Why Christians were right to challenge a nuclear deterrent service at Westminster Abbey

HMS Vanguard is one of four Royal Navy submarines armed with the UK's Trident nuclear weapons system.LA(Phot) Stu Hill/MOD

Last week Westminster Abbey hosted "A Service to Recognise Fifty Years Of Continuous At Sea Deterrent"; that is 50 years of continuous patrolling submarines armed with nuclear weapons. The Abbey website states that it was, "A service to recognise the commitment of the Royal Navy to effective peace–keeping through the deterrent over the past fifty years and to pray for peace throughout the world."

Praying for peace is laudable, even essential, and recognising the commitment and effort of the Royal Navy to safeguarding peace for both British citizens at home, and the wider world, is to be welcomed. But the key three words are, "through the deterrent." It is not the skill and commitment of sailors that is being recognised, nor is this an outpouring of thanks that, despite the fallen, broken nature of humanity and all the evil in the world, we have not yet succeeded in wiping ourselves out with ingenious weapons of our own devising.

What was being celebrated was rather that for 50 years we have retained the capacity to use those same weapons, and been constantly ready to use them. That seems a very different moral category and a peculiar fit for a Christian ceremony. Having to confront the reality that various nations are at constant readiness to start a nuclear war ought really to fill us with existential dread, rather than thankfulness.

Last year's General Synod stated that, "nuclear weapons, through their indiscriminate and destructive potential, present a distinct category of weaponry that requires Christians to work tirelessly for their elimination across the world."

Other churches have been even clearer in their condemnation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, teaches that, "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons – to commit such crimes... This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. The arms race does not ensure peace."

This is the crux of the matter; can a church recognise the moral good of the nuclear deterrent? Can the ability to sit on a form of mechanized death capable of indiscriminately wiping out vast numbers of non–combatants, even in the event of all–out war, to destroy all life on earth, possibly be considered acceptable by Christians? The answer, it seems to me, must be no.

A deterrent is only a deterrent if both you and your enemy believe that you really will push the button. Our deterrent is our advertisement that we would be prepared under some circumstances to perpetuate mass murder on a scale impossible to contemplate. Words like "last resort" are meaningless. You are either prepared to accept that you would use these weapons, or you are not. If you are not then it is no deterrent, just an accident waiting to happen, and a weapon you pass to someone who may be less scrupulous in the future.

Since I am able to write this, and you are able to read it, and neither of us is a cinder blown about in the aftermath of a nuclear winter, we can be immeasurably thankful that no one has used their nuclear weapons (other than the Americans, twice, in what ought by any reasonable assessment of things to be considered a war crime). We can be thankful for that, in the same sense that I suppose I should be thankful that I have made it through any given day without being stabbed, assaulted or otherwise abused through no fault of my own. That is not the same thing as being thankful for my country having the ability to commit abuses on others.

I can appreciate the difficulty this all presents for an Established Church which does not want to be at odds with the Royal Navy, or indeed the government since the Minister of Defence is expected to be present. Equally, it seems to me there is little point in being an Established Church if you can't stand your ground on matters of essential faith and morality. If you can't even tell the state that you won't celebrate nuclear weapons, what chance is there to be an authentic moral voice elsewhere?

Ben Ryan is head of research at Theos where you can read the original article