THE Westminster Abbey service to mark 50 years of constant patrol by the UK’s nuclear deterrent was taking place to recognise the “truly remarkable” work of the people who served on submarines, not to “celebrate weapons of mass destruction”, the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, said during the service.
In his address on Friday, Dean Hall spoke of the complaints received about the “Service to Recognise Fifty Years of Continuous At Sea Deterrent”.
The Dean said that he had received, and that the Abbey had received, numerous letters and emails asking for the service to be called off. But he was “proud” to be holding the service, he said.
While members of the congregation, including the Duke of Cambridge, the new Defence Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, were singing hymns that included “All my hope on God is founded” and “Eternal Father, strong to save” in the Abbey, a protest and rival service were being held outside.
Supporters of CND, Christian CND, Stop the War, and Pax Christi were all ranged on the pavement opposite, outside the Methodist Central Hall. CND said that 500 protesters were present.
And at noon, as the Abbey service began, Christian CND held its alternative service, led by Bruce Kent of Christian CND, who is a former general secretary and chairman of CND (and a former Roman Catholic priest).
More than 190 Anglican priests had signed a letter condemning the Abbey service, including the Area Bishop of Colchester, the Rt Revd Roger Morris, in Chelmsford diocese, (News, 5 April, Letters, 12 April, Comment, 18 April)
Speaking beforehand, Mr Kent said: “We’re aiming to raise the public consciousness about the immorality of nuclear weapons and their pointlessness. They do not bring peace.”
Although he “regretted” the Abbey service, he said that he did not pass judgement on the naval personnel present, or the Dean for hosting it.
He exclaimed, however: “Fifty years of peacemaking? Heavens above! [Robert] Macnamara said that we’ve been saved by good luck rather than good judgement. It’s a bit of a farce that they’ve ‘kept the peace’: we’ve had an incredibly warlike world. If they keep the peace, why shouldn’t everybody have them?”
In the Abbey, the Duke of Cambridge read the second lesson, Ephesians 2.13-20, to a congregation that consisted also included politicians, and workers in the industry that surrounds nuclear submarines.
Outside, Christian CND had placed a bubble machine, which ran throughout the Abbey service; and afterwards an impromptu choir sang “Amazing grace”.
A co-chair of Christian CND, Martin Tiller, said: “We did not want to have to organise this service. Our preference was that the Dean of Westminster saw the inappropriateness of this service and cancelled it.”
PAAnti-nuclear-weapons campaigners stage a “die-in” outside Westminster Abbey
One Christian activist present, Liz Dodd, said: “I think it was really important to have a peaceful Christian presence outside, to demonstrate that not all Christians agreed with the Abbey that nuclear deterrents bring peace. It was really moving to be part of the alternate service led by Bruce Kent. We didn’t have an impressive building or any royals, but I think we had Jesus.”
Last year, the General Synod carried a motion stating that it was “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” (News, 13 July 2018).
Dean Hall observed that Synod “did not call for unilateral nuclear disarmament”. He also argued that the world had avoided major conflict since the Second World War and “mutually assured destruction must have been a consideration.”
He continued: “We can’t celebrate weapons of mass destruction, but we do owe a debt of gratitude to those responsible for maintaining the peace, and their families who have stood by them.”
During the service, three testimonies were read out by different people involved with the continuous deterrent: Isobel Fraser, whose husband has taken part in 29 patrols; Rear Admiral Tim Hodgson; and Leading Engineer Technician Edward Owen.
Mrs Fraser spoke of the way in which her husband, Chief Petty Officer Stewart Fraser, was absent from many life events, but also of her joy when he did come home.
Mr Owen said: “The opportunity to play my part in protecting the United Kingdom is one that I and my fellow submariners take pride in. . . I would like to mention the essential contribution of our families at home. They make the greatest sacrifices and carry the heaviest burden.”
Outside the Abbey after the service, CND held up the traffic with a “die-in”, in which more than 100 people lay down in the road and pretended to be dead.
CND’s general secretary, Kate Hudson, said: “It was truly sickening to hear Westminster Abbey’s bells played like wedding bells as guests left the nuclear-weapons thanksgiving service. Our die-in was symbolic of the people who were killed in the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and a sign of what would happen in the event of nuclear war.
“We hope Government and Church learn from today, and that we never see a repeat of such an inappropriate event. Instead, every level of the Church, Government, and society should be engaged in efforts to de-escalate nuclear tensions that are rising by the day. We must all work together towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.”