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The Future of Trident - General Synod Debate February 2007

Monday 26th February 2007

At its February 2007 meeting, the General Synod of the Church of England debated a paper on the future of the Trident nuclear weapons system. The Archbishop's contribution to that debate, supporting the motion and arguing against the moral acceptability of nuclear weapons, is as follows.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Modern warfare is generally recognised as a morally shadowy business. Since the development especially of aerial warfare techniques, most of the traditional contents of just war theory have seemed rather out of date, in that indiscriminate slaughter has become so normal in the processes of modern warfare. And that's why most Christians in the modern period have at least felt some unease about warfare; and unease not wholly shared by many of their preceding generations. That unease has been allayed in various ways by appeals to lesser evils and so forth, but those appeals have stopped short of certain categories of technique in warfare.

Whatever the extremity of the situation, we have on the whole continued to say and the community of nations has continued to say that there are certain kinds of weapon that are simply inadmissible, morally, in international conflict - and they have included chemical and biological weaponry, they have rather late in the day come to include landmines - that is there is a category of weapons whose use and effect is so intrinsically indiscriminate that it becomes impossible to mount the case for their proportionate use. The moral question is whether nuclear weapons fall within that category; a category of weapons that are never morally permissible because they are intrinsically indiscriminate, and as we've just been reminded, one of the facts about nuclear weaponry is its incalculable environmental effect as well as its destructive scope. It is for these reasons, presumably, that the government in the white paper speaks of the 'uniquely terrible character' of nuclear weaponry and that is of course a large part of its deterrent credibility.

But if we as a Christian body do want, as I believe we should, to locate nuclear weaponry within that category of intrinsically indiscriminate and therefore inadmissible styles of weaponry, then I don't think that the deterrent argument ought to outweigh that consideration.

Now there are, as a matter of fact, a great many bits of argument to be conducted about the deterrent effect of what's now proposed in the renewal of Trident. But I do want to bring us back to the fundamental moral question, the only issue on which a Synod like this can dare to have an opinion that has any kind of force. We may argue about the economics and we may argue about the tactics, we may argue about the strategy, but the question is 'what is our view of the fundamental nature of these weapons?'

One of the dilemmas, of course, that we face in the current debate is a dilemma outlined quite elegantly by Sir Michael Quinlan. Is it not the case that if the church continues to take this absolutist approach to nuclear weaponry it will, so to speak, weaken the chances of an acceptable version of the nuclear deterrent being developed? In other words, if we talk all the time in these rather Manichaean terms of the absolute evil of nuclear weapons, doesn't it simply stop them being thought through, controlled and modified and so forth in an acceptable direction?

I would only be able to accept that argument if I could see my way to believing that nuclear weaponry was capable of being so modified, but, as I have said already, so much depends on the assumption that it is uniquely terrible, and there's also the question which I think we need to reflect on very carefully, even given the possible modifications of strategic battlefield tactical nuclear weaponry; the question of the nuclear threshold. At the moment precisely because we recognise generally the uniquely terrible character of these weapons, the threshold of the use of any kind of nuclear weaponry is extremely high. Once that threshold is passed, I think we are in a new and very, very dangerous environment. And however friendly, however 'user friendly' we may want our nuclear weaponry to be, however much scaled down, modified and made acceptable, the threshold question I think still ought to worry us and worry us deeply.

In short, I don't believe that there is a case for the moral acceptability of nuclear weapons that I could, with integrity, accept. I know, however, that not everyone in this Synod, let alone everyone in the Government of this country would agree - you've probably noticed that. We can't expect that the Government will take all this for granted. And that is why we need, as a church, to deploy some of those other arguments as well, granting that what we may be working for is a 'less bad' rather than an ideal outcome, but I've chosen to speak just briefly like this about the fundamental moral question because mindful of one or two things that have already been said this afternoon, that's the only issue on which I think we can really, as a church, take a clear stand, and I believe we ought to.

So I would support this motion; like the previous speaker I'm slightly sorry that it wasn't rather stronger. I support it as a way of putting down a marker about the tactics of modern war; about that category of weapons that cannot be morally approved. I believe that the least a Christian body ought to do in these circumstances is to issue the strongest possible warnings and discouragements to our Government.

Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2007

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