We cannot celebrate weapons of mass destruction. But we do owe a debt of gratitude and sincere thanks to all those countless men and women who in the past fifty years have maintained the deterrent, and indeed to their families who have stood by them.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 3rd May 2019 at 12.00 PM
Some years ago, perhaps nearer twenty than fifteen, I was at a conference in Tokyo at a university founded by the Episcopal Church in the 19th century, Rikkyo University, now large, diverse and successful.
Several Japanese Anglican bishops joined us for the conference. One of them spoke about his own experience during the Second World War. He had been a teenager on 6th August 1945 at the time when the Hiroshima atomic bomb landed. He was some distance, perhaps a mile, away when he saw the great mushroom cloud through a glass window that protected him. Naturally he had never forgotten the experience, which transformed not only his life, but the life of the people of Japan.
The bomb had a 60 kg or 130 pounds core of uranium-235 and exploded about 600 metres or 2,000 feet above the city with a blast equivalent to 13 kilotons of TNT. An estimated 80,000 civilians died from the immediate effects of the blast. Later estimates added at least a further 60,000 people who died from the effects of the radiation poisoning.
Three days later, on 9th August, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Approximately 40 percent of Nagasaki was destroyed. With a population of 270,000, approximately 40,000 people died immediately and another 30,000 by the end of the year.
Japan surrendered on 15th August and the Second World War came to an end. Today we remember with thanksgiving our friendly relations with the people of Japan, and we pray for the health and welfare of the new Emperor. How different things were then.
How different things are now. Nine countries are said to have nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and, perhaps, North Korea. The United Kingdom is one of five countries, the others being the United States, China, Russia and France, formally recognised as a Nuclear Weapon State under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, negotiated in 1968, which aims to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Britain cut its operational warheads from 160 in 2010 to 120 in 2015, and the number of warheads on patrol from 48 to 40 in the same period. The UK has significantly fewer nuclear weapons than the US and Russia, perhaps only 1% of all nuclear weapons in the world, and has a minimum deterrent, though still the ability to inflict massive devastation. Each missile can fire at a variety of targets with a range of 7,500 miles. Each warhead is believed to be eight times as powerful as the atomic bomb which killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima in 1945.
This is of course a terrifying force and inevitably prompts the question whether we need such a force. Three years ago, Members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly for renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent by a majority of 355 votes. But political judgements do not inevitably answer the key moral questions.
Since we announced our intention to hold this service, I have received very many personal letters, and our communications team a very large number of emails, telling us that the General Synod, the governing council of the Church of England, had voted against nuclear weapons. Moreover, they said, the message of Jesus was about peace, not violence. They asked us repeatedly to abandon this service. Clearly we have not done so, and are proud to be holding it here in the Abbey.
The General Synod of the Church of England did indeed have a debate last year about nuclear weapons at the time of the centenary of the 1918 armistice. However, the Synod did not call for unilateral nuclear disarmament but asked Her Majesty’s Government to respond positively to the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which had not been signed by the UK, and to reiterate its obligations under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
As a Christian Church, as followers of Jesus Christ, we hear what Jesus has to say about peace. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ is one of the Beatitudes, a profoundly rich and important saying of Jesus. Jesus himself was arrested by the authorities, and mocked and whipped and crowned with thorns, before being made to carry his cross to the place called Golgotha, and there was crucified, and raised from the dead on the third day.
Jesus is quoted by St John as saying to his disciples that they will be scattered and that they will suffer, but he goes on, ‘I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.’ True peace is only to be found in Jesus Christ himself; the systems of this world do not of themselves make for peace, though we are obliged to work for peace as far as we possibly can. It is to that goal that our armed forces exist; indeed the only legitimate aim for any country’s military capability is securing peace.
Today, then, we perceive the importance of deterrence and the role of deterrence in international relations. Since 1945, there has been no use of nuclear weapons, as we understand them, in any great global conflict. There has been no absence of war, locally; some wars have been long-lasting and engendered terrible effects. But global war between the most powerful nations on earth has not happened. The threat of mutually assured destruction must surely have been a consideration.
It would be easy to forget that the two world wars of the 20th century were no more than twenty one years apart. Since 1945, there has certainly not been peace even in Europe and there has only been one year, 1968, when the United Kingdom’s armed forces have not been involved in active peace-keeping, but the great and most powerful nations in these past 74 years have avoided major conflict. And pray God there seems little likelihood, in view of the destructive power these nations control, of such conflict arising in the future.
The role played by those who have developed and maintained the support structures and those who have manned and maintained the boats and sustained the deterrence these past fifty years and more has been truly remarkable.
I have been asked repeatedly whether this service was intended to be a celebration of nuclear weapons or an act of thanksgiving for nuclear weapons. We cannot celebrate weapons of mass destruction. But we do owe a debt of gratitude and sincere thanks to all those countless men and women who in the past fifty years have maintained the deterrent, and indeed to their families who have stood by them. Those countless men and women have played their part in maintaining peace.
Blessed are the peacemakers, said our Lord Jesus Christ. The task of making peace belongs to us all, not just to the Governments and the armed forces of this world. May we commit ourselves to playing our part in making and securing a just and lasting peace for all people and for the whole world.
Listen to the Sermon (audio file on an external website)