As noted in the previous post the ideal of peace followed a wide spectrum, those who were pacifists to those who supported a just war. This last post will give a short overview of the Church’s response to Pacifist activity.
The Revs. Alun Richards, Lex Miller, and Basil Dowling to name but a few, created quite a stir within Presbyterian circles and attracted wide media attention during the inter-war years of last century.
Alun Richards’ and Lex Miller’s protest against compulsory military conscription in 1927 resulted in a long series of legal battles, court appearances, fines and finally in 1929 the loss of civil rights for 10 years. The issue of ‘liberty of conscience’ raised by them became central to the Church’s debate on war and peace, and the responsibility of the Church and the State over the next 15 years.
The Public Questions Committee supported Richards and Miller in their struggle and its protest over three years was described as “impressive and weighty”. The
Committee gave detailed reports to each Assembly of its progress and its developing understanding of the ‘inviolability of the rights of the individual conscience.’
The Statement on Liberty of Conscience the General Assembly voted on in 1930 highlighted that not all members fell in with the strongly pacifist views of the Committee. In fact the withdrawn Notice of Motion that stressed the responsibility of all citizens to be participants in war more then likely reflected the majority of Presbyterians view point. The 90 to 60 vote however did not deter the Committee from its continuing encouragement to ministers and members to support the League of Nations and its activities.
In 1934/5 the statement of ‘Christianity and War’ after lengthy discussion and numerous amendments was passed. The statement called the Church to be committed to ‘a message of reconciliation for the nations’ and war was a ‘hindrance to that task’ and the Church must ‘acknowledge her responsibility to the Prince of Peace’. It also emphasised the redefinition of nationalism from a self-seeking nationalism to “a generous spirited” nationalism.
The 1939 Assembly re-confirmed this Statement and also noted its regret that Christians had failed to prevent conflict, but they were encouraged to recognise the justice of ithe war’s cause and called on its people to respond with a loyal sense of civic responsibility ‘with due regard to the rights of conscience’. The Rev. Basil Dowling put forward a counter amendment condemning ‘the method of war as incompatible with the mind of Jesus Christ’ and called on members to ‘serve as peacemakers in a war-stricken world.’ It was lost.
The pacifist stance of Basil Dowling, minister at Seatoun and Chaplain of Scots College (1938-1941), at the beginning of WW2 found him being asked to resign from his Chaplaincy position and as a consequence from the parish in 1941. His appearance as a ‘soap-box’ pacifist with Ormand Burton on the Wellington streets caused public alarm and he along with eight others were imprisoned for 3½ months in Mount Crawford Prison on the charge of ‘obstructing the Police’. His friend Phillip Fowler, who undertook his pacifist activities in London, predicted such an outcome in a letter home in 1939 querying as to ‘how long will it be before his pacifist activities bring him to the notice of imperialsitic parents, pasrsons and presbyteries?’ He eventually left for England disallusioned with the Church.
The men above and those unnamed, held strong convictions as to the relationship of their Christian faith to the participation and support of war and each touched on the nerve of unease within the General Assemblies. As a consequence, however, the inter-war years became one in which Presbyterian members studied and debated their theological understandings of the justification or otherwise of war. As the war proceeded and the members took a harder stance against military defaulters attempts to keep the pacifist voice alive within the Church became more difficult.