An Open Letter to Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Archbishop Justin Welby,

I am writing to you following your intervention in the House of Lords in the debate about British Military Action in Iraq. Initially, when I heard you were attending the debate and going to speak, I was extremely pleased that this was one occasion when you had made an active choice to attend a chamber in which I know you are rarely present.

While I disagree with the existence of the House of Lords, at least, so I thought, here was an opportunity for a voice to speak the Christian message of peace and justice. Imagine then my profound disappointment when the only representative of the church to be given the opportunity to inform the debate chose to speak in favour of action which, as a committed Christian, I feel is abhorrent to the faith I follow and its founder, Jesus Christ.

When will we learn? Conflict is an interminable cycle downwards into the worst depths of the human condition; of which the most vulnerable victims are always innocent civilians and from which the only real winners are the arms industry and their friends in the finance sector. I mourn for an institution which calls itself church but which puts their interests ahead of the hope of a future of peace and justice.

Your claim that “ It is the role of the church I serve to point beyond our imperfect responses and any material, national or political interest, to the message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers.” is one with which I strongly agree. As church we are, both individually and collectively called to be prophets, holding up a vision of hope that speaks of another way being possible. But to hear it immediately followed by the words “ But in the here and now there is justification for the use of armed force” suggests that the early part of your speech was merely an empty formulation; when in reality you have chosen to ally yourself, and by virtue of your position, the Church of England, with the temporal powers of this world.

To my mind, as followers of the non-violent Christ, there is no situation, no justification which calls for us to raise weapons of war. This does not mean that I condone the activity of IS: of course I am in full agreement that their barbaric actions (along with those of other armed groups, both those we support and those we don’t) are causing a humanitarian crisis. I agree entirely that now is not a time for inaction, for closing our eyes and ears to the cries of the suffering. But I do fear for a world, and a church, which has come to believe that violent action and total inaction are the only two possible routes when faced with a difficult choice.

For me it is part of the very essence of the Gospel, and not an optional extra, that, in the face of the violent oppression of a regime which victimised the innocent, the route chosen by Jesus was neither violent action, nor passive inaction. It is a route that many in the church are still courageously trying to walk, but which your words suggest may have been institutionally forgotten. It is the route of non-violent, creative resistance, the route of sharing a hope of peace and justice, the route of making visible the pain not to exacerbate it further but to explore and understand and heal it. It is, I believe, the route along which Jesus invites us to follow him.

When Jesus told his disciples in Gethsemane to ‘put down their swords’, swords which they had raised in good faith to protect the innocent and prevent a worse act of violence, I do not believe it was a one off commandment for a given historical moment. I believe it was a commandment he whispers to our hearts repeatedly through the ages: ‘when you hear the battle call, when you see the weapons of war being raised, however good the justification might sound, you my followers, put down your swords’.

My personal church history is a varied one, and these days I hold my denominational identity very loosely, but it was the Anglican tradition which formed my early faith and into which I was both baptised and confirmed. I still hold those roots as a part, though not the whole, of my Christian identity. That said, out of all the churches with which I identify, the Church of England is increasingly the one I struggle with most. I have long been concerned about the church’s choice to associate itself both with military might and financial power; which make words spoken on behalf of the poor look all too often like hollow insincerity. It’s vast wealth and its choice of unethical investment practices, it’s support of a political system where being born into privilege is considered acceptable, and its continued support for acts of state violence, to me are all contrary to the Gospel.

Your words in Friday’s debate did nothing to allay my fears that the Church of England has become corrupted by such associations; and that those members of it who continue to share the Gospel, of whom I know there are very many, do so almost in spite of, rather than because of, the church. My condemnation of your position is paralleled by my admiration of those who continue to  courageously witness to the hope of peace in the name of the church.

I look forward to hearing your response about what drove you to speak as you did and how you are able to understand the Gospel so differently to my reading of it.

You remain in my prayers.

Yours Sincerely

Stephanie Neville

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One thought on “An Open Letter to Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

  1. Tim Weller says:

    Excellent letter, Stephanie that I fully agree with.

    For me, vapourising mainly Muslims, largely civilians since the 7 October 2001, in horrific fire and flame from our safe, secure, aircraft cockpits or missile launchers or from our computers operating drones, is far more reprehensible than one-to-one beheadings of a handful of ‘Christian’, Western journalists and aid workers. And, their deaths it seems, came from the reactivation of our attacks on the Muslim military in Iraq. This time, known as Islamic State.

    Since we have our democratic, capitalist ‘Judeo-Christian’ states, even in the very heart of the Arab Middle East, is it really so surprising that some fundamentalist Muslims want their own Islamic state on what they strongly believe to be holy, Muslim soil for only Muslims to tread? We even have much difficulty in letting them have two or three Muslim schools in Birmingham!

    There seems to be almost total incomprehension of the Muslim point of view, as well as abject ignorance of the non-violent Christ of the Gospels, whom many of us in the wicked West claim to follow!

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