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.”

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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.

Will anti-Trident churches now back direct action?

My abiding memory of today’s debate on Trident will be the sight of Labour MPs falling over each other to declare their enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, their support for the Tories’ policies and their opposition to their own leader.

Playground-style arguing saw at least one Tory MP suggesting that opponents of Trident need to “grow up”, as if a belief in using violence to resolve conflict were a sign of maturity. Meanwhile, Theresa May failed to answer one of the first hostile questions she has received from an MP since becoming Prime Minister (from Caroline Lucas) and stumbled through her answer when challenged by the SNP’s Angus Robertson about costs.

Today’s vote can hardly have been a surprise to anyone familiar with the childish antics and macho posturing that pass for democracy in the House of Commons. The question for opponents of Trident is: What do we now?

Last week, five major church denominations – the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the United Reformed Church – collectively urged MPs to reject nuclear weapons and vote against Trident renewal. This was excellent.

It will be even better if they will follow through on their principles and encourage peaceful struggles against Trident to continue by other means.

Parliament is only part of the process. We all share some responsibility for what our society does. Nobody has a right to prepare an act of mass murder. Today’s vote should make us determined to back nonviolent direct action for disarmament, whether in the case of nuclear weapons or others.

The churches’ voices would be stronger if they would vocally back nonviolent direct action, at least against Trident if not against militarism generally. Most of them maintain chaplains in the armed forces. What an impact it would make if they would declare that their chaplains will encourage troops to disobey orders if Trident is renewed.

While several Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops have, as individuals, criticised nuclear weapons, the Church of England as a whole has generally shied clear of lining up with other denominations to oppose it. Last year, however, a Church of England statement suggested that the arguments for Trident need “re-examining”.

I suppose this is progress of a sort. At least the Church of England is beginning tentatively to lean in the right direction. It’s also profoundly mistaken. The arguments do not need re-examining. They have been examined for years. We need to get beyond the call for debates and take up the all to action. Let’s get on with it.

The Church of England’s budget response reveals twisted priorities

Institutional churches can be pretty slow to respond to injustice, so I’m not surprised that some people were pleased to see that the Church of England issued a speedy response to George Osborne’s budget yesterday.

Did the CofE’s response challenge the cuts to disability benefits? Denounce the tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy? Demand more funding for public services and the protection of the welfare state?

No. It did none of these things. The Church of England’s press release began with the following words:

“The Church of England has welcomed warmly the announcement in the Chancellor’s Budget today of a £20 million fund for works to cathedrals.”

It continued along similar lines.

Thankfully, many Christians, including both clergy and lay people in the Church of England, have criticised the budget – the last in a long line of Osborne budgets to serve the rich at the expense of the rest. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been known in the past to criticise some of the cuts to the welfare state, although I believe he has yet to respond to the budget.

Nonetheless, it says a great deal about establishment that the first official response from the Church of England as a whole was to “warmly” welcome the crumbs that the Chancellor threw in their direction.

Some may say that this was a press release about the cathedrals repair fund rather than the budget as a whole. That, of course, is the problem. Why should this be considered the most important part of the budget for the Church to respond to? It is a trivial detail.

Nor should it be said that this announcement was more relevant to the Church than the other parts of the budget. It was not. Christians are called to follow Jesus, who led by example in showing solidarity with the poor and marginalised. He did not set up a charity for maintaining interesting old buildings.

Offended by the Lord’s Prayer? You should be!

There has been a minor media storm over the decision of certain cinema chains to withdraw a Church of England advertisement featuring the Lord’s Prayer.

Perhaps they were hoping to avoid controversy by avoiding religion. In reality, of course, religion is unavoidable and they have generated far more controversy than would have been the case if they had gone ahead with the advert.

The decision to refuse the advert is pretty ridiculous, but I’m sorry to see that many of its defenders have responded by insisting that the advert is not offensive. There are two issues that are being overlooked.

Firstly, there is an assumption that adverts generally are not offensive. Personally, I am offended by about ninety percent of adverts. Many of them promote values I don’t believe in, encourage consumerism, champion narrow gender stereotypes and tell me that my life will be better if I buy a load of wasteful junk. I’ve seen army recruitment adverts in cinemas, romanticising war and promoting an organisation rooted in violence and hierarchy.

If you do not share my values, these things may not offend you, but I’m sure some other adverts will. Almost anything that promotes a product or an idea will offend somebody. But I do not have a right not to be offended, and nor do you.

Secondly, the Lord’s Prayer is supposed to be offensive – at least to those who benefit from the status quo. One of its most important lines is, “Your kingdom come”. A prayer that the Kingdom of God will come is implicitly a prayer that the kingdoms and powers of this world will come to an end.

Theologians from Augustine onwards have made tortuous arguments for the idea that Christians can support both the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms they live in. But the Kingdom of God has inherently different values to the idols of money and military might that dominate our world. No-one can serve two masters.

Let’s have a look at the actual content of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is attributed in the New Testament to Jesus himself, although it’s likely that only parts of it were said by him and other parts were added by others.

It’s opening words are:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

This may sound fairly innocuous, but in Jesus’ time, the word “father” implied authority over others. Not only was a father seen as in some sense the “owner” of his wife and children, but the Roman Emperor was described as father of the empire. According to the New Testament, Jesus encouraged his followers to “call no-one ‘father’ on earth”. Titles that involve authority belong only to God. This was subversive of both family structures and the emperor.

The prayer continues:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our food for the day. Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us.”

God’s kingdom is an alternative to the kingdoms, nation-states and other powers that we live under. Jesus prayed that God’s will would be done. What does this mean in practice? The next line prays for us to be fed. If God’s will is done, everyone will have enough to eat. Jesus chose this as his first illustration of a world which follows the will of God.

This is followed by a prayer for the cancellation of debts. In some translations, the word is rendered “sins” or “trespasses”. It can refer both to literal financial debts, metaphorical debts and the guilt that comes with sin. It is pretty shocking to call for the cancellation of any or all of these things, and certainly contrary to the values that dominate our world, which insists that debts must be paid.

The prayer goes on:

“Save us form the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”

Speaking in a setting in which his followers expected persecution, Jesus prayed that God would save them from the trials and evils that they were likely to expect. He finished with a reminder that the power and glory lies in God’s hands, not anyone else’s (such as the rulers and persecutors of this world).

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the overthrow of all existing social conditions. Of course some people should find it offensive.

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My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published this week by Darton, Longman and Todd.

How the Church of England profits from the arms trade

Pope Francis last week attacked the “duplicity” of those who profit from the arms trade but “call themselves Christian”. Meanwhile, St Paul’s Cathedral in London has adopted a policy of refusing to host events sponsored by arms companies. Guildford Cathedral took up a similar policy some time ago, cancelling a booking at short notice when they realised that it was for an arms industry event.

It seems that none of this has made any impact on Church House, the administrative headquarters of the Church of England, which is next to Westminster Abbey. This week it will again host a conference sponsored by arms companies – and profit from their business.

The ‘Land Warfare Conference‘ will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday (30 June and 1 July). Its sponsors include Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s biggest arms companies. Lockheed arms one some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, including Bahrain and Egypt. The company makes Trident missiles for the US (and loaned by the UK government). Lockheed also provides the Israeli government with F-16 aircraft and Hellfire missiles, used in attacks on civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

For the last two and a half years, Church House has been dismissing objections to its arms industry conferences, despite protests from within the Church of England and beyond.

Their first line of defence was to claim that the Church House Conference Centre was separate from Church House. Along with other campaigners, I have looked into this claim in some detail. It turns out that the Conference Centre is a wholly owned subsidiary business of the Church House Corporation, whose directors include the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The separation is a legal technicality.

Church House are now trying to rely on the argument that the booking for the conference is not made by an arms company but by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a military thinktank. This is disingenuous. RUSI’s website makes clear that these conferences are sponsored by arms companies. Alongside Lockheed Martin, sponsors of this week’s event include MBDA Missile Systems (whose weapons were used on all sides in the Libyan civil war) and L3, owners of MPRI a “private military and security company” (or mercenaries, as they’re usually known).

Chris Palmer, secretary of the Church House Corporation recently claimed that:

“The conferences held at Church House by the Royal United Services Institute, an academic body respected throughout the world for its consideration and debate of defence and security issues, are perfectly legitimate and certainly do not breach any ethical stance taken by the Church of England.”

Whether or not RUSI is respected, it is certainly not unbiased. It lobbies for high military spending and promotes the arms industry. If you want to glimpse of the reality of RUSI, have a glance at the front page of the RUSI website, currently featuring a picture of them giving an award to the war criminal Henry Kissinger. Another picture features a celebration of the Duke of Wellington, who backed the use of troops to crush peaceful demonstrations.

But whatever we think of RUSI, Chris Palmer clearly finds it easier to focus on RUSI than on arms companies themselves. His comment deliberately ignores the fact that the conference is sponsored by arms dealers, whoever it is who made the booking.

In contrast, St Paul’s Cathedral has the wisdom to rule out “bookings, or sponsorship of bookings” from any company making more than ten percent of its money from the arms trade.

This is in line with the Church of England’s own ethical investment policy. The Church of England would not buy shares in Lockheed Martin, so why will it profit from it in other ways?

Chris Palmer said that the body that manages the Church’s investments has no connection to Church House and that therefore, “I cannot comment on its ethical stance”. He cannot, it seems, comment on why it has a higher ethical stance than Church House.

Chris Palmer’s comments were made in a letter to Richard Bickle, chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), who had written to him to raise objections to hosting arms dealers’ conferences. FoR is a long-standing Christian pacifist network. It is not only pacifists who object to these events at Church House. Others oppose them because they do not want to support companies that arm dictators and they do not want the Church to be making profit from the business of such companies.

As Christians, we do not hate arms dealers. We seek to love and forgive them. I for one know that I am just as sinful as an arms dealer, and that I need God’s forgiveness. I do not object to an arms dealer entering a church building. I would not have a problem with Church House hosting a debate on the arms trade (as long as it was not sponsored by arms companies), in which arms dealers were challenged and allowed to challenge others.

But this is not what is happening at Church House this week. This is about making money from the arms trade and giving it moral legitimacy.

FoR has been joined by groups including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Pax Christi and Christians for Economic Justice to call on Church House to adopt an ethical lettings policy and throw out the arms industry. Hundreds if not thousands of Christians, including Church of England clergy, have written to Church House to raise their objections.

Church House’s leadership, however, are not even engaging with the issues. As we can see from Chris Palmer’s quote above, they talk of the formal booking and ignore the issue of sponsorship. They have dismissed polite letters, ignored criticism in the media and refused to acknowledge that there is anything to talk about. Last year, security staff at Westminster Abbey tried to stop us from peacefully singing hymns as we held a vigil outside one of Church House’s arms dealers’ conferences. I cannot believe that everyone working for Church House shares these high-handed attitudes, but our polite appeals to reason are being met with rudeness and arrogance.

At 8am tomorrow (Tuesday 30 June), Christians and others will gather outside Church House for a nonviolent vigil and act of worship. A Church of England priest will lead us in Holy Communion. This is entirely appropriate. Communion is a memorial and a celebration of Jesus, who was tortured to death by the oppressive Roman Empire after his nonviolent activism. As a Christian, I have faith that Jesus rose again, heralding the eventual defeat of the unjust powers of this world.

Perhaps the Church House authorities expect our campaign to fade out, or to continue only as a minor irritant. If they do think this, they won’t be thinking it for long.

Low pay in church: I hate to say it, but the Sun’s right

It’s a rare day that I find myself agreeing with the Sun.

The Sun has run a front-page piece today about the fact that various parts of the Church of England are advertising jobs at below the recognised Living Wage. This is despite the CofE bishops backing the Living Wage in their pastoral letter last week, a letter attacked by the right-wing press for its (mildly) left-of-centre outlook.

Of course, some of us have been calling for years for churches to pay the living wage to all staff. On one level, when you’ve been campaigning on an issue for a long time, it’s frustrating to see it become headline news for the wrong reasons. I doubt that the Sun’s editors are motivated by a concern for church employees’ livelihoods. They want to discredit bishops who have criticised Tory policy. But the Sun’s hypocrisy does not make the Church’s hypocrisy OK.

Justin Welby is fairly media-savvy and has handled the controversy better than many church leaders could have done, although it’s remarkable that he does not seem to have seen it coming. He described the payment of low wages to church employees as “embarrassing”. He would be more convincing if he had described it as downright outrageous. Welby is right to point out that the Church of England is made up of various parts that are to a large degree independent and that he cannot force individual churches, cathedrals or dioceses to pay the Living Wage. However, Canterbury Diocese is one of those at fault. It would be good to see churches acknowledging their mistreatment of workers rather than getting defensive about it or making excuses.

I am not suggesting that all CofE workers are underpaid or mistreated. But some of them clearly are. Of course, this applies to other churches as well as the Church of England. Some may be good employers in some ways but fall down considerably in other areas. The Quakers pay the living wage, but this has not stopped the mistreatment of café workers in the Quaker headquarters who spoke out against the way things were run. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Salvation Army, who are colluding with one of austerity’s gravest injustice by running workfare schemes.

These organisations, like the Church of England, do a great deal of good work tackling poverty and speaking out against injustice. That’s what makes their treatment of some of their own workers so shocking and so sad.

Let’s not get distracted by the role of the Sun in today’s controversy. This is not about defending the church against the Sun. This is about defending the rights of low paid workers. However much we mock the Sun’s motivations, we can still take advantage of what they have done. This is an opportunity to push churches to pay decent wages and treat workers better. This is vital if churches are to provide any sort of prophetic witness on issues of economic justice – issues that are central to the Gospel.