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Bristol should repent of its slave-trading past, says Bishop Faull

08 June 2020


The statue of Edward Colston is consigned to the River Avon on Sunday

The statue of Edward Colston is consigned to the River Avon on Sunday

THE Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, has said that the city should “repent of the evils of our slave trading past”, after a statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into the harbour by anti-racism protesters on Sunday.

Thousands of people across the UK defied social-distancing measures at the weekend to join largely peaceful protests organised by the campaign group Black Lives Matter. The demonstrations were in response to the death of a black man, George Floyd, in police custody in the United States last month (News, 5 June).

Violence broke out after otherwise peaceful protests in London, during which 12 arrests were made on Sunday. In Bristol, protests were peaceful. Responding to the demonstrations on her doorstep, Bishop Faull wrote on Twitter on Sunday: “After today’s march for justice for black people and the fall of the statue of Colston, let’s repent of the evils of our slave trading past, the racism of so many years, and the institutional oppression which is still so powerful, and let’s build Bristol as a city of hope for all.”

Commenting on a video of the statue being pulled down by ropes and jumped on by protesters, she wrote: “The symbolism of this is profound. The old order is changing (and not just in Bristol).”

Colston was an English merchant, slave trader, and MP. He also endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals, and churches across Bristol, including the cathedral and St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School. He was a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, which contributed large sums to the reconstruction of the nave of Bristol Cathedral in the 1800s. He died in 1721.

In a separate statement on Monday evening, Bishop Faull said: “The appalling death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have brought the issues of racism, oppression, inequality and injustice once again into the spotlight, where they should be. These are issues that the diocese of Bristol, like many organisations, has been aware of, discussed and attempted to address. However, while we have taken some positive steps, it is clear that we have not done enough. The protests in Bristol yesterday and the destruction of the statue of Edward Colston mark a moment in the city’s history.”

She pledged to “act with a renewed sense of urgency and determination” to “acknowledge and repent of the Church’s past involvement in and benefit from the slave trade; challenge and address institutional racism, listening to and learning from the experiences of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people; recruit and support more Black, Asian and minority ethnic clergy, staff, and volunteers; make our churches truly welcoming to everyone, taking responsibility for the need for profound cultural change in our Church; and work with others in the diocese of Bristol and the Church of England to bring these things about.”

She concluded: This work won’t be easy but we must be relentless in our commitment to bringing about change.” 

Colston’s financial contributions were commemorated by erection of a statue in the centre of town in 1895. In recent years, campaigners have called for it to be taken down. In 2018, the Labour MP for Bristol West, Thangam Debbonaire, wrote to the city council to this effect. The same year an official plaque was arranged to inform the public more about Colston’s history, though the facts of inscription, including the number of children he is thought to have trafficked, were disputed.

The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, who was the first directly elected black mayor in the UK, told BBC Radio 4 on Sunday: “We had a statue up to someone who made his money buying and selling people. That statue is now underwater, which is a piece of historical irony. . . I am of Jamaican heritage, and I cannot pretend it was anything other than a personal affront to me to have it in the middle of Bristol, the city in which I grew up.”

Bristol Police have confirmed that an investigation into “criminal damage” of the statue would be conducted. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said that its removal was “utterly disgraceful”. The Prime Minister said that, while people had the right to protest, the spats of violence that had broken out were a “betrayal” of the call for racial justice that motivated the demonstrations.

Mr Rees said in a later statement: “Today’s protest saw around 10,000 people take to the city streets to stand against injustice and racism, with many more joining in at home by Taking the Knee. Thank you to everyone who took part peacefully and respected the need to protect their communities as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

“I know the removal of the Colston Statue will divide opinion, as the statue itself has done for many years. However, it’s important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity. Let’s make the legacy of today about the future of our city, tackling racism and inequality. I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

Outside Leicester Cathedral, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, was among those who knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds on Monday morning — two weeks after the death of Mr Floyd. The white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who was seen in a video kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck, was said in a preliminary autopsy to have done so for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

In February, Bishop Snow added an amendment to a General Synod motion which resulted in a public apology from the Church for its past racism (News, 11 February). He said on Monday: “I am deeply shocked by the appalling brutality we have seen against black people in America, and I stand alongside those who are suffering and peacefully calling for urgent change, as well as committing to make changes in our own lives and the institutions we are part of.”

The Bishop of Loughborough, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, who has called for a public inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities, said: “In the diocese of Leicester, we live in a context which is ethnically diverse and includes many people of Black African, Caribbean, and Asian heritage. The past weeks have seen raised levels of anxiety for many people within our diaspora communities, including in our churches.

“All of this has been heightened as we have witnessed with horror the events in America. We must stand up and share our abhorrence of that racist brutality, but also act in our own areas to address the culture of discrimination we live in this society, too.”

Protests in the US have been overwhelmingly peaceful, but some have been marred by violence, looting, and police brutality. In Buffalo, two policemen were charged with second-degree assault after they were filmed pushing a 75-year-old protester to the ground, seriously injuring him. The largest protest yesterday was in Washington DC, where tens of thousands of people marched carrying signs reading: “Black Lives Matter.”

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, wrote in an article for the website ViaMedia: “‘I can’t breathe.’ Following the lynch-mob-style killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, his dying words have become the cry of dispossessed and impoverished BAME communities first in the States and then across the globe.

“Long decades in which they have suffered on a daily basis from structural racism, inequality of opportunity and the denial of their personhood has exploded into a mighty welling up of anger which has left the Trump administration floundering and governments around the world struggling to keep up.”

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