Thursday, 22 November 2012

on 'unwinnable wars'

I suppose, on hearing the news of the Church of England General Synod rejecting (by a whisker) the ordination of women as bishops, that United Reformed Church members might be tempted to a bit of smugness. After all, the Congregational Church never had any rule that prohibited women's ordination, so when in Oxford in 1919 Constance Coltman asked whether she could be accepted for ordination the answer was "there's no reason why not". Women had been ordained in our sister churches in America several years before.

Of course the Congregational Church wasn't 'out in front', leading the way for women's rights. The struggle for women's emancipation was not led by the churches — we were only following on, and when emancipation finally came it seemed inappropriate not to recognise that society had moved on. For us it is of course now utterly uncontroversial. All my ministerial colleagues are women.

The missionary Paul was absolutely concerned that nothing should get in the way of the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus. His churches should not be the cause of any sort of 'scandal' that would distract from the real scandal of a crucified Messiah. In 1 Corinthians 9:19 we see him willing to adapt to all sorts of society rules ("When in Rome, do as the Romans do . .") in order to press home the central message.

Today, I believe that the Roman and Anglican churches' failure to recognise the authority of women is a real scandal that does immense harm to the Christian cause — in this country. But in Muslim countries where women's religious role is complete subservience, presumably it would be women ministers that would be a scandal in society. So it's tricky : who, actually, sets the agenda here? Does the Church weakly follow society's 'rules', or does it courageously set the trend? Paul's advice only gets us so far.

I think when it comes down to it, the Church just has to decide what ordination actually means, and what love requires. I am far from convinced that the United Reformed Church knows why it ordains Ministers at all. A recent paper agreed at the recent Wessex Synod requiring us to set up groups of churches (or team pastorates or whatever) seems to see no particular distinctive role for Ministers. We're a 'valuable resource' apparently, but we're not there for any particular reason. So smugness is not an appropriate reaction to the women bishops thing.

The other thing that the press haven't picked up is that the big difference between priests and bishops is that bishops ordain priests. Once you've ordained a woman bishop (I suppose the conservatives are thinking) there really is no going back. But there's no going back anyway — not when even the Archbishops of Canterbury make it abundantly clear that women's ordination is here to stay, even if it still has to be men that do the ordaining.

I find myself thinking that, for the conservative minority, this is an unwinnable 'war'. They must know that. This was really about getting the best terms of surrender, and they've managed to delay the inevitable for a bit longer to the great embarrassment of the vast majority. It's a testament to the grace and patience of that majority.

The other unwinnable war is Israel/Palestine. Those Hamas militants that launch rockets against Israel — surely they must know that they can never defeat Israel militarily? (Sadly, that's a rhetorical question — I'm sure they don't, since they've been pathetically hailing the ceasefire as a 'victory'). One of the key conditions of Just War theory is that the war has to be theoretically 'winnable' and this one isn't. Every rocket and every shell achieves absolutely nothing except further delay in what will ultimately have to be a political solution; and every civilian death only makes that solution harder to achieve. The futility of it all — on both sides — is depressing.

We are approaching Advent — that season when we look for true world leadership that will usher in peace with justice (and ask ourselves whether, when that leadership comes, we will be found 'fit for purpose'). We need real world leadership as never before. Will the example of the Messiah Jesus enable us to recognise it? Will it, when it comes, turn out to be the leadership of a woman?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

'Moral Maze' on drones

I always find 'Moral Maze' irritating. For all the supposed forensic analysis of issues, the combative style -- particularly of Melanie Phillips -- serves as often to obscure as clarify. Yesterday's was no exception.

Good points were made of course. I noted particularly the point that international 'rule of law' can only really deal with state-on-state conflict and not with "failed states" (however you define these) or terrorism. Pakistan may or may not be a 'failed state' but its harbouring of terrorists hugely increases the problem from a legal point of view. Then there's the concept of the 'combat zone'. Terrorists (who consider themselves to be conducting 'warfare', but are not 'states') make the whole world a 'combat zone', and drones (controlled by states that consider themselves at 'war' with terrorists) are a sadly inevitable development. That particular rot started with George Bush who talked about a 'war on terror', thereby blurring the distinction between 'war' and 'terrorism'.

What I find most chilling -- and noone on the Moral Maze dealt with this -- is the prospect of 'terrorists' or 'failed states' using drones against their enemies. The military speaker, though he didn't say it directly, implied that it's only a matter of time.

Once terrorist organisations no longer need to recruit suicide bombers to launch attacks on key UK institutions but can bomb, say, the Houses of Parliament from a bunker in Afghanistan will the increased opportunity for 'proportionality' in strikes resulting from the new technology enhance our sense of national security? Why blow up shopping malls when you can hit the politicians directly? (An appropriate thought as we approach November 5th . . .)

Maybe the moral thinking would have been made clearer if the participants had assumed that we in the UK would be on the receiving end of drone strikes. Maybe Melanie Phillips might have thought more carefully if she had considered the possibility of Palestininan rocket strikes on Israel becoming targeted drone strikes on the Knesset from some bunker somewhere in the world (and probably not in Gaza).

a letter to Campaign Against the Arms Trade

I wasn't much impressed with a couple of pages in CAAT's recent magazine aimed at university students. Maybe it was written by a younger writer who hasn't quite worked out that most manufacturing products used by the military also have civilian uses. There are relatively few products -- e.g. munitions, attack vehicles -- that only have military applications. Letter as follows (it has been acknowledged, and I will post the reply) :

Greetings. I have been a CAAT supporter for many years. Between 1985 and 1995 I was an industrial chaplain at Rolls Royce in Coventry. I should add that neither I nor the chaplaincy received any gifts or funding from the company. It was clearly understood that my visits implied no support necessarily for anything the company or its trade unions did. I always wore my CND badge on site.

It does not help CAAT's case to present Rolls Royce crudely as a military manufacturer. Rolls Royce produces gas turbines, which are not weapons.

I simply can't make sense of your sentence which reads "non-military research demonstrates the capacity of Rolls Royce to pursue technologies with civilian applications". As far as I'm aware, all their technologies have civilian applications - or military (depending on the end user). To refer to the £5m investment in research at the University of Nottingham as 'military funds' is pretty meaningless unless you can prove that every one of the research projects funded had a narrowly specific military application. Frankly, I don't believe you can, and if I'm right then the article is simply untrue, or at best misleading.

Of course gas turbines can power warplanes. But they also power civil aircraft, ships, electricity generating plants. It's true the easy money is in defence contracts, but the product is not intrinsically military.

Don't get me wrong : most of Rolls Royce's employees have no qualms about producing turbines for military use. Many are very proud of the company's contribution to the war effort during the second world war (the Merlin engine in particular). Certainly when I was visiting there was a cosy relationship with the armed forces at senior level.

A greater problem perhaps is that their only product is a fossil fuel burner. As a very active Green Party member that is a concern to me - but even there the company's research is producing more and more fuel efficient turbines. Shortly before I moved on from Coventry Rolls Royce was developing small gas turbines for use in combined heat and power plants. I have lost contact since and don't know what happened to that project, but of course a product needs a market . . . the market for their sort of product is heavily shaped by international governments' policies.

UK governments have done a magnificent job since 1980 of exporting our manufacturing industry overseas. We are very fortunate to have retained Rolls Royce in Britain, offering first class apprenticeships and top quality research. Their viability is probably key to the survival of high end engineering in this country. I would imagine that this is well known by any engineering graduate, who is likely to treat your article with some disdain.

The articles on pages 14 and 15 actually state "Even research that has civilian applications helps arms companies succeed and thrive". This is an extremist position that I do not recall seeing in CAAT publications before. I spent several years working for diversification of the military industry with a group of campaigners and researchers in Coventry. A statement such as this is tantamount to saying "simply shut down any company that sells anything to the military". If this truly reflects CAAT's position then either I have misunderstood the campaign all these years or something has changed, and the time will have come for me to resign my membership. I'm more interested in campaigns that may actually achieve something.