Breach of the peace? A strange morning at Church House

One of the things that people don’t tell you about direct action is how much it involves discussing complex philosophical issues in a highly pressurised environment.

By the time this morning’s protest at Church House was over, I had discussed the nature of private property with a security officer, the definition of peace with a police officer and the question of whether the armed forces protect the British people with a member of Church House staff.

The last of these conversations took place while I was sitting on the floor in front of the entrance to Church House with my arms linked to other Christians who were nonviolently challenging a militarist conference by blockading the main entrance.

If I have any regrets about this morning, they relate to this conversation. I don’t think I explained my position very well, or made the point that it is naïve to imagine that your own country’s armed forces fight for freedom while their enemies fight against it (a position taken by militarists in every country in the world). Perhaps my theology and philosophy seminars at university would have been more effective if we had been required to discuss complex ethical questions with police and security staff standing over us while we were squashed into a doorway.

We were protesting against Church House’s decision to host yet another conference sponsored by arms companies. This year’s Land Warfare Conference, organised by the militarist lobby group RUSI and sponsored by Airbus Defence and L3, is the latest arms industry-funded event to take place at Church House Westminster (as Church House Conference Centre now calls itself).

It was addressed by the “Defence” Secretary Michael Fallon, who we sought to question about arms sales to Saudi Arabia as he entered the centre. He refused to answer and we were dragged away from our attempted peaceful conversation by Church House heavies.

One of the oddest moments of the protest was when Robin Parker, General Manager of Church House Westminster, put in a brief appearance by the doorway. When I called out, “This is a Christian conference centre”, he replied, “It isn’t actually”. He’s still trying to keep up the claim that it is independent of the Church of England (in practice it is a wholly owned subsidiary business of Church House Corporation). While Robin likes to make this claim every time he’s challenged, I don’t remember him previously stating that the centre is not even Christian.

As the police sought to remove us, I attempted to walk into the building (or “force my way in”, as the police later described it). I didn’t get very far, but I was immediately arrested for “breach of the peace”. Less than half an hour later, I was “de-arrested”.

It’s an odd use of the word “peace”: those planning violence inside the building were not considered to be in “breach of the peace”, but rather those who nonviolently tried to stop them.

This is the approach that confuses order with peace and conformity with morality.

We took this nonviolent direct action after five years of Church House (and Church House Westminster/ Church House Conference Centre) refusing to engage with us, ignoring letters and even blocking critics on social media. Yesterday they received hundreds of tweets about the Land Warfare Conference, and do not appear to have been polite enough to have responded to any of them.

It was possible for me to join in this action because of the friends and comrades who played an equal part in today’s protest and because of the many hundreds of others who sent us messages of support. Their encouragement and solidarity makes an immeasurable difference.

I’m going to finish with a quote from Martin Luther King, because he makes a point I want to make much better than I would. It’s an important point to make in response to some actual and potential criticism of our actions today. As King put it:

You may well ask, ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

How many excuses can a church find for hosting arms companies?

How many excuses can you find for hosting arms dealers? Church House Conference Centre rely on the same three, repeated in various ways to anyone who challenges them – if they reply at all.

Generals, arms dealers and officials from the Ministry of “Defence” will gather for their annual Land Warfare Conference on Tuesday 27th and Wednesday 28th June. They will be hosted in Church House, which includes many of the administrative offices for the Church of England along with the meeting rooms that make up the Church House Conference Centre – or “Church House Westminster”, as it has recently been renamed.

But it wasn’t the name that needed changing. It was the tendency to host conferences sponsored by arms dealers.

Protests against these militarist conferences at Church House have taken place every year since 2012. Church House have ignored letters, declined requests for meetings and even responded to the Fellowship of Reconciliation – a Christian pacifist network – by blocking them on Twitter.

activists hold a banner up outside chruch house denouncing the conference

Challenging a RUSI conference at Church House in 2015.

Militarist conferences are repugnant wherever they happen. I am particularly sad that a prominent Christian-run centre agree to host an event totally at odds with the active nonviolence exemplified by Jesus.

Church House have run out of excuses. They keep repeating the same discredited lines:

1. “Church House Conference Centre is independent of Church House”

This is a legal technicality. The Conference Centre (or “Church House Westminster” as it now calls itself) is a wholly owned subsidiary business of the Church House Corporation, whose president is the Archbishop of Canterbury. They sometimes vary this excuse by saying that Church House Conference Centre is “not a church”. Are Christian organisations expected to have lower ethical standards for some of their buildings than others?

2. “We can’t be expected to investigate the ethics of every company that wants to book a room”

This is a disturbing comment from an organisation supposedly rooted in Christian principles. It is not difficult to find out the ethics of the companies involved. For the last five years, we have been standing outside Church House with banners that draw attention to them.

3. “The bookings are not made by arms companies”

The conference is organised by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Church House tell us that RUSI is a “respected thinktank”. Respected by militarists, perhaps. RUSI promote the arms industry, the armed forces and military responses to global problems. Furthermore, these conferences are themselves sponsored by arms companies, often complicit in the supply of arms to some of the world’s most repressive and tyrannical regimes. In previous years, these have included BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. This year’s sponsors include Airbus and L3.

Sometimes, supporters of the Church House position have made arguments in favour of the arms industry. While I beileve passionately that they are wrong, this response at least has an honesty to it that the others do not. Church House themselves won’t make this argument, but given the feableness of their excuses, we can only conclude that they support  the arms trade or at least don’t object to it.

There have been protests, vigils and acts of worship on the steps of Church House in resistance to every RUSI conference there since 2012. This time, with several groups involved, watch out for news of more. One of the biggest protests will be online: we’ll be mass tweeting Church House on Tuesday (27th June). You can reach them at @Churchhouseconf. You can also phone Church House to ask politely but firmly for an explanation, on 020 7390 1590.

For news of any protests that appear during the event, follow the Fellowship of Reconciliation at @forpeacemaker, or me at @SymonHill.


This article originally appeared (in a slightly shorter form) on the blog of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) on 22nd June 2017. Many thanks to CAAT for hosting it.

The strange case of the DUP and the English left

I never cease to be amazed by just how London-centred the UK media are. As the results came in during the early hours of Friday morning, it became clear that Theresa May was likely to attempt some sort of deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Yet the BBC election programme told its viewers almost nothing about the DUP. Even the election results in Northern Ireland, which saw the DUP increase its number of seats from eight to ten, received little attention.

A friend of mine who is a Scottish political journalist used to challenge Westminster-based political correspondents to name the First Minister of Wales. Most were unable to do so. I suspect that on Friday morning, some of them were desperately typing “Democratic Unionist Party” into Google, as they sought to find out about a party whose candidates all stand in areas further away than London Underground Zone 3.

Of course, many other people were looking up the DUP on Friday – at one point, the party’s website crashed. It’s entirely understandable that many voters in England know little about parties in other parts of the UK, especially when the UK media pays them so little attention. What I’ve found more surprising is the odd reaction on parts of the English left.

Anyone looking up the DUP can find out very quickly that they are viciously homophobic and anti-abortion. Some of their leading members are creationists, fundamentalists and/or climate change deniers. Several have past links with paramilitary groups and they are gung-ho for high military spending and nuclear weapons.

So it’s no surprise that most people on the left don’t want the DUP in government. A number of feminists and left-wing campaigners are writing to Tory MPs to urge them not to do a deal with the DUP.

I can understand why people might do this, but it isn’t something I’ll be joining in.

I accept that the DUP are even worse than the Tories when it comes to human rights – particularly LGBT rights and women’s rights. On economic issues, however, they are slightly less right-wing than the Tories. For example, they oppose the bedroom tax and want to maintain the triple lock on pensions.

This doesn’t for a moment excuse the homophobia, sexism and climate change denial. But it does make me wonder why so many on the left think that the Tories taken alone are any better than the Tories and the DUP added together.

To write to Tories to ask them to reject the DUP seems to suggest that the Tories on their own are not too bad. There is an implication that Tory MP are basically reasonable, liberal-minded people who can be asked not to do deals with bigots. But while many Tory MPs may now support (some) LGBT rights and pay lip-service to environmental issues, this does not make them better than the DUP. Their welfare cuts have literally killed people over the last seven years. Their arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia have added to the blood in which the hands of Tory MPs are so liberally covered.

Of course I would rather have a minority Tory government than a majority Tory-DUP one. A minority government will be easier to defeat. And I would rather see both the Tories and the DUP divided: I don’t want people who are attacking the rights and welfare of millions to be strong or stable.

I fear that those who see the Tories as preferable to the DUP may be influenced by assumptions that religious bigots must be worse than liberal-sounding millionaires or that Northern Ireland must be more extreme than England. Neither of these are helpful or accurate assumptions for people on the left to be making, whether consciously or otherwise.

I do not suggest that Tories are all the same, nor will I waste my energy on personal hatred for Conservatives as people. I instead suggest that we need to continue resisting the Conservative Party as an institution that functions to promote the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us – however liberal some of them may sound when standing next to Democratic Unionists.

Churches should be challenging the Tories at election time

Churches at election time are a sad sight.

Organisations that spend much of their time championing principles of compassion and seeking to serve local communities are suddenly afflicted by an apparent inability to speak when it comes to one of the most important decisions that people around them have to make.

The attitudes adopted by national denominational institutions are particularly disheartening.

Take for example the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT). It brings together the Baptist Union, Church of Scotland, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church to comment on political issues. They have produced some great statements over the last few years, challenging welfare cuts that increase poverty and calling for an end to the Trident nuclear weapons system. With an election coming up, you might think they would have something to say about how the choices with which we are faced relate to these issues.

In particular, they could point out that a vote for the Tories is a vote to continue with the very policies that they have been criticising. It is a vote for more poverty, more inequality and more war.

Instead, JPIT’s website declares that, “While we all have political opinions, when the Church gets too involved or too close, it begins to lose the detachment that we need to discern God’s will… Election campaigns make this ever more sensitive.  Notwithstanding the fact that as registered charities the churches must abide by statutory guidance on impartiality, lobbying and campaigning, it is far more important that the Church sees itself not as any other kind of organisation weighing in on its priorities for manifestos or commitments from future MPs.”

This is odd, because JPIT and its member churches frequently speak up for their priorities and call for particular commitments from MPs the rest of the time. Laws that bar charities and churches from expressing preferences should be challenged, not quietly submitted to.

I make these comments about JPIT not because I do not support JPIT but precisely because I value them so highly. This makes it all the more disappointing.

This of course is before I even get on to the Church of England archbishops’ letter, which echoed Tory slogans about “stability” (this has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here).

And up and down the UK, there are local churches cautiously saying very little at a time when their words and actions could have a considerable impact.

Thankfully, there are some variations. A friend of mine who is a Methodist minister said in a sermon that he thought that support for the Conservative Party was incompatible with following the Gospel. He was criticised by several members of his congregation. Some of them disagreed with him; I’m glad they felt able to say so and it’s quite right that they challenged him. Far more worryingly, however, some of them agreed with what he said but thought he should not have said it. This is bizarre and dangerous: suggesting that Christians should hide their deeply held principles as they relate to vital events going on in the world around them.

I am not suggesting that clergy and churches should tell their members who to vote for. Members of churches should think through everything they hear for themselves, including everything preached from the pulpit. Churches in which people are discouraged from disagreeing with preachers are not healthy places.  This does not mean that clergy and other preachers should refrain from addressing difficult and controversial issues, including choices about voting.

Of course churches should not declare that all Christians should vote the same way. Nor should they refuse to engage in dialogue with those who disagree. This should not stop churches from declaring opposition to Tory government and calling on people to vote to remove it.

Of course some Christians will disagree (I’m not saying that they’re not Christians, but simply that I think they’re mistaken). Of course, unjust laws could be used against us; they should be resisted and challenged. Of course we would be misrepresented; Christians are used to that. None of these are reasons not to do it.

Jesus sided with the poor and marginalised. That is a fundamental aspect of the Gospel. There is no Gospel without that reality. The Conservative Party has spent two centuries promoting the interests of the super-rich. That what’s it’s for. These things are not compatible. Let’s say so.

 

 

 

On The Big Questions: Church buildings and drones

I’m pleased to report that I’ll be on The Big Questions on BBC1 at 10.00am tomorrow (Sunday 12th March).

They have three debates per episode. I’ve been asked on to talk about church buildings (in the light of the potential closure of Guildford Cathedral). However, they’ve also asked me to join in on another topic: the ethics of drones.

My main job now is working for the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), a pacifist network that includes people of many religions and none. Tomorrow, I’ll largely be speaking in a personal capacity, particularly when it comes to church buildings. Of course the topic of drones is very relevant to my work at the PPU (although I’m coming from a Christian pacifist position, the PPU includes many other sorts of pacifists as well).

I’ll be back here in the next few days with some thoughts about the programme. If you want to tweet while watching it, I believe the hashtag is #BBCbq. You can link to me on Twitter at @SymonHill or the PPU at @PPUtoday. Your comments on the issues are also welcome below. Thanks!

 

 

Sexuality and the church: Let’s stop listening to bishops

I’m disappointed but not remotely surprised that the Church of England bishops’ latest two-year consultation process on sexuality (which followed their previous two-year consultation process on sexuality) has resulted in a recommendation to keep things exactly the same, except for some very small changes that will be kept as slight as possible so that nobody will notice.
The report’s feeble attempt at talking of welcoming LGBT+ people is revealed for what it is in the use of the phrase “gay and lesbian” to mean people attracted to people of their own gender. Once again, the existence of bisexuals is forgotten. Not that it’s much better for gay and lesbian people.
I don’t want any more consultation processes on sexuality from the Church of England. I won’t support them, co-operate with them or be part of the consultation. While we wait for yet more phoney consultation, yet more LGBT+ people will be denied an equal place in the body of Christ. More people will lose faith, give up, hate themselves or kill themselves. And the Gospel of Christ’s love will be denied and law will be promoted over grace.
Some of the bishops will talk about how painful it was to reach these conclusions, how they wrestled with their decisions and how hard it is to have to deal with competing expectations. I’m sure there’s some truth in this, but after so many pointless processes and delaying tactics, my patience with these sort of comments is rapidly deteriorating. I’ve nothing against the bishops, I just don’t think we should allow them the authority to make decisions like this.
We don’t need church leaders to tell us what we may and may not do when we worship God. We don’t need them to tell us how far we can follow the Spirit’s leadings or how we should read and interpret the Bible. We can do these things ourselves, with support from each other and with guidance from the Holy Spirit. Of course we get it wrong, we will often get it wrong, but there’s no reason to believe that church leaders committed to hierachy and homophobia will be more likely to get it right.
Let’s get on with it.