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General Synod discussions to go nuclear in York

15 June 2018


Protesters hold banners declaring “No nuclear war” as they demonstrate against military intervention in Syria in Parliament Square, London, in April

Protesters hold banners declaring “No nuclear war” as they demonstrate against military intervention in Syria in Parliament Square, London...

WHILE not expected to generate the level of controversy that prompted a live BBC broadcast in 1983, a General Synod debate on the ethics of nuclear weapons next month will be “an opportunity for the Church to speak into the life of the nation and the world”, the media were told on Thursday.

Synod members, meeting in York, will be asked to welcome last year’s United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons “and the clear signal it sends . . . that nuclear weapons are both dangerous and unnecessary”, and to urge the British Government, which has not signed it, to reaffirm its commitment to non-proliferation.

A detailed, 18-page briefing from the Mission and Public Affairs Council spans history, ethics, and theology (including reference to the “Hauerwas/Niebuhr conflict”), and demonstrates “how ambiguous the position is here . . . theologically as well as politically”, the Director of Mission and Public Affairs, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown said on Thursday. In stark terms, it warns of the erosion of the “liberal international order” and “a second nuclear age”.

The Synod’s Secretary General, William Nye, described it as one of several motions that would provide “an opportunity for the Church to speak into the life of the nation and the world”.

Not on the agenda are any of the three private members’ motions pertaining to sexuality, two of which have gained more than 100 signatures, or the Hereford diocesan-synod motion calling for liturgies for same-sex couples (News, 23 October 2017).

The Business Committee has ruled that no such motions will be scheduled for debate until the House of Bishops’ teaching document on sexuality has been published: Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about human sexuality and marriage, due to be completed in 2020. A year ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury defended the timeframe against accusations that the issue was being kicked into the long grass. Given the size of the document, it was, in fact, “a remarkably short period”, he said (News, 14 July 2017).

On Saturday afternoon, standing orders will be suspended, and members will be invited to attend a choice of seminars. There will be four “interactive” seminars on the four strands of work contributing to the document: biblical studies, theology, social and biological sciences, and history; and three workshops on the document will offer members “ways in which you can participate in shaping its work”.

There will also be seminars on: the Pastoral Advisory Group; mission among children and young people; the Church’s environment programme; digital evangelism; and the work of the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group. Members will have enough time to attend up to three.

The Business Committee’s report refers to “the desire of members to discuss matters in a less binary fashion than our debating structure allows”. On Thursday, Mr Nye suggested that last year’s workshops had been an “experiment” that had “worked very well”.

On the Sunday, three hours will be devoted to debating two motions on the environment. The Synod will be asked, once again, to give its backing to the national investing bodies’ (NIBs’) policy on climate change and fossil-fuel investment, which retains disinvestment as a tool (News, 1 May 2015), but focuses on “robust engagement” with shareholders.

Activists argue that it is not enough (News, 15 June). In 2015, three protesters from Christian Climate Action lowered a banner from the public gallery, calling for the Church to get out of fossil fuels.

The strategy is defended in a report by the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, which argues that the NIBs have been “at the forefront of global investor action on climate change, including via engagement. This is a position that we wish to maintain for as long as we think that engagement is more effective than disinvestment in securing the shift to the low-carbon world that we need to see.”

An amendment from the diocese of Oxford will urge the NIBs to require fossil-fuel companies to align their business plans with the Paris Agreement (which seeks to limit the increase of the global temperature to below 2°C) by 2020, or automatically face immediate disinvestment.

It has been rejected by the NIBs. Dr Walker argued that “pulling out wholesale and hoping other investors fill the engagement void left by our departure is not, we believe, Christian ethical leadership”.

A second environment motion, to be moved by the diocese of London, concerns the C of E’s own carbon footprint. Targets have already been set by the Church of England Environmental Programme to reduce emissions by 42 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050. The motion seeks to accelerate progress, asking the Environmental Working Group to establish a monitoring tool and a plan for the “rapid acceleration” of the programme.

On Monday, the Synod will debate a motion on the long-term sustainability of the NHS, moved by the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome. It asks the Government to implement the recommendations of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Long-term Sustainability of the NHS and Adult Social Care, published last year, which include a call for funding to increase at least as fast as GDP for a decade after 2020. Bishop Newcome, a member of the committee, has previously warned that the strain on health and social services in the UK will be “intolerable” if the Government fails to act (News, 7 April 2017).

Among the legislation before the Synod will be the Draft Ecumenical Relations Measure, for a final reading. It will enable more churches to participate in worship in C of E services, granting Bishops new power to give temporary designation to churches not designated at national level to enable them to participate in local ecumenical activity.

Drawing attention to it at the briefing on Thursday, Mr Nye described how “a lot of the life of Christianity in England is in the independent churches, Evangelical churches, Pentecostal churches, black-majority churches”.

Dr Joe Aldred of Churches Together in England, who serves as an Ecumenical Representative for Pentecostals on the Synod, and is a bishop in the Church of God of Prophecy, has described it as a “great moment for relations between the Church of England and Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations”.

The debate on the ethics of nuclear weapons, scheduled for Sunday afternoon, will be moved by the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who said earlier this year that, on this matter, the C of E was “silent and out of step with other faith groups around the world” (Comment, 9 February).

The Synod last debated the issue in 2007, when it carried a motion stating that the proposed upgrading of Trident was “contrary to the spirit of the United Kingdom’s obligations in international law and the ethical principles underpinning them”, but recognising “the fundamental responsibility of Her Majesty’s Government to provide for the security of the country” (News, 1 March 2017).

In 1983, the Synod rejected a motion recommending that the UK unilaterally renounce its deterrent. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, said to have been “ angered and disturbed” by the unilateralist approach of “The Church and the Bomb” report, described the debate as “marvellous”. 

The report, produced by a group commissioned by the Board for Social Responsibility, caused waves when it was published in 1979, having to be rapidly re-printed to meet demand. It concluded that the “just war” concept ruled out the use of nuclear weapons; that such weapons constituted an evil which may be called demonic; and that the idea of deterrence could not be justified in the light of Christian teaching.

Last year’s UN Treaty was signed by 122 states, but none of the nuclear powers. It aims to prohibit nuclear weapons.

On Thursday, Dr Brown sought to draw attention to the nuances of the current motion, and the debate. He argued that “the Church of England has never firmly committed itself to pacifism; nor has it committed itself to belligerence.” The Council’s report acknowledges that “Christians have in good faith found themselves on both sides of the arguments,” and says that the motion is “couched in terms which may be supportable by Christians standing in both theological traditions”.

It points, however, to “widespread agreement amongst Christians that nuclear weapons are, as a class, uniquely terrible and that there is a legal and moral obligation upon the international community to take all practical and prudent steps towards achieving a situation in which none remain in existence anywhere.”

Safeguarding is the only business tabled for Saturday. There will be a presentation followed by questions and then a debate on a motion endorsing a report from the House of Bishops. The report will be released next week and subject to a separate press briefing. Mr Nye confirmed on Thursday that it will not address the question of the confessional.

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