[From our London correspondent] Standing in the Rain for Jesus
The Profligate Grace team is delighted to bring you this report from our London correspondent, Angela, and her friends in the Christian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Christianity Uncut. Read on for an improbable (but true) account of their act of witness outside the recent Leadership Conference sponsored by a very, very prominent evangelical Anglican parish.
Christian CND first heard that Holy Trinity Brompton Church was hosting the CEO of Serco at their Leadership Conference via Twitter. Serco is part of a consortium that manage and run the day to day operations of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. It was one of three companies to sign a contract with the UK government to run the nuclear project for 25 years from the year 2000. That Serco have a huge stake in seeing Trident (the UK’s nuclear weapon’s project) renewed is not in doubt. At first, Christian CND assumed that Holy Trinity Brompton had not realised that Serco managed the UK’s nuclear weapons. Many people in the UK would more typically associate Serco with immigration removal centres, prisons and prison transport. However, we were alarmed to discover that the HTB Leadership Conference website stated “[Serco] take care of the nuclear arsenal for Britain”. Upon realising that the church was in full knowledge of this information about Serco, we watched Chris Hyman’s profile video.During the video, Mr Hyman asserted, “ultimately…the most challenging job we have is giving hope to people and to making sure business is done the right way”. We failed to understand how nuclear weapons “give hope”. Indeed, Christian CND were pleased to observe that in 2007 the Church of England passed a resolution at General Synod stating “the proposed upgrading of Trident is contrary to the spirit of the United Kingdom’s obligations in international law and the ethical principles underpinning them.”. As a company, Serco have previously been found to act in ways that might be described as morally dubious. (Check out Christmas Island detention Centre for some of their more luxurious accommodation.)
On Monday evening, we alerted our friends at Christianity Uncut to Serco’s presence and they noticed that Benjamin Grizzle and Brian Griffiths from Goldman Sachs were also attending. Christianity Uncut members were concerned about the company records of both Serco and Goldman Sachs. We sent out a few Tweets to the HTB Leadership Conference to ask why they chose the CEO of Serco as representative of a good leader, but did not receive a response on Twitter. A member of Christianity Uncut called the Press Office on Tuesday, but they had no clear answer. Monday night and Tuesday were spent working with Christianity Uncut and Christian CND activists across the country to plan an Act of Witness. We prayed, shared news on Facebook, Tweeted, phoned, wrote articles and letters, drew up a press release, blogged and printed leaflets. We rapidly collected banners, bed sheets, palm crosses, biscuit tins, spray paint and the paraphernalia that crazy Jesus people tend to gather underneath their beds. Some of us had spent the weekend at Climate camp or Aldermaston Women’s Peace camp and we are all trying to earn a living. One of us fell asleep in the middle of a Skype call. We prayed that we wouldn’t miss our trains and that we’d be able to escape our respective workplaces and that the printer wouldn’t break down. God is good.
At about 6pm on Tuesday evening, Emma found herself crouched over a biscuit tin in a more prestigious location in Chelsea burning palm crosses outside a multi-million pound house whilst a bemused neighbour looked on from his Porsche. Siobhán stood on hand to extinguish any resulting fire with a bottle of peach squash.
Emma and Siobhán were joined outside Holy Trinity Brompton by Patricia and Angela. The four of us spent the evening walking the tightrope of grace between objecting to the uncritical invitation of Serco/Goldman Sachs to a Christian leadership conference and acknowledging our fellowship with our Christian sisters and brothers. It ranks as one of the most peculiar evenings some of us have ever spent.
We were welcomed by a pleasant smiley church leader, who advised us that we couldn’t put up our banner under the HTB church board because it was private property. (We had sprayed our banner to read “Would Jesus Lead Serco? Serco = Nuclear weapons,” although the rain and our graphic design skills did not render the banner hugely legible.) Angela told him we didn’t all entirely believe in private property, but the smiley church leader said that he did, so we agreed to hold the banner. After that, we were offered the famous HTB hospitality in the form of food. When we observed that we were veggie, he brought us veggie food and water and apples. The first thing that occurred to Angela, on being offered food, was to decline on the basis that we shouldn’t accept food that might have been sacrificed to the idol of neoliberalism. But we were hungry and it was cold and Christians oughtn’t to turn down the hospitality of others, so we ate well. Patricia reassured the smiley church leader that we were not condemning any individuals, but hoping that people would ask themselves questions about the role of the companies that the individuals worked for.
After the food, the evening went in a strange direction. We were told innumerable times that we’d find our objections to nuclear weapons answered if we undertook the Alpha course. Several people walked up to our banner and said “he probably would” (Jesus, lead SERCO, that is). Many people expressed a greater concern about our getting wet than appeared to want to engage to talk about the acceptability of managing a nuclear weapons factory or being a CEO of a company that speculates on food prices. We sang a lot of songs. We handed leaflets to the conference goers and told them we loved Jesus, just like they did. Several people asked who/what SERCO is. Some people avoided us and walked around the other side of the footpath. We refrained from singing “Would you walk by on the other side?”.
Many people stopped and wanted to chat. The response was certainly an improvement on the interaction at peace camps in which people usually shout “Get a f*****g job” from noon to night. We saw a lot of exceedingly expensive cars drive in and out of the car park. Siobhán told a man that we weren’t protesting, but disagreeing with the presence of certain leaders at the conference. The man said “enjoy your protest”! We sang “She’s got the whole world in Her hands”. We didn’t do any lamenting because our conversations were going quite well and Patricia wondered whether people might be confused by us wearing ash (people from HTB appeared quite easily confused). Some people assumed that we might be objecting to the nearby rack of Boris bikes which happen, entirely coincidentally, to be another service run by Serco. We tried to alleviate people’s confusion. We told people that the speaker from the day before was the CEO of Serco. People still looked confused.
Quite early on, a man invited us to join in their worship inside the church. It was tempting. We wondered whether they’d let us pray intercessory prayers that went something like “Lord, we thank you for all of these people at the conference. We pray that the CEOs from Serco and Goldman Sachs might repent…”. We decided it wasn’t such a good idea. At one point, a homeless man showed up and proceeded to tell everyone that nuclear weapons didn’t exist, but that we were likely to receive a nuclear attack from North Korea. A man from the conference tried to give Angela a Union Jack umbrella and said that it was good that we all lived in a democracy and could express our different views.
Some more people asked what Serco is. Siobhán had a good conversation with a woman who wanted to know more. They exchanged email addresses. We sang “She’s got the whole world in Her hands”. A man told us that it was good that the west had obtained nuclear weapons before the Nazis had developed them. A different man emerged to say that he used to be in the US Navy and that a case could be made for nuclear weapons. He added that he he would support working towards a world in which nobody had any. Angela said we could agree with him on that. A woman told Siobhán and Emma that until today, she’d had a problem with Catholics, but today she had heard a Catholic speak and now didn’t have a problem with them any more. Another woman thought that everything at the conference was just so fantastic, and said she wasn’t worried about the presence of the companies we were worried about.
At a later point, Emma was mansplained by a male conference attendee who had worked in the sugar industry. He implied that Nicky Gumbel would support nuclear weapons because he came from a Jewish background. Angela noted at some point that any use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would not benefit any of the rest of the Middle East on account of the devastating catastrophic humanitarian consequences in such a small region that would result from their use. The same man proceeded for most of the conversation to say “now listen to me”, and “you be quiet”, all the while pointing and being rather loud when it turned out that we didn’t understand the intricacies of commodities’ investment. The same man tried to tell us that nuclear weapons had prevented wars. After we observed that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Falklands had all still taken place, he observed that these were just “skirmishes”. We sang “Make me a channel of your peace”. A van drove through a puddle near to where we were standing and soaked those of us who hadn’t already stepped in it.
Siobhán was informed by another man from the venue that if nuclear weapons didn’t exist he wouldn’t invent them, but did support them all the while they existed. Emma spoke to a man who was very interested in our presence, but then we learned that he was a student from the nearby Imperial University and utterly unconnected with the conference. Angela spoke to a man who was entirely unsympathetic with everything that HTB stood for and who advised us that he would read our leaflet with enthusiasm. Angela chased a man up the path towards the church, offering him a leaflet. He asked how we knew he was from the church, and Angela said “you look young, white, male and kind of trendy”. He (perhaps unsurprisingly!) still refused a leaflet. A man told some of us that he thought it made a difference that the CEOs of the companies we were protesting were Christian because they could run the companies ethically. Angela asked whether it was possible to run a concentration camp ethically, which was perhaps a bit overdramatic, but it served to get the point across. We had a fairly long chat with a man from the Brompton Oratory who was generally sympathetic to our point of view.
Soon after, we spoke to a young Orthodox Bulgarian priest (attending the conference) and he wanted to know if the Anglicans amongst us were liberal or conservative Anglicans. Angela said that we didn’t believe in that spectrum and asked, whether, if we believed in theosis rather than penal substitutionary atonement that made us liberal or conservative. He decided conservative, but was very friendly. He eventually concluded, “it is often said… apart from the weather, food and accommodation, Britain is perfect!” A woman told us she had tripped over the pavement because we were standing nearby with our banner. Siobhán was nice to her. We met another man from the conference who wasn’t impressed by either the Serco CEO or the fact that Tony Blair had been present last year. Somebody walked up to the banner and said “probably not” (hurray!!!). Emma spoke to a man from the homeless outreach at Holy Trinity Brompton, who scrunched up our leaflet and gave the impression that it was more important that homeless people receive knowledge of Jesus than food. We privately observed afterwards that these two actions ought not to be separated in such a dualistic manner, but he’d gone. We sang “Shine Jesus Shine”.
Various people commented that we were very committed (we were dripping wet by then) but weren’t that interested in talking to us. As people started to leave in large numbers, plenty of people asked for our leaflet, but by the end, we were basically handing them squelchy pulp. People started to be very nice to us and looked at us in the way one might look at a puppy that has got a cold. Without any more leaflets to hand out, we wished all of those leaving a good evening and said that we hoped they’d enjoyed the conference. At the end of the night, we delivered some bottles of leftover water to the 24 hour prayer room (“errr, hi, we’re the people who’ve been objecting outside your church all night”) and then we went and found some very large chocolate waffles.
Christianity Uncut received a response the day after the Act of Witness from Holy Trinity Brompton and were advised “Nicky Gumbel is aware that there are some conference speakers whose position and views may not be to everyone’s liking. However, Nicky feels there is much to be gained from interaction, discussion and involvement with a variety of leaders in politics, business, culture and the church.” We will continue to seek clarification about the actions (rather than the views) of the “leaders” in Jesus’ church. We will keep praying the prayer (given to us by other radical Christians) “Lord, grant us courage to stand firm by the tenets of your kingdom - to seek peace and pursue it, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to uphold the cause of the voiceless, to worship no other God before you. Amen.”