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Wilberforce bicentenary is ‘time for all to face the past’

02 November 2006

THE Synod offered an apology to the descendants of slaves on Wednesday afternoon of last week, when it discussed the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade (1807), and pledged its efforts to combating human trafficking and enslavement across the world today.

Introducing his diocese’s motion, the Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler, called on the Churches to protest against modern human trafficking, and pray for tougher laws. "Slavery and its heritage is scandalously unfinished business," he said.

Profits of the slave trade were part of the bedrock of Britain’s industrial development, he said. "Many people and institutions in every part of the country were complicit in the transatlantic slave trade; and I have to say that this includes the Church of England."

The campaign to end this "vile part of our history" had been "an example of the practical outworking of the Christian faith in public life".

Transatlantic slavery had been premised on a most virulent racism. "Some of that racial inequality persists today — some direct, some embedded in the assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices that shape the culture of our institutions," Dr Butler said.

The C of E was contributing financially to Churches Together’s Set All Free project. The Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC) was also "hard at work". "The Church nationally seems to have a good grip on the issues. I hope that the debate will enable dioceses and parishes to do likewise."

The Revd Nezlin Sterling (New Testament Assembly) said that the commemoration of the bicentenary had resurrected painful issues. It must be done with great sensitivity, and not be seen as an opportunity "to ease our consciences".

Linda Ali (York) said that there was a need to express more clearly the dual role of the Church. "We are not in control of what happened over 300 years ago, but we are very much in control of how we respond," she said.

Canon Cynthia Dowdle (Liverpool) said that Liverpool and Merseyside had been closely linked to the slave trade. Wilberforce’s statue was to be unveiled in 2007, and the Museums of Merseyside were to open a new slave gallery.

Links with Akure diocese in Nigeria and the US diocese of Virginia would, it was hoped, build on Bishop James Jones’s vision of "turning the slave triangle into a triangle of hope", with acts of reconciliation on the Mersey, James, and Niger rivers.

In 2005, the diocesan synod had carried a motion recognising the continued existence of slavery. She had been shocked that sex trafficking was so widespread. "We must not underestimate what the Wilberforce Bill did not achieve."

The Revd Simon Bessant (Blackburn), speaking to his amendment, a composite one with the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who chaired CMEAC, said that, while the Church had done much right, it had also been part of the problem. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had owned slaves, and had branded the word "Society" on them — even though it had later done useful emancipation work. There had been no Caribbean diocese then: "SPG was the Church of England."

In 1833, compensation had been given not to the slaves, but to their owners, including the then Bishop of Exeter. The Church of England was at the heart of it all: "We owned slaves. We branded slaves."

He wanted an apology to the heirs of the slaves, a healing step. There was a general sense in which the Church now shared responsibility for what the Church had done in the past. This was a principle of interfaith dialogue. "We own our history." Historians were already pointing the finger.

The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin (London) said that the Southwark motion referred to "our history". Whose history? There was concern in some quarters about the airbrushing of history. The Church should address with great seriousness the legacy of the slave trade, which included the absence of minority-ethnic Anglicans from the Synod chamber not least. "When the surface is scratched, we see that there are still great difficulties today, and that is a legacy of the past."

The Archbishop of Canterbury supported Mr Bessant’s amendment, because an apology was both necessary and costly. The Body of Christ existed across history. "We therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors, and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the Body of Christ, is prayerful acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us, not just of some distant ‘them’."

The Body of Christ had been and was in slavery. The Body of Christ had been involved in slave-dealing. "The apology is about that — not about gratifying a sense of wanting to wipe the record clean." In the world around, there were countless examples of how the past imprisoned people and nations. "To speak here of repentance and apology is not words alone; it is part of our witness to the gospel to a world which needs to hear that the past must be faced and healed and cannot be ignored."

Canon Tim Dakin (Oxford) spoke of the work of Christian reparation that followed the abolition of the slave trade, including the setting up of Sierra Leone as a homeland for emancipated slaves. The 1833 Bill had resulted from Christians’ using modern campaigning techniques. Wilberforce himself had struggled for 20 years for emancipation.

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, had put down an amendment to resolve to affiliate to the Stop the Traffik Coalition. Christina Rees (St Albans) drew attention to the initiative CHASTE (Church Alert to Sex Trafficking across Europe).

Clive Scowen (London) sounded a note of caution over Stop the Traffik’s advocacy of guaranteed visas and the right to remain for victims. This might fuel trafficking.

Simon Butterworth (Manchester) drew the Synod’s attention to the figures on sex-trafficking: between 200,000 and 300,000 women were trafficked into Europe each year in a business worth $7 billion. Two million girls aged five to 15 were trafficked each year, and needed help.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that the communion of saints meant that, although some of his forebears had been taken out as slaves, they were part of him. He supported Mr Bessant.

The amendment was carried, despite Dr Butler’s reservations: he did not wish the wider community to ignore its responsibility, or the C of E to be the scapegoat.

Bishop Broadbent’s amendment was carried. Canon Chris Sugden’s (Oxford), asking "the Archbishops’ Council to recommend appropriate reparations (not necessarily financial) in the area of ministry support and report back to Synod" , was lost.

The amended motion was carried by 238 nem. con. It read:

That this Synod:

(a) recognising that the commemoration of the bicentenary of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, to be celebrated in 2007, will provide unprecedented opportunities to acknowledge the Church’s complicity in the slave trade and tell anew the Christian story of creation and redemption:

(b) acknowledging (i) the progress made to release men, women, and children from the dehumanising and shameful consequences of slavery; (ii) that the process of emancipation of all people from all expressions of enslavement is scandalously unfinished work; and (iii) the substantial work currently being undertaken in this campaign by the Church and other agencies;

(c) in the light of our involvement in the slave trade and of the Christian demands of repentance and sorrow resolve to (i) support vigorously every effort by the Church and other agencies to protest against human trafficking and all other manifestations of slavery across the world; (ii) affiliate to the Stop the Traffik Coalition; (iii) call on HM Government and the European Institutions to give the highest priority to enabling legislation to bring to an end the causes and outcomes of slavery; (iv) urge the Archbishops’ Council to encourage and resource the Church to address with greater seriousness the legacy of the slave trade and to tell the story of release and redemption to our own and successive generations by prayer, study, reflection, and action; and (v) recognising the damage done to those who are the heirs of those who were enslaved, offer an apology to them.

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