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Anti-racism focus turns to church statues

19 June 2020

Monuments policies under the spotlight after BLM protests


Workmen removing references to Edward Colston in windows of Bristol Cathedral

Workmen removing references to Edward Colston in windows of Bristol Cathedral

CHURCHES and cathedrals have begun reviewing their monuments in earnest in view of the Black Lives Matter protests.

The authorities at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral are among those to have announced reviews. The Abbey and the Chapter of Bristol Cathedral have announced changes to their heritage policies.

On Tuesday, a window panel in Bristol Cathedral was covered up. It commemorates Edward Colston, the merchant involved in the Atlantic slave trade whose statue was pushed into the river by protesters last week (News, 12 June).

The Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender, said on Tuesday that the Chapter would be reviewing monuments in Manchester Cathedral.

“There are two prevailing views: remove all memorials and statues that are deemed offensive in relation to slavery, colonialism, or racism. The other view is that they should remain but have additional information alongside existing information to give a fuller picture.

“I have felt the need for such memorials to be placed in a museum, but the second view could also work as we remember the past but add important information to give a full account of the background and implications of such a memorial.”

He continued: “The Black Lives Matter movement has provided a sense of urgency to the Church of England about institutional and structural racism.”

Bristol Cathedral, and St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, issued a statement on Tuesday which said: “The fall of the Colston statue on 7 June was a symbolic moment for the city and a signal for change. For us, it is the right moment to take the action we have been considering for some time. A cathedral or a church should be a place of sanctuary, justice, and peace: a place where God’s glory is worshipped and God’s love is felt.

“The dedications to Colston, in two significant places of worship, has prevented many people from finding peace in these beautiful buildings. These dedications have either been removed or covered.

“The removal or covering of window panes is also a symbolic moment. It doesn’t change history, and it doesn’t change the fact that black people in Bristol, Britain, and the world still face discrimination, injustice, and racism. We must not let it distract us from the work that needs to be done. But we hope it demonstrates our renewed sense of urgency to address these issues and truly be a Church for everyone.”

A former employee of both Bristol and Winchester Cathedrals, who asked not to be named, said that Colston’s was not the only contested monument. The cathedral cloisters, he said, were “full of monuments to people involved in the slave trade”. He also referred to the statues in Winchester Cathedral’s chantry chapel, Ecclesia and Synagoga: the first with eyes open, the second, a Jew, with eyes closed, symbolising the belief that the Jews had not seen the light of Christ.

He said: “The removal of some monuments was probably a long time coming, but it’s important that both sides of the debate don’t scream at each other. They need to stand in each other’s shoes.”

On Thursday, the Bristol Posted reported that two headstones on the grave of a slave who is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Henbury, had been vandalised. The two headstones marking the remains of an 18-year-old known as “Scipio Africanus” were smashed. A message was written in chalk on nearby flagstones, which said “Now look at what you made me do. Stop protesting. Leave Elliott’s grave alone. Put Colston’s statue back or things will really heat up.”

WILLIAM AVERY/COMMONSThe two headstones on the grave of a slave, known as “Scipio Africanus”,  in the churchyard of St Mary's, Henbury

The graffiti is thought to refer to the now-covered grave of music-hall singer G.H. Elliott, who used to perform in blackface. Avon and Somerset police are understood to be investigating the attack.

The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees has said: “We don’t want to go down this (route of) tit-for-tat invisible attacks on each other. The opportunity is to really showcase to the country and to the world that we are a city that has the ability to live with difference. I just hope and pray that that’s the route we take.”

The Dean and Chapter of Westminster have also announced, after the Black Lives Matter protests, a review of the Abbey’s monuments to reflect the “attitudes of our times”, undertaking a widespread reassessment of more than 3000 graves and memorials. These include the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I, a patron of the early slave trade, and a memorial to a former Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who has been accused of defending slavery on behalf of his father.

Possible plans to change signage next to monuments and to amend audio guides to reflect contested stories have not been confirmed by the Abbey.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Abbey said: “Over 3,300 people are buried or memorialised in Westminster Abbey, reflecting its place at the heart of the nation’s history. Its many memorials, which range in date from the thirteenth century to our own, also reflect the judgements and attitudes of the times in which those commemorations were made. In light of recent events, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster have begun a conversation about the Abbey’s memorials and how we can better reflect the attitudes of our time.”

The tomb of Thomas Picton, a soldier who executed dozens of slaves during his time as Governor of Trinidad, and authorised the torture of a 14-year-old girl, lies in St Paul’s Cathedral. The English Heritage blue plaque to Picton on his birthplace in Haverford West, Pembrokeshire, has been taken down by the building’s owners, and there have been calls for his statue to be removed from Cardiff City Hall, and for the Picton shopping centre in Swansea to be renamed.

Queen Anne’s Bounty, set up to benefit the clergy, became part of the Church Commis­sioners. Criticism has extended to statues of Anne, one of which stands in front of St Paul’s Cathed­ral. Her relationship to col­onialism and the East India Com­­­­pany has been put in the spotlight.

A cathedral spokesperson said: “St Paul’s should represent our human diversity in its iconography and its life, as we aim to be a house of prayer for all nations. We have failed so far to achieve this. So, in the short term, we will be consulting with our culturally diverse community members on ways to respond to the issues rightly highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, not only in relation to the anger and offence caused by some memorials, but also to the wider questions of racial injustice in Church and State.

“In the medium term, we will engage with the Pantheons Project at the University of York, our planning authorities, and other partners on a longer-term strategy for the memorials and for the promotion of racial justice.”

The archdeacons in Southwark diocese wrote to the parishes on Monday, saying: “Many people are calling for the removal of statues and other memorials to people implicated in slavery or the slave trade. We know that some church buildings have such connections. There will be others. We do not wish to pretend that this is not so. We are not encouraging you to remove memorials, but to engage in research and reflection. . . If you do not already have it in your inventory, establish who is commemorated in your church and its grounds. If there are no memorials, does your history suggest such connections, perhaps in a previous building?”

St James’s, Piccadilly, in London, has wall monuments to merchants such as Charles Todd, a member of the East India Company.

The director of cathedrals and church buildings for the Archbishops’ Council, Becky Clark, said: “We acknowledge that dialogue alone is not sufficient, and must have real outcomes. These may include the alteration or removal of monuments. However, this must be done safely and legally, and we do not condone illegal acts. Dialogue has to be open and honest. Churches and cathedrals are considering how they can address the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and which demonstrations and direct action have brought into such sharp relief.”

Ms Clark also warned that faculties would need to be obtained before changing or removing any monument. Last week, at St Margaret’s, Rottingdean, in Sussex, the PCC received permission to cover the headstones of two music-hall singers, G. H. Elliott and Alice Banford, both of whom wore blackface during their careers and whose headstones display what is now deemed to be offensive language.

On Monday, the PCC sought a faculty to remove the headstones for safekeeping while a decision about their future was made. In an emergency judgment, the Diocesan Chancellor, Mark Hill QC, granted it, stating that their temporary removal did not prejudge the question whether, in future, they were to be reinstated, “either unaltered or with some of the inscription obscured or re-cut”, or replaced, or some other remedy was to be applied.

Nigel Andrew, the author of a 2020 study of church monuments, The Mother of Beauty, said: Many very fine monuments memorialise thoroughly evil men. A particularly gruesome example is the tomb of Sir Sampson de Strelley, in All Saints’, Strelley, Notts. His head rests on a helm depicting a throttled Saracen, complete with protruding tongue. Another example is the monument to Reginald, Lord Cobham, in St Peter and St Paul, Lingfield, Surrey. His head rests on a Moor’s-head helm, and his feet on a grotesquely caricatured Saracen.

“There is a very large monument in St Mary’s, Bletchingley, Surrey, to Sir Robert Clayton, Lord Mayor of London, who has a record similar to that of Bristol’s Edward Colston, in that he invested in the Royal Africa Company. His statue is being removed from public view at St Thomas’s Hospital. Thomas Guy, who has also fallen foul of the statue-removers, also has a monument in the chapel of Guy’s Hospital. Lord Curzon, who had strong links with imperialism, including being Viceroy of India, has a monument in All Saints’, Kedleston, Derbyshire.”

He continued: “Our old churches have an all too evident history of iconoclasm and statue mutilation. However, this was nearly always directed at religious imagery, not at human individuals. Churches are a kind of ‘private’ space, not part of the public arena; therefore, I think we should disregard modern sensibilities when it comes to church monuments, as they tend to be admired for their aesthetic qualities and antiquarian interest, rather than for their connection with the life of the person portrayed.”

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