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.

The bishops’ election letter is mild, not radical

The Church of England’s bishops have issued a letter giving advice to Christians about issues to take into account when casting their votes in May.

This fairly mild document has triggered condemnations from right-wing Christians and church-bashing Tories, with Conservative MP Conor Burns labelling it as “naive” (this from a man who believes that Tory economic policies can alleviate poverty). Nadine Dorries said the Church should have focused on talking about abortion, as if Christianity had nothing to say about poverty and violence, though she did make a good point about the Church’s own failings in regards to equality.

The right-wing press can be relied upon to react to the bishops’ letter with simulated shock. I can confidently predict that tomorrow’s Daily Mail will say that the bishops’ letter has caused “outrage”. The Mail, of course, will have ensured this by phoning up the likes of Conor Burns and asking them if they are outraged (they are).

There will also be comments from some quarters about keeping politics and religion separate, a concept that would have been bafflingly incomprehensible to anyone living before the eighteenth century, and most people since then. Politics is about the running of society, about wealth and power and how they affect our lives. Politics is about everyday life. Apolitical religion is impossible; if it were possible, it would be largely pointless.

It’s quite right that the Church of England should give advice about voting. As the bishops point out in their letter, “Religious belief, of its nature, addresses the whole of life, private and public”. The letter does not endorse or condemn any one party.

According to the Guardian, the bishops’ letter constitutes “a strongly worded attack on Britain’s political culture”. However, the sort of comments that appear in the letter are now commonplace outside of the Westminster bubble. The letter suggests that politicians are employing “sterile arguments” and that “our democracy is failing”. Such views can nowadays be read in mainstream newspaper columns, as well as in pubs and coffee-shops up and down the country. They are not radical.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to see the bishops joining in the criticisms of what passes for democracy in Britain. There is much in their letter for a progressively minded person to celebrate. It emphasises the importance of tackling poverty and social isolation, mentioning in-work poverty in particular. It condemns attempts to demonise unemployed people and other benefit recipients. I’m pleased that it raises doubts about the Trident nuclear weapons system, although it does not oppose it outright. It condemns attempts to “find scapegoats” in society. It calls for a “fresh moral vision” in politics.

Despite this, it is not the radically left-wing document that parts of the media are reporting it to be. The Mail and Express will hate it for what they perceive it to be, not for what it is.

The CofE letter is far more mild in its comments on Trident than the denounciations of Trident renewal produced by most other Christian churches. The bishops declare that the “traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining”. Their wording implicitly accepts the claim that nuclear weapons are primarily about deterrence. Further, it is a big leap from re-examining something to opposing it.

The arguments for Trident, and other nuclear weapons, have been examined, re-examined and re-re-examined many times over, by Christians and others, over the last few months as well as over several decades. We don’t just need to “re-examine” the arguments for Trident; we need to oppose them.

If the Church of England is inching towards a collective anti-Trident position, this is better than nothing. But if so, the CofE is only very slowly catching up with most other Christian denominations in Britain. Trident renewal is explicitly opposed by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Congregational Federation, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church of Wales, the Religious Society of Friends, the Union of Welsh Independents and the United Reformed Church (please let me know if I’ve missed any out). The Church of England has a lot of catching up to do.

The bishops’ letter states that “military intervention by states such as Britain is not always wrong”. While I can welcome the implication that it is usually wrong, I’m disappointed by the casual rejection of a firmly anti-war position. Let’s not forget that it was the Lambeth Conference – representing Anglican bishops from around the world – that in 1930 declared, “War, as a method of settling international disputes, is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Similarly, the Church of England’s welcome comments on tackling poverty are not accompanied by any critique of the neo-liberal capitalist system that fuels poverty (and, indeed, relies on it). The letter calls for a revival of the “Big Society” idea, now largely abandoned even by the government. As a phrase, it was always popular with right-of-centre Christians, but in practice it was only a euphemism for the effects of the cuts – leaving charities and faith groups to pick up the pieces as community services were slashed.

The reality of the CofE’s attitude to the general election was made clear by the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James. Asked whether people reading the letter could take its advice and still be led to vote Conservative or even UKIP, he replied, “I believe they could be.”

This is sad. The Church of England has condemned the British National Party, but they won’t condemn another far-right party, UKIP. Of course, UKIP looks respectable and middle class. It even has Church of England priests among its candidates.

There are also Christians in the Conservative Party. I don’t doubt their faith, but I question their judgement. As the CofE’s letter says, Christians should be concerned about poverty. Over the last three centuries, the Conservative Party has opposed every major measure designed to alleviate poverty, from old-age pensions in 1910 to the NHS in the 1940s and the national minimum wage in 1997. The Conservative Party is for the rich, in the same way that a potato peeler is for peeling potatoes and a bread knife is for slicing bread. You can try to use them for something else, but it doesn’t really work.

Politics, like religion, is messy, complicated and frightening. It also calls for courage and commitment. Jesus’ teachings will not tell us who (if anyone) to vote for, or lead us to the same conclusions as each other. But they can remind us that Jesus constantly and explicitly sided with the poor and marginalised, practised active nonviolence, challenged us all to change, promoted love and inclusivity over the idols of Mammon and violence and was arrested after taking direct action in a temple.

What would happen if church leaders called on Christians to adopt similar attitudes today? The Daily Mail really would be outraged.

A Christian protesting against anti-porn laws

In recent years, Britain has slowly begun to wake up to the reality of sexual abuse. The Jimmy Saville scandal triggered shocking revelations about abuse carried out by respected entertainers in the 1970s and 80s. Child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have been followed by increased reports of similar outrages in the Church of England. Only this week, it was revealed that the Scout Association had paid out thousands to settle legal cases brought by survivors of sexual abuse.

There is a very long way to go. Research by children’s rights charities suggests that child abuse is still rife. The conviction rate for rape is dreadfully low. A string of opinion polls suggests that significant percentages of people believe rape is less serious if the victim is drunk or has previously consented to sex and changed her mind.

Challenging and reducing sexual abuse should be an aim that unites people of many different political, religious and non-religious persuasions. Unfortunately, some seem to be more keen on restricting unusual sexual behaviour between consenting adults – including consenting adults in loving, faithful relationships.

The latest “anti-pornography” laws will do nothing to reduce sexual abuse. On the contrary, they will perpetuate inaccurate ideas about abuse while restricting civil liberties and demonising sexual minorities.

That is why I will join the protest against them outside Parliament at noon today (#pornprotest). I am sure I will not be the only Christian there.

I am not naïve about pornography. I have no doubt that the majoirty of pornography is exploitative, abusive and misogynistic. It contributes to the commercialisation of sexuality, which is also seen in the pressure to spend vast sums of money on weddings and the way the advertising industry promotes narrow types of romantic relationships for the sake of profit (though many who criticise pornography overlook these more respectable forms of commercialised sexuality).

Whether you regard pornography as inherently unethical depends to some extent on how you define “pornography”. Some years ago, like many other Christians, I simply dismissed anything described as “pornography” as immoral. I do so no longer. This is not because I’ve adopted some ultra-liberal approach to sexual ethics (something which I’m occasionally accused of), but because I see the hypocrisy behind mainstream attitudes to sexuality.

Conservative Christians sometimes accuse me of simply accepting the dominant values of British society. On the contrary, I oppose the hypocrisy of conventional sexual morality – which idolises narrow ideas of romance and condemns those that don’t fit into them, which tells people that love is what matters but pressurises them to spend thousands of pounds on weddings, which screams outrage at child abusers on street corners but ignores the abuse that takes place within apparently respectable homes. And which condemns sexual activities and relationship structures that look a bit odd – such as kink and polyamory – even when they involve love, honesty and meaningful consent.

The new anti-porn laws will restrict “kinky” porn in particular. Producing spanking, caning and face-sitting images, for example, is likely to be illegal – even if the producers of the image are the people participating in the sexual act it depicts. By targeting kink, the law is unlikely to damage big corporate pornographers. It will instead restrict “home-made” and specialist small-business porn, which is, of course, less likely to be exploitative in the first place (although I accept that some of it is). Any meaningful government attempt to prevent physical harm caused by such activities would surely involve consultation with people who practise kink, who tend to know most about the health and safety issues involved. This certainly does not seem to have happened in this case.

There are at least four good reasons for opposing the anti-pornography legislation.

Firstly, there is the importance of free expression. I am not absolutist about free speech. For example, I do not think people should be allowed to stand in the street and promote violence. But free speech should be restricted only when there is a very strong case that doing so will reduce or prevent violence or other forms of abuse. No such case can be made in regard to this legislation. Any unjustified restriction of free expression is an attack on the civil liberties of us all, regardless of our sexuality or beliefs.

Secondly, the proposed laws tend towards sexism and homophobia. Most of the activities they will restrict are more common amongst women and within same-sex relationships. Many of them are related to female domination (which can be practised in a playful way between people who nonetheless regard each other as equals).

Thirdly, the laws demonise sexual minorities by singling out certain sexual practices, even though taking place between consenting adults. Of course, some forms of kink can be abusive. Kink, at times, can be used as an excuse for abuse. Marriage can also be used as an excuse for abuse. It is dangerous and wrong to encourage the idea that conventional sexual relationships are all fine and unusual ones are immoral. Sexual abuse can be found within the most outwardly respectable marriages – as can love, mutuality and compassion. It is the values present in relationships that make them moral or immoral, not how they look on the outside. I am, of course, talking about relationships between consenting and honest adults. There is nothing healthy or ethical about sexual activity that is without consent, that involves children or is deceitful.

Fourthly, these laws may make it harder, not easier, to challenge sexual abuse. They confuse abuse with oddness, criminalising sexual activity because it is unconventional rather than because it causes harm. I am against these laws precisely because I want to tackle sexual abuse. To do so, society must place a much higher value on meaningful consent. Let’s celebrate healthy sexual expression between compassionate, consenting adults while striving to eliminate the vicious, outrageous abuse that still pervades the sexually hypocritical society in which we live.