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Scottish Episcopal Synod: Use of nuclear weapons censured

21 June 2024

Read more reports from the SEC General Synod here

SEC

The Revd Roxanne Campbell

The Revd Roxanne Campbell

THE Synod passed a motion decrying the use of nuclear weapons, on Friday morning.

The motion, presented by the Revd Roxanne Campbell (Brechin) on behalf of the church in society committee, was: “That this Synod agree the position that the use of nuclear weapons can never be theologically justified, and the Church commits to a policy of advocating for arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

Adopting the motion would bring the SEC into line with ecumenical partners who had made statements on this issue, Ms Campbell said, and help to “contribute to broader dialogue on peace, dialogue and the common good”.

Nuclear weapons are an “affront to God”, and their non-proliferation should be pursued “for the sake of humanity and the world”, she said.

In the debate that followed, Canon John McLuckie (Edinburgh) referred to a poem by Thomas Merton, and said that the use of nuclear weapons was “not only unethical but idolatrous”, as they assumed power that was God’s alone.

Robert MacDonald (Argyll & The Isles) said that all could agree that it would be better if nuclear weapons did not exist. But “tyrants don’t believe in peace from reconciliation”, he said, and the possession of a nuclear deterrent was indispensable.

Victoria Elliott (Edinburgh) said that she supported the motion, but felt that it needed more nuance. “Theologically, are we in the right position to be making sweeping statements?” she asked.

Morag O’Neill (Glasgow & Galloway) also spoke in favour of the motion. She has long lived near where the UK’s Trident submarines are based, and growing up with the “unconscious, subliminal fear” of nuclear war was not something she wanted for future generations.

Canon Mary Jepp (Brechin) said that her work with Ukrainian refugees influenced her conviction that the Church’s first thought on such issues should be to defend the “weakest of the world” and implied that unilateral disarmament would not meet this requirement. Another contribution from the floor noted that the motion did not refer specifically to “unilateral disarmament”.

Jenny Whelan (Glasgow & Galloway) referred to the members of the Provincial Youth Committee who had spoken the previous day, and who had urged members to support the motion. “We don’t want our young people to be living under that threat any more. We need to get rid of these weapons,” she said.

The Acting Bishop of Aberdeen & Orkney, the Rt Revd Dorsey McConnell, spoke of his upbringing in the United States. His father worked for the Strategic Air Command, and the family home had a bomb shelter, stocked with supplies to get the family through nuclear war. Among the inventory were some toy cars which were so desirable to the young Bishop McConnell that, when his mother told him they were reserved for the occasion of an attack, “that night I prayed for war,” he said.

As an acting bishop he could not vote, but suggested that simply passing the motion was not the end of the job: underlying the world’s appetite for nuclear weapons were motives of greed, hatred, and ambition, he said.

The Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane, the Rt Revd Ian Paton, recalled spending time on a nuclear submarine, and suggested that those who served on them would probably support the motion, as they would prefer not to be put in the position of starting a nuclear war.

The motion passed by 85 votes to 15, with ten recorded abstentions.

Ecumenism

ALSO on Friday, the convener of the Inter-Church Relations Committee, Canon Charlotte Methuen, presented revisions of the canons of the SEC so that they formally aligned with ecumenical agreements such as the Saint Andrew Declaration.

The first reading of the revised canons last year had occasioned some dissent from members who argued that they contradicted the SEC’s episcopal structure (News, 16 June 2023).

Bishop Strange reiterated a point he made in last year’s debate: that he welcomed changes that made commonplace practical arrangements legal within church law — such as allowing ministers from other denominations to preside in SEC services under certain circumstances.

The Revd Dr Stephen Holmes (Edinburgh) said that he would be voting against the canon on the basis that it “contradicted our basic doctrine” about the requirement that only those ordained by bishops could celebrate the eucharist.

Churches grow “when they have a clear identity”, he said, but the proposals would “dilute” that identity.

Several members raised concerns about the safeguarding checks on visiting ministers from other denominations.

Canon Methuen drew attention to the provision in the revised canon that a visiting minister must be in “good standing” with their Church, which, in the case of Scottish denominations, meant that they were subject to the same safeguarding requirements as SEC ministers.

The Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth (Glasgow & Galloway), agreed with Mr Holmes, and said “we should not be using the eucharist to enable ecumenism”.

Canon Vittoria Hancock (Aberdeen & Orkney) remembered having the same arguments last year. “What did Jesus intend with the eucharist?” she said: “I do not think he intended that his Church be broken into so many different parts that we cling on so furiously to our identity that we are not prepared to allow others to join with us.”

The motion to amend the canon required a two-thirds majority among the laity, clergy, and bishops. It cleared this hurdle in the first two Houses, but there was some confusion about whether it did so in the College of the Bishops, where the vote was three to one, with a recorded abstention.

After a few moments of uncertainty, it was confirmed that abstentions did not count when establishing the majority, and so the vote was passed, as were further votes to incorporate the revised canons.

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