By: Ellen Teague
Around 80 people of faith marked the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday with a procession and prayer vigil outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, London. They lamented the UK Government's possession of weapons of mass destruction and the deadlock in multilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament internationally.
The participants gathered in Embankment Gardens on a grey and damp afternoon for the first part of the liturgy, which included a call to repentance and the distribution of ashes.
Opening the time of prayer, Pat Gaffney, General Secretary of Pax Christi, said that Christian witness of this kind has taken place for the past 35 years on Ash Wednesday at the Ministry of Defence where preparations are made for the deployment of nuclear weapons.
Those present distanced themselves from British government plans to replace Trident - Britain's submarine-launched nuclear missile programme - in contradiction of its obligations to the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Among the participants was the headmaster, Chris Gabbett, and pupils from Trinity Catholic School in Leamington Spa. They later tweeted that it was "great to bear witness with Pax Christi".
Participants then walked in silence to the green between the Ministry of Defence and the River Thames, stopping for prayers and readings. Placards of anti-nuclear weapons' statements by church leaders stood out against the sky and with Big Ben in the background. They included the following quote from Pope Francis on World Peace Day, January 2017: "I plead for disarmament and for the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons; nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutual assured destruction are incapable of grounding an ethics of fraternity."
Other placards, including 'No Faith in Trident', were carried by Pax Christi, Christian CND, the National Justice and Peace Network, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist and URC representatives, Westminster Justice and Peace and Columban JPIC. Police guarded the building itself, which was marked with blessed ash by peace protestor Fr Martin Newell and others earlier in the day. At one point the participants formed a line outside one whole side of the huge building singing a peace chant.
Purple ribbons were tied to a large white cross in memory of places and people in need of peace. A large sheet of sack-cloth was placed directly in front on the Ministry of Defence entrance, and the word REPENT written in ashes. Peacemakers of our time were recalled and honoured. There were prayers for those who died in the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945, for those who have died as a result of nuclear tests and "those who use their gifts to create weapons of mass destruction". A call for our society to turn away from the culture of death and choose a culture of life was made towards the end, suggesting that nuclear weapons offer a "false peace" to our world.
The event was organised by Pax Christi, Christian CND, London Catholic Worker and the Catholic Worker Farm. Participants included religious and parish groups and some Japanese Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist monks and nuns who are based at the Battersea Peace Temple. Clergy included Fr Rob Esdaile of Arundel and Brighton Diocese and Fr Joe Ryan, Chair of Westminster Justice and Peace. The National Justice and Peace Network was represented by the chair and administrator Anne Peacey and Ann Kelly. Other participants included Catholic peace activists Bruce Kent, Valerie Flessati, Ann Farr, Patricia and Michael Pulham.
In Liverpool, Pax Christi members processed to the city centre to witness against the replacement of Trident, and at the Faslane Naval Base in Scotland members of the Glasgow Catholic Worker gathered for a Service of Repentance.
Pax Christi Briefing on the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty at: http://paxchristi.org.uk/
Christian CND Embassies Walk on 7 March at: http://christiancnd.org.uk/