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.
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.”
“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