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General Synod: nuclear disarmament

Rid the world of this needless peril, Synod tells Government


The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, moves his motion on the ethics of nuclear weapons, on Sunday afternoon

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, moves his motion on the ethics of nuclear weapons, on Sunday afternoon

NUCLEAR weapons are dangerous and unnecessary, the General Synod has said, and has urged the Government to “respond positively” to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

On Sunday afternoon, moving his motion on the ethics of nuclear weapons, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said that there were “no circumstances” in which modern-day Trident missiles could be used, given the levels of destruction that these weapons threatened.

“Therefore, the argument that they have worked as a deterrent is no argument at all. They exist. They could be used. We are prepared to use them. Others want to procure them. Our holding them only makes them seem more attractive to other nation states, often those with the most vicious and repellent governments.”

The Synod had not discussed nuclear weapons for 11 years, he said. But it was fitting that it discussed the “moral issues” in the centenary year of the end of the First World War. “Even if Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s agreement does lead to the denuclearisation of North Korea, and this is something we all hope and pray for, it does not change, but sharpen, the Church’s responsibility to seek peace” and lobby the Government to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons.

That the Government had not signed the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was “hugely disappointing” and “looks like complacency”. He also questioned the billions of pounds spent on Trident, which would be better used elsewhere.

He concluded: “We are not telling our Government what to do. We are asking them to stop telling us what they will not do, and work towards developing plans that will rid the world of the danger and expense of nuclear weapons.”

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK WOODWARD AND DANIEL EASTONPrudence Dailey (Oxford) raises a point of order

A point of order was raised by Prudence Dailey (Oxford) to move to the next business, meaning that the motion would lapse, and could not be brought back in the current quinquennium. She argued that nuclear deterrent was “not a topical subject at this time”; instead, the Synod should give the time to debating homelessness, “which is a critical topic that the Church could do something about”.

Bishop Cottrell said that he could not find an issue more topical than the peace of the world. “We are seriously out of kilter with our ecumenical partners on this. The Synod needs to speak on this issue.”

The procedural motion was lost.

The Chaplain of the Fleet, the Ven. Martyn Gough QHC (Armed Forces Synod), described the life on board submarines carrying the nuclear deterrent: a “foreboding” place, with a “very real danger” of never resurfacing. He asked the Synod to think of the people who worked there, who sought to serve, leaving their families for three or four months at a time. “They carry that dreadful responsibility, and moral pressure.”

He was responsible for putting chaplains on board, who said the daily office, and celebrated holy communion every Sunday.

Canon Rachel Mann (Manchester) supported the motion, but offered “Anglican caution”. Nuclear weapons were the final stage of savage logic, she said, but the profound work of the armed forces offered a stability to many people living in great uncertainty and poverty. “Be bold in supporting the motion, but avoid the risk of gesture politics.”

The Bishop of Portsmouth, Dr Christopher Foster, could think of nothing that spoke less of God’s Kingdom than nuclear weapons. He said that people could be as wise as the serpent and as innocent as the dove. “I welcome all wise attempts to rid the world of nuclear weapons,” Dr Foster said. He had a special duty towards those in the armed forces. That they have to be in the armed forces was a sign of this fallen world.

Hannah Grivell (Derby) was “wholeheartedly in favour” of the motion, because of the terror of nuclear weapons. She feared a second term of Donald Trump in the White House. The Church was complicit, as Church House, Westminster, was used by arms conferences. “We can’t do one thing here and do another thing somewhere else.”

Moving his amendment, the Revd Dr Dean Doherty (London) said that he tried to teach his students at St Mellitus to become “more moral people”. He wondered whether the Synod wanted to give the Government more specific instruction in terms of nuclear weapons. Dr Doherty said that he was not a pacifist, but a believer in just-war principles. The Synod should tell the Government to act on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rather than just “respond positively”, as the motion stated.

Dr Doherty said that it would be good for the Government to sign up to the UN treaty. He said: “The reality is that we have not seen progress toward denuclearisation for decades,” and that the treaty gives a framework for it.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK WOODWARD AND DANIEL EASTONThe Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, a former chair of Christian CND

Brigadier Ian Dobbie (Rochester) said that he could not support the amendment. He said that it would drive Synod towards nuclear pacification, which was “unrealistic”.

Nuclear deterrence was a cheaper option than conventional deterrence; but the international effort to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons was to be applauded. “We’ve no knowledge to know in a fast-changing world where the next threat will come from,” and there was no historical precedent for unilateralism.

The Revd Catherine Pickford (Newcastle) said that her grandmother opposed the renewal of Trident, owing to her experience during the War. This generation should be listened to. She said that this motion would be seen as the Synod’s promoting the Christian ideal of peace.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) had been an officer in the Royal Navy. He could support the motion only if it was unamended. Non-proliferation could be undermined if the Synod pushed for unilateral disarmament.

Peter Adams (St Albans) supported the amendment and the motion. He said that he was a realist, not a pacifist, but also a peacemaker. “Are we content that tens of billions of pounds will be swallowed up by weapons systems?”

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said that the treaty was de-legitimising the idea of nuclear weapons, creating a new norm in the world based on pacifism. It was something that had been discussed ecumenically, and Pope Francis was also against nuclear weapons. He asked whether the Synod would join the moral tide against nuclear weapons.

The amendment was lost.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK WOODWARD AND DANIEL EASTONLieutenant Gemma Winterton (Armed Forces Synod)

Debate returned to the main motion. Lieutenant Gemma Winterton (Armed Forces Synod) said that it was not her job to comment on the morality of weapons, but she wanted to draw the Synod’s attention to the sacrifice of the submariners and their families. Lieutenant Winterton gave the story of a friend whose husband served on a submarine. She urged the Synod to recognise the human cost of nuclear weapons.

The motion was supported by Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) arguing from a theological imperative to get rid of nuclear weapons. Gill De Berry (Salisbury) said that CND had calculated that, instead of replacing Trident, the Government could use the money for 120 new hospitals.

Dr John Mason (Chester) recalled a visit to Japan two years ago. It was ironic that Japan did not want nuclear weapons, but countries such as the UK did. He asked whether the Synod was truly aware of the effect of nuclear weapons.

The Archdeacon of Aston, the Ven. Simon Heathfield (Birmingham), a former RAF pilot, had once sat through a meeting on the impact of nuclear war which caused him to leave the armed forces. He told the Synod that humanity was not drawn towards death and destruction irrevocably, and that voting for the motion was not a denigration of the armed forces.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, a former chair of Christian CND, urged the Synod to understand the urgency of getting rid of nuclear weapons. People had got “less interested” in the “threat of imminent mass destruction”, but he had never heard anyone say that it was good that nuclear weapons existed. He urged the Synod to do what it thought right, even if it made itself look wrong.

The motion was carried by 260 votes to 26. It read: 

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.

Read a report of every General Synod presentation and debate from York 2018, here

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