The Church of England faces its colonial heritage

The American Black Live Matters movement made a resounding invitation to the UK last summer. As part of a peaceful demonstration following the homicide of American George Floyd in early June, the statue of Edward Colston is thrown into the waters of Bristol harbor by activists. Presented as a merchant, a philanthropic politician and even one of the city’s benefactors, Edward Colston, who died in 1721, was in his day best known for his slave trade. A detail overlooked over the centuries by the local elite of this once key city in the slave trade.

→ READ. Debate ignites over slavery-reminiscent statues in UK

This incident caused a wide controversy in the country. It also directly affected the Church of England. “After the action against the statue of Colston, we feared that we would be the next target of protests and vandalism”, says the Dean of Bristol, the Reverend Mandy Ford. Several stained glass windows in the cathedral, installed after the German bombing raids during World War II, celebrate Edward Colston.

“So we asked for permission to remove part of the stained glass. The operation has not yet taken place. Before that we do an audit of the whole cathedral, because due to the history of the city we have dozens of stained glass windows related to people who participated in the slave trade. In addition, we want to see with the African-Caribbean communities what they expect from us to make the cathedral a place where they feel at home. “

A deep work of reflection

This work was not limited to Bristol. The Church of England as a whole has embarked on deep reflection work following Black Live Matters. At the end of May, it published a report entitled Contested heritage in cathedrals and churches intended to present “Principles, processes and options for those dealing with contested heritage”. She warns that these will focus on “Commemoration in tangible form of persons or events linked to racism and slavery”. A fairly large setting in view of the long colonial history of the United Kingdom.

Through the establishment of a process of reflection integrating the local communities, the objective of the Church is “To generate a discussion on how the heritage of our buildings can best serve our commitment to be a welcoming and inclusive Church”says Becky Clark, its director of churches and cathedrals.

The Church is well aware of the polarization generated by the subject. “The idea is absolutely not to erase the history of the country, but to reinterpret it, as it has been over the centuries” continues Reverend Mandy Ford. « There is a diversity of perceptions in my congregation, and now that face-to-face meetings will resume with the end of the Covid-19 lockdown, I expect them to speak out. But we have faith in the reconciliation promoted by Jesus Christ. »

Less visible tombstones

St Mary’s Church in Henbury, on the outskirts of Bristol, has suffered the consequences of these tensions. Nine days after the statue of Edward Colston was forcibly drowned, Scipio Africanus’s gravestone was smashed in half and racist graffiti written in chalk on the nearby path. This tombstone is exceptional: it is that of the slave of a local family, who died in 1720.

“Members of the Henbury congregation were very angry after this act of vandalism, as were some other members of the public, with the grave receiving regular visits,” testifies Jan Vaughan, the sacristan of the church. « For fear of future acts of vandalism, we thought that some tombstones could be preserved inside the church or moved to a less visible location.. » ​​​​​

Discussions with the Diocese of Bristol, the Council of Churches of Henbury, the Municipality and the English heritage authorities ultimately resulted in a compromise: Scipio Africanus’ gravestone will return to its original location but cameras from surveillance will be installed to deter further damage.


“No change is not the same as no action”

At the heart of the report, the Church of England sets out the options available to churches and cathedrals with objects related to slavery or racism: addition, non-permanent alteration, displacement, or even permanent alteration in extreme cases. She warns that “The deliberate destruction of an object or a document will never be ratified”. In order not to be accused of weakness, it explicitly states that“After a robust process of research, consultation and reflection the decision may be that no change is necessary”. Before indicating in bold in the text: “No change is not the same as no action. “


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