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Posted on Tue 11 May 2021

The Church should protect heritage, not denounce it

Once again, the Church of England has, knowingly or unknowingly, got itself embroiled in the identity politics of Critical Theory and its offspring ‘wokeism’. Hot on the heels of its report on race, we now have the ‘guidance’ to cathedrals and churches from the Centre about reviewing monuments and plaques so that those associated with slavery and Empire can be removed, altered or covered up.

There can be no question that any offensive sentiments about race or anything else should be appropriately dealt with by the right authorities but we have to be careful about falling into the trap of divisive politics. Without properly considering the fact that the ultimate aim of Marxist-inspired Critical Theory is to create conflict between classes, races and sexes so as to bring down the patriarchal and ‘bourgeois’ old order through Revolution, the Church has been unable to position itself on the questions of slavery and Empire. They are not the same thing. Some empires have been wholly evil but others, like the British Empire, have been a mixture of good and bad. It is true, for example, that some officials and merchants exploited the indigenous people but there were also those who served them by building infrastructure like roads and railways, promoting education, creating representative bodies, thus laying the foundations of democracy, and encouraging civil society. Not only empires but people are also a mix of good and bad: is it inappropriate to commemorate someone’s philanthropy if they have had any connection, however remote, with slavery or the slave trade? John Newton was the captain of a slave ship who repented of his trade, was ordained in the Church of England and became a prominent campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. He is the author of the popular hymn Amazing Grace. Should we make allowance for people maturing, changing their minds and atoning for their sins or should we hold any moral lapse against them regardless of any good they may have done?

John Newton was not a lone voice for abolition. The Church has a long and creditable history in challenging, ameliorating and abolishing slavery. The early Church was active in purchasing the freedom of slaves, St Anselm of Canterbury, in 1102, declared it to be against divine law and Evangelicals, like William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, campaigned relentlessly for the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery itself. They did not get everything they wanted. Slave owners, for instance, were compensated for loss of their slaves but the former slaves received nothing.Still, without them, slavery would not have been abolished. After abolition, the Royal Navy intercepted slave ships and set the captives free. The Church Missionary Society helped to resettle these slaves and from them emerged church leaders in Africa. Why doesn’t the Church hold up these figures and institutions as examples to be followed in our own struggles against exploitation, inequality and racism rather than fixating on the dark and negative aspects of history? For better or for worse, the Church of England is the custodian of a large part of national and local heritage. It has to exercise its stewardship with prudence and in partnership with local communities and local and national organisations, while expecting the State to support such stewardship through financial assistance and appropriate legislation. It needs not only to consult but to reach agreement about how it deals with monuments and artefacts that may be of national or local significance. Where agreement is not possible, often the way to deal with contested issues will be the Bishop’s Consistory Court which is presided over by an independent judge who can hear every side to a disputed matter and make an appropriate judgement which is then open to appeal. Matters of local significance are fully considered in such courts and their local nature is a better way of dealing with disagreement than fiats from above.

One final question is that of resources: in the midst of the pandemic, churches have been hit hard financially. It will take time for them to recover and this just when they need to be reaching out to hurting and grieving people in the nation.It is great that many have been tuning in to online services and events but this has to be translated into people in the pews.The local church’s resources should be directed to its outreach and pastoral work and not to pieces of work which, however desirable, distract from its core tasks. While repenting of our failures in compassion and justice, let us celebrate and hold up the perfectly virtuous pages and people in our history. Let us learn from them as we chart our course for a just, loving and free society. It would be wonderful if the Church can provide the lead for such a positive vision instead of being hostage to every contemporary fad and every claim of victimhood.

This article was first publsihed in the Daily Telegraph on 11th May 2021

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