The great buildings on or around Parliament Square are no strangers to momentous events in history. Yet one event which is perhaps less well known and celebrated is the role Methodist Central Hall and Church House played in the formation of the United Nations.
Last Sunday we were afforded an opportunity by the United Nations Association—UK, Westminster branch and the congregation of Methodist Central Hall, to recall and give thanks for that moment and that institution, the United Nations.
In October 1944, before the liberation of Auschwitz and the full evil of the Holoucaust being exposed and before the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, representatives of the USSR, United States, China and the United Kingdom met in a private mansion in Washington DC, Dumbarton Oakes, to draw up proposals for a postwar international organization to succeed the League of Nations.
A year later, at the end of six years of war which had cost the lives of at least fifty million people, their proposals formed what we now know as the Charter of the United Nations. The preamble to the United Nations Charter begins: ‘It is our resolve to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to humankind.’ The Charter was signed by 50 nations in San Francisco on 24 October 1945 and so the UN was born but where would it take its first steps?
During the service at Methodist Central Hall on Sunday morning we received an insight into the answer by way of an interview with Sir Peter Marshall who joined the UK diplomatic service in 1949 and later served Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Sir Peter suggested three reasons for the choice of Methodist Central Hall for the first meeting of the UN General Assembly in January 1946:
First, that there was widespread international admiration for the way in which Britain had resisted tyranny in the war but had suffered greatly as a result. Today Parliament Square and its offshoots are cherished and maintained but then London was “bomb-scarred, war torn, threadbare and emancipated”. Given the objective of the new organisation hosting the inaugural meeting in London would express graphically what its mission as all about;
Second, the Preparatory Commission of the Dumbarton Oakes conference had done much of its work in Church House just across the road from Methodist Central Hall; and
Third, Ernest Bevin who was foreign secretary in the new Atlee Labour Government had said that he had wanted to host the meeting in a venue which had been “bathed in prayer” reflecting the twin imperatives of the pain of the war and hope for the future.
The United Nations was an attempt at a brave new international politics. One which sought raise the sights of the nations of the world beyond their narrow national self-interest to focus on the broader common interest. It is perhaps the single greatest reason why we have managed to avoid to date a World III. It represents humanity’s best hope for a future in which we resolve our differences by reference to agreed international law and arbitration rather than arbitrary aggression and violence. A world in human rights are not vested in nations or dictators but are vested in people, all people. A world in which the powerful see it as their first duty to protect the powerless. A world which in solving our global problems recognises ‘no one nation no matter how great can do it alone and no one nation no matter how small can stand aside from their responsibility’.
Many will point to the failings of the UN to act swiftly in the face of injustice and brutality but it is rarely that it is the United Nations which has failed but more that the nations of the United Nations have failed to live up to its precepts. Now we are increasingly witnessing a revered institution of international society, which to paraphrase Martin Luther King, “is rising up and living out the true meaning of its creed”. A new politics which reveals itself in staggering advances of The New Millennium Development Goals and the COP21 Agreement on Climate Change which everyone said couldn’t done and we all through the UN just got up and did.
As we reflect on the UN’s 70th Anniversary and give thanks for its continued work in upholding peace between the nations, and protecting peoples within nations and think back with pride and resolve to this small corner of ‘bomb scarred and threadbare’ London and the role which it played in giving birth to this remarkable light that still illuminates our troubled world with hope.