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

On May 3, a church service was held in one of England’s most hallowed and historic buildings, Westminster Abbey, by the Thames in central London. The handsome Gothic edifice has seen much of English, then British, history since construction of the present building began in 1245.

It was founded as a monastic church, probably in the seventh century, going on to host the 11th-century coronation of William the Conqueror. And this spring’s Christian service gave thanks to God for 50 years of weapons of mass destruction, specifically Britain’s nuclear missiles.

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No, this is not fake news. Senior clerics of the Church of England joined politicians from the nearby Houses of Parliament to give thanks for the United Kingdom’s seaborne nuclear deterrent. A more ill-judged, if not blasphemous, event could hardly be imagined.

The official story is that the events honored the crews of the Royal Navy’s four nuclear missile submarines. Westminster Abbey agreed to host the event, even though the General Synod of the Anglican Church last year joined most other Christian denominations in reiterating its commitment to nuclear disarmament. This opposition comes from the belief that it is not just the use of these weapons of mass destruction, but the threat to use them and indeed their very possession, that is immoral.

Senior clerics of the Church of England joined politicians from the nearby Houses of Parliament to give thanks for the United Kingdom’s seaborne nuclear deterrent. A more ill-judged, if not blasphemous, event could hardly be imagined.

Yet the event’s official billing by Westminster Abbey was “a service to recognise fifty years of Continuous At Sea Deterrent.” Whom did they think they were thanking? Is it morally possible to separate the sailors from their potential role in pushing the nuclear button?

Invited guests attending the service were heckled by a knot of protestors outside, some of them from Christian groups, who echoed the concerns expressed by nearly 200 Anglican clergy. Those booed included Prince William, who hopes one day to be crowned king of whatever is left of Britain. If that day ever comes for him, he will hope for a warmer reception here. In naval uniform, he read a part of the Scripture for the service, Eph 2:13-20, which mentions Christ’s peace that has torn down walls of hostility.

The Abbey’s official response to mounting criticism was that the service was “neither one of thanksgiving nor in any way a celebration of nuclear armaments.” Yet the Royal Navy’s own website showed that they certainly thought that this was about thanksgiving. They described it as a “celebration” of the success of the navy’s “ultimate mission.”

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“We can’t celebrate weapons of mass destruction, but we do owe a debt of gratitude and sincere thanks to all those countless men and women, some represented here today, who in the past 50 years have maintained a deterrent, and indeed to their families, who have stood by them,” Dean of Westminster John Hall told the 2,000-strong congregation, according to the Associated Press.

“Those countless men and women played their part, a vital part, in maintaining peace.”

The vessels honored by the service are nuclear deterrent submarines; they were built for that and have no other purpose or use. You can only base a justification of the mission of deterrence on the real threat of use and an enemy’s perception that you mean it. You threaten through terror.

The sailors operating the submarines and the launch-mechanisms are not bad people. But did this religious service risk legitimizing the force, or the threat, of weapons that can destroy on an unimaginable scale? Even if that was not the intent, it was the appearance.

In the uneasy union of nations that is contemporary Britain, there arises the question of why we even need a nuclear force.

One frequent justification for these weapons is that they have “kept the peace” since the end of World War II, a conflict popularly thought to have been truncated by the world’s first two, and to date, only aggressive uses of a much less powerful bomb than those celebrated at Westminster Abbey. The quickest of glances through the daily news would suggest otherwise. There has been permanent bloody conflict since World War II, and much suffering. Estimates of global military spending have reached $1.8 trillion per year. Robert McNamara, in his later years, stated that we had avoided nuclear war more by good luck than good judgment.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church could not be more clear: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons—especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons—to commit such crimes…. This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. The arms race does not ensure peace” (No. 2314-15).

Nor need one delve deeply into papal teaching, at least since the middle of last century, for echoes of this clear doctrine. There is no moral good attached to the possession of these weapons, which wipe out combatants and non-combatants alike, and no good in the inexorable readiness to use them (without which deterrence would not work).

In the uneasy union of nations that is contemporary Britain, buckling under the strain of a rising English nationalism with its anachronistic yearning for empire and a world role now long gone, there arises the question of why we even need a nuclear force. The point of the seaborne force is not clear; and to say so detracts nothing from the service of those sailors, most of them working-class lads, who spend long months away from home and family with little contact.

They work, eat and sleep just inches from multiple-warhead missiles, each of which packs massively more destructive power than that unleashed on Japan in 1945. And we are about to spend up to $205 billion pounds (or about $264 billion dollars) on the latest system to replace the Trident nuclear force. Like its predecessor, this costly new system will be useless against the range of threats, such as terrorism and cyber-security, that face us in this new century.

The service at Westminster Abbey was ill-conceived and misguided. Praying for and working for peace is laudable. Letting brave soldiers and sailors know that they are supported and thanked for their service is important. But it is just wrong to give even a hint that one prays and thanks God for a weapon of mass destruction like a modern nuclear warhead.

Westminster Abbey would have come out of this much more laudably had it presented a liturgy of repentance or a program that encouraged people, and policymakers in particular, to work anew for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. In doing so, it would have remained more faithful to mainstream Christian thinking that manages, most of the time, to remember that its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, is called the Prince of Peace.

With reporting from The Associated Press

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rose-ellen caminer
1 month ago

If it were a Catholic Church, I would say it was blasphemous. But it's the "Church of ENGLAND";that says it all. Also they were not honored for actually nuking people, so nuclear deterrence that has worked to prevent violence. is, in a fallen[nuked up] world, if not a good thing, the lesser of two evils; either[no nukes] no deterrence putting the people of your country at risk, or[nukes] deterrence ; everyone is at risk but so far no actual violence.I get it; I don't love it but I get it.

Christopher Lochner
1 month ago

There is blasphemy here but certainly not in the manner in which it is perceived. ....Let us consider why so many people are opposed to nuclear conflict. Well, it does not appear to be particularly "sporting" as the victims have little or no fighting chance of survival. The death toll is terribly large and yet death DOES come much more quickly and humanely than in, say, a fire bombing scenario. But the biggest problem exists in the lack of a decided winner- no one wins. This is why it goes by the acronym of M.A.D. for Mutual Asssured Destruction. But what if the economy of a nation, regardless of ideology, could benefit from the design and sales of weaponry platforms with the potential to be used in war? (They are referred to as arms dealers. We will use use the term "Contractor" as it is far less inflammatory.) What if wars could be won or battles fought with the only downside being a minor loss of troop strength for which we graciously honor the war dead at a few points during the year and then for only a few seconds? (BTW. In the USA, here comes the beginning of summer vacation season and the glorious Memorial Day Sales (May 27). Were you thinking of anything else?). What if we could view troops as underpaid cannon fodder necessary in order to retain the glory of high income munition jobs? We go to Mass on Sunday and especially Christmas (Peace on earth. Good will to all.). We pray for peace in the world. We cross our fingers behind our backs in superstition to undo the prayer and chuckle to ourselves. We go to work on Monday and hope like hell to the devil that the prayers are never answered and there is NEVER peace in the world because this would cut into our gloriously high and "god given" salaries... for so many in the field...and around the world. (Imagine if the resort timeshares we have our eyes on thus became unattainable- The Horror!!) We don't desire nuclear war as it is rather messy. But a winnable and limited war in which destruction to the home country is minimized and profits are up (GNP goes up. The DJIA goes up. Hip, hip, hooray!) is defintely an acceptable tradeoff and, somehow, morally acceptable. War then exists not as defense but as big business! This is where the true nature of the blasphemy exists, not in honoring the people who will fight and die but in embracing the fallacy of war as an acceptable means to profit by those who are interested primarily if not only in themselves and their own well-being. We pray to Christ while arrogant in the knowledge and acceptance of the falsehood behind our prayers..... I'm not at all stating that a national capability for defense is in any way wrong or immoral. But wars or prospects for war have become more much of a business model than a compelling necessity. I have NEVER met anyone who works for a defense contractor who has EVER mentioned national defense as a rational for their employment. Perhaps the best way to end war is to vilify the profit motive and to cease honoring those who beat their intellectual plowshares into swords, again, this being contractors and not soldiers! To update the quote by Clemenceau, "War is too important to be left to the generals." We have "War is too important to the economy of a nation to be denigrated or avoided." This is the blasphemy. This is the real-now. We love the preparation for war, just not nuclear war.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month ago

This article is a piece of Jesuit nonsense based on the presumption that all the world and all its political entities have the same dedication to Catholic Social Justice principles as the author.
It's a wonderful but totally illusory and dangerous position.

I recall calling the Jesuit friend who married my wife whom I asked hito stop by for a house blessing after our home was hit by a bolt of lightening
After hearing why I called, he tartly and correctly responded:"Here is what you do .....install lightening rods!"
I suspect Father Stewart also has a problem with religious events for the grand tradition of "Remembrance Day".

Baron Corvo
1 month ago

I totally agree with Stuart.

Lots of moony Jesuitical nonsense seen in these pages of late.

In case you hadn't noticed, the world is quite in tatters and Emperor Tang in DC isn't helping matters much - it is a good thing to have protection on the land and on the Sea !

Benedicamus Domino !

JOHN GRONDELSKI
1 month ago

Not any more blasphemous than the Anglican "Church's" embrace of priestesses, pretending sex is irrelevant to marriage, tolerating abortion, approving contraception, etc.

arthur mccaffrey
1 month ago

......and Mr Stewart, don't forget the poor Scottish who have these nuclear submarines foisted on them by the Westminster govt. and required to harbor these subs in their lochs in mid-Scotland, close to large urban centers.......we need an independent, nuke-free Scotland NOW!

John Sharpe
1 month ago

We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden. By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong, and everywhere there was song and celebration. And I dreamed I saw the bombers jet planes riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation.... I still believe the 60’s was the true age of enlightening and not a bad acid trip. Keep the faith my bruthers.

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