Planning land warfare – in the Church of England’s HQ

Where will a group of generals and arms dealers gather tomorrow to discuss the future of land warfare? A military camp? The Ministry of Defence? An underground bunker? No, it’s the headquarters of the Church of England.

Church House Conference Centre is part of Church House, the building in Westminster that houses the administrative headquarters of the Church Commissioners, the Archbishops’ Council and other parts of the Church of England. The Conference Centre is a wholly owned subsidiary company of the Church House Corporation, whose president is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

This is sad news for many Anglicans, other Christians and other people of goodwill. The Christian Church is founded on Jesus, the Prince of Peace, whose life was a model of active nonviolent resistance to injustice. That’s why the Fellowship of Reconciliation have organised a silent vigil outside tomorrow’s conference.

The Land Warfare Conference is organised by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a military thinktank. It is sponsored by SAAB, an arms company. The speakers include top generals from the UK, US and elsewhere as well as NATO.

Topics for discussion include “Generating fighting power” and “Preparing for future operating environments”. Another topic is “honouring the equipment programme beyond sustainment to development of future capabilities”, which sounds incomprehensible, though I suspect it may be about pushing for high military spending.

Church House came under considerable criticism for hosting an arms dealers’ conference booked by RUSI in November 2012. People gathered to pray outside the event and hundreds more emailed to complain about it. I was invited to meet with a senior member of Church House staff, who defended the decision to host the event.

Despite all those discussions, they are doing it again. And this time it’s worse – because it’s happening twice. In addition to tomorrow’s event, there will be an Air Power Conference on 9th-10th July. That one will be sponsored by some of the world’s largest and most vicious arms dealers, including BAE Systems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Finmeccanica, all of whom sell weapons to dictatorships as a matter of course. Speakers include not only top air force officers but the head of exports at the Ministry of Defence.

Christians have a variety of views on warfare. I can respect Christians who believe that violence is sometimes justified, even though I disagree with them. But these conferences are not about dialogue or discussion on ethical issues. They are about planning international warfare, which by its nature involves the deaths of countless innocent people. Furthermore, arms companies would hardly be sponsoring these events if they did not think it was good for business. These are conferences that will help the arms trade.

The Church of England rightly rules out investments in companies that make more than ten percent of their money from arms. Several of its bishops – along with many of its clergy and other members – have spoken out strongly against certain forms of warfare, particularly nuclear weapons. Many have condemned the arms trade. Justin Welby and other bishops have rightly attacked many of the coalition government’s cuts to public services and social security, although they have not generally pointed out that cuts to military spending have been minor by comparison (the UK has the sixth highest military spending in the world).

No Christian church should be running a conference centre in an ethically neutral way that merely takes bookings from whoever comes along. To allow these bookings confers an appearance of moral legitimacy on them that they do not deserve. While churches understandably run businesses to fund their work, it is this work – the promotion of the Kingdom of God – that should be our focus. I lose that focus as often as any other Christian; we need constantly to be brought back to it.

Let’s remember Jesus’ teaching that “a bad tree cannot bear good fruit”. Or, as Gandhi put it, “the means are to the end as the seed is to the tree”. We cannot promote the Gospel with profits from arms companies. Let’s seek to be loyal to the Kingdom of God, not the idols of money and militarism.

I hope to see you at the silent vigil tomorrow, running from 8.00am until about 9.00am (if you can’t get there for 8.00, you’re still very welcome). Please feel free to bring banners and placards with messages about peace, faith, nonviolence and the arms trade (without any personally abusive messages of course – let’s love our enemies).

The vigil’s been organised by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (England). The vigil is listed on Facebook. Please invite your friends. If you can’t make it to Westminster in person, please keep the conference and the issue in your prayers and thoughts.

And let’s urge Church House to tell the militarists and death-dealers that they will need to find a new venue for the future.

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