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Priest challenges Church House Conference Centre over arms link

03 April 2024

RUSI conference’s sponsors in 2023 had included suppliers of military equipment

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Church House, Westminster

Church House, Westminster

THE Corporation of The Church House was challenged during Holy Week on whether it had broken its own ethical-lettings policy for the Church of England’s administrative headquarters.

The Priest-in-Charge of St Andrew’s, Luton, the Revd Luke Larner, has raised concerns about whether letting Church House Conference Centre — a wholly owned trading subsidiary of the Corporation — to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Land Warfare Conference contravenes the policy.

The policy was adopted at the Corporation’s AGM in November 2020. It followed a review by the Revd Oliver O’Donovan, Emeritus Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh, which had been commissioned after protests against the use of the Centre for the RUSI conference (News, 27 June 2014, 2 August 2019, and 10 August 2018). The review has never been made public.

The policy, which “describes the principles and procedures underpinning the letting of rooms of Church House Westminster”, lists circumstances under which rooms should not be let. These include: “The hirer produces indiscriminate weapons such as nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons or anti-personnel mines,” and “The hirer derives more than ten per cent of its revenues from conventional weaponry.”

Another exception reads: “The hirer is indiscriminate and/or irresponsible in seeking sponsorship from any of the above categories. In order to ensure that this is not the case, the Corporation may ask the hirer to disclose to them the criteria upon which they seek or refuse sponsorship.”

A recent rebranding exercise described Church House Conference Centre as a “building of light for the people of the light”.

Last week, Mr Larner wrote to the chair of the Council of the Corporation, Stephen Barney, requesting a meeting. In his letter, Mr Larner sought reassurance “that your ethical-lettings policy is being followed, and is indeed sufficient to safeguard the integrity and witness of our Church.

“We live in trying times, and the tensions of the world’s conflicts are playing out on the streets of communities like mine. The actions of central church institutions has a very real impact on our local ministry and witness.”

He wrote that the RUSI conference’s sponsors in 2023 had included suppliers of military equipment, including Israeli Aerospace Industries and BAE systems. He also asked: “On the basis of the ICJ ruling of plausible acts of genocide in Gaza [News, 19 January], given that some of these companies sponsoring the conference supply arms being used in those acts, does this meet the threshold of ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘irresponsible’ in the ethical lettings policy?”

A date and venue for this year’s Land Warfare Conference has not been published.

In 2018, the Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd Martin Gorick (then Archdeacon of Oxford), attended the Corporation’s annual meeting to ask: “Is it ethical for the Church to profit from Land Warfare?” (News, 10 August 2018).

The Corporation has said that it is confident that last year’s conference was not in contravention of its lettings policy.

On Tuesday, Mr Larner said that he had received “an initial response” from the Council to arrange a meeting. He described having been prompted to check whether the Conference Centre was still hosting the RUSI event while preparing a speech for the local “Big Iftar”, having been asked to talk about community action, justice, and peacemaking. The discovery had disappointed him, he said.

“It is to me repugnant that a Church of England institution is generating funds in this way, especially given that it — in my opinion — seems in clear violation of their own policy.” It was “especially repugnant”, given that arms exported from the UK were “being used in the destruction of places of worship and the mass killing of civilians of all faiths in the Holy Land, including our Christian brethren”.

According to a leaked recording of a Conservative Party fund-raising event last month, reported by The Observer this week, the chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Alicia Kearns, has told supporters: “The Foreign Office has received official legal advice that Israel has broken international humanitarian law but the Government has not announced it.”

Such advice would mean that the UK had to cease all arms sales to Israel without delay. This week, Mr Larner said that the report raised serious questions about the complicity of the Corporation, and the Church of England’s national institutions.

He cited the Anglican Communion’s fourth mark of mission: “To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.”

Mr Larner said that he was not a pacifist, but “deeply committed to the principles of non-violence and peacemaking”. He spoke of the “huge public outcry” in Luton about the plight of the Palestinian people: in Luton, he had been involved in picketing the premises of Leonardo, a military supplier. This had also been the subject of a protest by sixth-form students, “leading a movement in our town demanding that we get arms companies out of our schools”.

The Corporation regularly donates money to the national church institutions, including a grant last year of £750,000 towards the Church’s work on racial justice and digital development. This week, Mr Larner asked: “How can we use funds generated from the slaughter of people in the majority world and historic places of colonialism to fund racial justice?”

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