THE decision by MPs to sanction the building of Britain’s next-generation nuclear deterrent has been met with almost unanimous condemnation from church leaders and organisations.
The House of Commons voted to renew the Trident submarine system by 472 to 117 on Monday evening.
Almost all Conservative MPs supported the Prime Minister by voting for Trident; but Labour was split: 140 MPs — more than half their total contingent — defied their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in voting with the Government in favour of nuclear weapons.
The Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union, the United Reformed Church (URC), and the Quakers have all condemned the decision to retain Britain’s continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.
The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Revd Dr Russell Barr, said that attempting to bring peace through the threat of “indiscriminate mass destruction” was the opposite of Jesus’s teachings.
The Moderator of the General Assembly of the URC, Alan Yates, said that the UK must begin to back down the “nuclear ladder”. “The threats that we face today are diverse, and nuclear weapons simply cannot offer security or peace for anyone,” he said.
The recording clerk of the Quakers, Paul Parker, who joined a demonstration outside Parliament against Trident as MPs were debating, said that Quakers had “no faith in Trident”.
“It is morally unacceptable for Britain to own weapons of mass destruction,” he told the thousands of protesters gathered in Parliament Square. “No country should have the ability to kill millions of people in an instant, and leave millions more exposed to a lifetime of trauma and pain.”
Christian MPs in both parties have offered competing arguments. David Burrowes, the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, told Premier Radio that retaining a nuclear deterrent was a sad necessity. “We’d like a world without war, which we’re looking forward to when Jesus comes again; but, for now, we need to be hard-headed and realistic and practical,” he said.
But David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, told the House of Commons that, as a Christian, he could not vote in favour of replacing Trident with more nuclear weapons. “I stand united with Pope Benedict XVI when he said: ‘In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.’ The idea of loving thy neighbour and protecting our world for future generations simply cannot hold if we have stockpiles of weapons that will destroy our neighbours, and destroy our world.”
The chairman of trustees at the ecumenical peace charity Fellowship of Reconciliation, Richard Bickle, said that if the Government was truly serious about keeping Britain safe, it would put the money for Trident towards battling climate change instead.
“We anticipate a significant increase in numbers of Christians who will now feel moved to take direct action against Trident replacement. We feel it would be a moral response to what is a fundamentally immoral decision,” he said.
The Church of England has not made any formal response to the vote, but one bishop has expressed concerns in Parliament about Britain’s nuclear-weapons programme.
During a debate in the House of Lords last week, the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, said that the threats faced by Britain were radically different to when the submarines first set out to sea armed with nuclear missiles in 1968.
“Is it still possible to envisage the circumstances in which this country would unilaterally send one of our Trident missiles on its way to a real target?” Bishop Forster asked.
“Our continued and very expensive possession of an independent deterrent will need a justification that, I believe, will need to be kept under continual review.”
The last time the General Synod debated Trident, in 2007 (News, 2 March 2007), it passed a motion which said that a new generation of nuclear submarines would be “contrary to the spirit of the UK’s obligations in international law and the ethical principles underpinning them”.
In the build-up to last year’s General Election, the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter also expressed doubts (News, 17 February 2015). The bishops wrote: “Shifts in the global strategic realities mean that the traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining. The presence of such destructive capacity pulls against any international sense of shared community.”
The debate is particularly acute in Scotland, as it is in the River Clyde naval base of Faslane that the Trident submarines are based.
Before the vote had taken place, all eight Roman Catholic bishops in Scotland issued a statement insisting that Britain take the “decisive and courageous step” of disposing of its nuclear programme. “Lives are being lost now because money that could be spent on the needy and the poor is tied up in nuclear arsenals,” they wrote.
All Scottish National Party MPs voted against renewing Trident, and, after the result, the Party said that the Government should respect the Scottish consensus and “remove these nuclear weapons of mass destruction from the Clyde”.
But the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Synod voted down a motion — though with many abstentions — calling for the cancellation of Trident at its last meeting in June (News, 17 June).