by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
In its almost fifty year history, there have been just a tiny number of occasions when the General Synod of the Church of England has been able to host the debate that the rest of society, including the political establishment, has been failing to have. Faith in the City is perhaps the best remembered example, when a well written and deeply researched report challenged both church and society to respond to the increasing impoverishment of both our inner cities and our outer estates. From that same era, with the Cold War between East and West still raging, and MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, as the basis for our defence policies, came a report entitled “The Church and the Bomb”. Both were highly controversial at the time, the Church being accused of meddling in politics by those who disagreed with the thrust of the reports, yet their fates were almost complete opposites. Faith in the City helped inspire a generation of responses to poverty, by both church organisations and wider society. By contrast, almost any attempt during the intervening decades to even discuss nuclear weapons has been at best ignored. So I’m delighted that space has been set aside next weekend for a serious Synod debate about this long neglected, but vitally important, topic.
I’m a pragmatist at heart. If, on the balance of the evidence, our possession of nuclear weapons makes the risk of war much lower, and markedly reduces the likelihood that others will use such similar armaments as they possess, then I would consider them both moral to possess and a justifiable expenditure of the large amounts of the money we pay in our taxes for them. Given the risks such weapons present, and their huge cost at a time when money is short for many important other causes, I would have expected the arguments to be set out with similar seriousness and frequency to that with which we determine and revise our national position on matters from health and education to who runs our trains. Yet the silence has been deafening.
In fact it has been more than just silence. When the House of Bishops suggested, in the midst of a Pastoral Letter ahead of the 2015 General Election, that parties should debate their stance on Britain’s possession of nuclear arms, the response of many in the media and political world seemed to be that anyone doing so must be both a confirmed abolitionist and deeply unpatriotic. It was a reaction that first shocked me, and then convinced me that the need for a proper, informed debate was more urgent than ever.
Moreover, I was left with a feeling that perhaps the reason why nuclear weapons are not debated in public is because their justification is not actually about the defence of the realm at all, but something more visceral and far less worthy. In a Britain that has now long lost its Empire, and which struggles to keep up with the pace of development and growth in much of the rest of the world, do we cling to our bomb as some kind of status symbol; that in possession of this horrific armament, if in nothing else, we remain high in the Premier League?
So I’m looking forward to a reasoned and well argued Synod debate. One where the best of arguments around the role of nuclear weapons in both the world and in Britain’s armoury will be deployed and tested. One where the Church of England can show that, irrespective of the particular views of individual members on the subject, we are all passionate about the wellbeing of our country and its role for good in the world. Which is, after all, what true patriotism is about.