Pacifism and the Just War Traditions

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 49:2 - Apr 2008

This issue focuses on the themes of the MCU conferences of 2007 and 2008. Last year's conference was entitled 'Violence: a stubborn pandemic' and naturally one of the major issues was the contemporary relevance of the Pacifist and Just War traditions. We are delighted to be able to publish the paper given then on 'The Ethics of Pacifism and the Just War tradition' by Dr Tony Kempster, Vice-president of the International Peace Bureau, General Secretary of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship and Chair of the Movement for the Abolition of War.

His position is a carefully argued presentation of the dangers of the resort to force in international affairs and an appeal to a functional pacifism. He does not exclude the possibility that war could sometimes be justified. His is not a fundamentalist form of pacifism and the argument of his paper is the stronger for that. What he does highlight is the dangers facing the world at the present time from the resort to violence and the contribution that the Second Gulf War has made to increasing that danger.

The kind of position for which Dr Kempster argues seems at least partly similar to that outlined by Barack Obama five months before the Iraq invasion. This speech given in Chicago on 2 October 2002 propelled Barack Obama from near obscurity to being the primary challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for the American presidency:

I don't oppose all wars . . . . What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war . . . . I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars, I am opposed to dumb wars.[1]

The issue of whether and under what circumstances war can be justified is the theme of the second article in this issue by David Branford. This explores how the consensus of opinion in the Church of England moved from the outright pacifism of the Lambeth Conference of 1930, to an acceptance of the legitimacy of the war against Hitler in 1940. The paper explores the championship of pacifism at a popular level by Dick Sheppard and at an academic level by the leading Modernist thinker Charles Raven. He then shows the factors which led peaceable thinkers like George Bell and William Temple to see war against Nazism as a cruel necessity.

Should the Anglican Communion Split up?

The 2008 conference is entitled 'Saving the Soul of Anglicanism'. It will focus on the attempt to maintain the unity of the communion through a covenant which will prioritise the preservation of unity above the desire to bring Christian thinking into harmony with contemporary ethical insights. Faced with this possibility Richard Crossland argues the case for splitting up. His viewpoint is opposed in an article by Lorraine Cavanagh who believes that reconciliation and renewal remain a realistic option. This debate is crucial for the future development of Anglicanism.

The difficulty of keeping both sides together is highlighted at grass-roots level in a sermon preached by Paul Oestreicher which reflects his hope that the liberal and evangelical wings of the Cathedral in Coventry may be enabled to respect the integrity of each other sufficiently to continue to work together. Modern Believing does not normally publish sermons and we do not intend to change that policy. However we make an exception in this case because this sermon articulates particularly sensitively the very real predicaments which arise at a local level when different value systems clash within a single community. It happens also to be very apposite to our earlier discussions that Paul Oestreicher as a totally committed Christian pacifist uses the division in Christian moral judgement on issues of war and peace as analogous with the division of Christian moral judgement on the ethics of homosexuality. If Christians can accept their differences of opinion on an issue as fundamental as war and peace, how much easier it should be to accept difference of opinion on a secondary issue like the ethics of homosexuality!

Attitudes to Human Sexuality within the Methodist Church

Anglicans are not the only Church to have agonised over the issue of reconciling diversity of view within a single fellowship. Methodists too have faced the same issues. David Booth believes we can learn from each other on this and presents a detailed presentation of how the Methodist Church has sought to cope with the diversity of views currently held towards homosexuality.

The Puzzle of why the Crisis is happening Now

What is very difficult to understand is why the crisis within the Anglican Communion over homosexuality is happening now, rather than 40 or 50 years ago. The historic Christian position was that homosexual practice was a very great evil which the State was right to prosecute. Such prosecutions reached their peak in the early 1950s and enjoyed strong support from Government, Judiciary and Press. Andrew Marr documents how between 1938 and 1955 criminal prosecutions of homosexual practice rose by 850 per cent under a massive police attempt to root out homosexuality from our society.[2] Homophobia was very fashionable at the time and many lives were blighted. Against this background it was important that the Church of England Council for Moral Welfare in its report on The Problem of Homosexuality of 1954 foreshadowed the findings of the Wolfenden Committee of 1957, and recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. This came about in 1967. The ten years of debate which led up to that Act represented a sea-change in public opinion and the bishops of the Church of England led by Michael and Ian Ramsey played a key role in bringing about public acceptance of that change. No bishop voted against any stage of the bill to decriminalise homosexual behaviour and this was absolutely crucial to its passing.

At the time that was a momentous change in moral thinking. It is worth recalling that 50 years ago the medical and psychiatric establishments were hostile to homosexual practice, and ethicists used to argue against it on principles of Natural Law and of evolutionary ethics as well as of Biblical Law. Not till 1973 did the American Psychiatric Association conclude that there was no scientific evidence for treating homosexuality as a disorder and not till 1992 did the World Health Organisation follow suit.[3] Hence in the 1960s the churches were in the vanguard of a moral reformation which only gradually came to be all-but-universally accepted by the rest of society.

In arguing that society had no right to concern itself over what consenting adults chose to do in private the bishops of the Church of England in the 1960s made a decisive break with past understandings of scriptural authority and ecclesiastical tradition. It seems surprising that no division within Anglicanism occurred at that time. For in comparison with that change of heart, the present debate about whether or not homosexuals should be barred from the episcopate is like straining out a gnat having swallowed a camel.[4] The tragedy is that the Church seems to outsiders to be fighting a desperate rearguard action against an ethical change which society has come to value and accept. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he is now ashamed of his beloved Church which he thinks has become 'homophobic' on a journey 'From Calvary to Lambeth'.[5] To some that may seem unjust since at every point the official line has protested against homophobia. But society judges by deeds not words and it seems inevitable that as long as it appears to be denying equal rights to some of its members the Church will be thought of as a homophobic institution.

The Puzzle of why this Issue has become Divisive

From the perspective of church history, it is surprising which issues turn out to be important in causing divisions within Christendom. The great schism of 1054 seems to have been more inflamed by controversy over whether priests should shave their beards than by the unauthorised addition of 'filioque' to the Nicene Creed. It remains obscure why Anglicans and Methodist grew apart despite the urging of John Wesley that they should stay together. It has also become clear from the perspective of the 21st century that the controversies of the Reformation are no longer as important for continuing division than subsequent developments within Roman Catholicism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the Church of the present day it might seem that the official differences of opinion between American and British churches over the status of homosexuals within the Church are nothing like as great as differences of opinion within all churches on issues of much more fundamental theological importance. For example whether God exists in reality as well as in our thinking about God might be thought an issue of major importance, as might the question of whether or not there is a life after death. Yet divisions of opinion over these issues seem far less to lead to institutional division. The same might be said of beliefs concerning the reality of the spiritual world. For example do angels exist? Or has secularism emptied our world of angels? This is the issue tackled in our final article by Howard Worsley. What he shows is the wide diversity of approach typical in contemporary society. He is aware that surveys show that many people believe themselves to have encountered angels and that belief in guardian angels is a significant feature of some people's religious experiencing. Yet for others a 'realist' belief in angels no longer seems compatible with a contemporary understanding of the nature of reality.

The next edition of Modern Believing will be edited by our US Editor the Very Rev Dr Ian Markham, President and Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary. In 2009 the Annual Conference of the MCU will focus on Liberal Theology and so Modern Believing would welcome articles related to that theme.


  1. Cited in Andrew Sullivan, 'The New Face of America' The Sunday Times, 16 December 2007, News review p. 1 [back]
  2. Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain (London: Macmillan, 2007) pp. 134-139. [back]
  3. A Report of the Royal College of Psychiatrists summarised in The Times and the Church Times on 16 November 2007. [back]
  4. Cf. Matthew 23:24. [back]
  5. Desmond Tutu, 'From Calvary to Lambeth' Radio 4. 27 November 2007. [back]

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.