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Review church monuments and commit to racial justice, says C of E guidance

11 May 2021

Covering offensive connotations and relocating memorials should be considered

Church of England

Sheffield Cathedral: an image from the C of E guidance

Sheffield Cathedral: an image from the C of E guidance

THE Church’s mission to be inclusive and welcoming risks being derailed unless every church monument in England which commemorates individuals associated with the oppression and marginalisation of others is reviewed, new guidance states.

The guidance, Contested Heritage in Cathedrals and Churches, was published on Tuesday by the Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England. It offers parishes and cathedral chapters a framework on what to do about plaques, statues, inscriptions, and other monuments in their buildings which are dedicated in memory people who have been associated with racism and the slave trade.

The guidance acknowledges but does not focus on the contested heritage of buildings themselves — for example, those erected using profits from colonial exploitation — or on materials in books, manuscripts, and archival documents held in cathedral and church libraries and archives.

Reviewing a historic object requires extensive research and discussion and “may involve facing uncomfortable truths”, it warns. “Conversations around the roles of memorials necessarily touch on the Church’s own complicity in structural sin.”

These objects are, at best, a reminder of an “overcome” past; at worst, their continued presence without interpretation or discussion “could be taken to imply that the oppression and disenfranchisement they evoke for many in affected communities is socially and theologically acceptable to the Church”. The guidance acknowledges, however, that they have also become part of the fabric, fixtures, and history of places of worship over centuries, or “may be considered artistically significant for reasons that have nothing to do with their contested status”.

The impact of historic objects on communities may also vary, it says, depending on whether an individual is being commemorated or celebrated and if this person was a direct perpetrator (slave trader), financer, or beneficiary of the industry. “Discussions of contested heritage should be framed to avoid starkly binary thinking that classes anyone as wholly good or evil. A theology of forgiveness is not reducible to simplistic categorisations.”

Clergy and church officers have a responsibility to be “truly welcoming” and engage all communities in church life, and “should not assume that because reports of people feeling unwelcome have not reached them, this means that no such problem exists”.

Any changes to church monuments, however — whether they mark a burial, legacy, or individual — require formal permission under the Faculty Jurisdiction or the Care of Cathedrals Measure, which, the guidance explains, “focuses on weighing the harm of any proposal to a place’s significance against the benefits that might be gained, with a presumption that things will remain as they are unless the benefits outweigh the harm”.

This means that, before making an application for the removal or altering of a memorial, there must be proof that it has “a demonstrable negative impact on the mission and ministry” of the church, rather than proof that the views of the individual or donor would now be condemned. There are also legal issues to consider regarding the rights of any descendants (and others with a valid interest) which mean that grave markers and memorials cannot simply be removed.

The framework poses a series of research questions to guide parishes and churches through this process, which, it says, should be done in consultation with the community. First, what is the heritage significance of the object? What is the object? What evidence does it provide about the past (e.g. an inscription)? When, how, and by whom was it made? Is it unique? Does it have historic or artistic value? What does it mean to the church and community and living family members now?

Second, what is the need for change? How does the object in its current position in the church building, churchyard, or other space affect worship and mission, place of pilgrimage, or civic society?

Third, what are the options for change? These include: offering a new interpretation or explanation with a label, information board, or leaflet; adding text to an inscription or commissioning a new piece to juxtapose the historic object; permanently or non-permanently covering symbols or offensive connotations; and relocating the memorial (e.g. somewhere less prominent; into storage; on loan to a collection; or disposing to another organisation). Destruction or vandalism is strictly condemned.

A checklist to assess the object and an “options matrix” for what to do about it is also provided. If it is decided that no change should be made, this does not equate to no action, because a consultation process has been carried out. “If you decide on no change it will therefore be important to document and record your decision-making process and to communicate your reasons clearly so that the outcome is not misinterpreted as inertia.”

The director of churches and cathedrals for the Archbishops’ Council, Becky Clark, explained: “The Church of England is seeking to provide a framework for parishes and cathedrals to lead discussions about how the heritage in our buildings can best serve our commitment to be a welcoming and inclusive Church today. . . The issues of contested heritage require us honestly and openly to discuss ways in which our buildings can demonstrate our commitment to social and racial justice as a reflection of our faith in Jesus Christ.”

The guidance is the result of a widespread consultation of church monuments announced in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, last June, sparked by the murder of George Floyd (News, 5 June 2020). The consultation, part of a wider programme to make the Church more welcoming to all communities, involved every diocese and cathedral as well as heritage bodies, church-monument specialists, and representatives of the UK minority ethnic (UKME) community.

The guidance states: “It is important to remember that this is not about judging people in the past by the standards of the present, but about how items of contested heritage and wider issues of under-representation affect our ability to be a Church for all in the 21st century.”

Several cathedrals have already untaken reviews and announced changes to their heritage policies (News, 19 June 2020). This includes Bristol Cathedral, which removed from its stained-glass windows references to the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston after his statue was pulled down and thrown into the harbour by anti-racism protesters (News, 12 June 2020).

The Dean, the Very Revd Mandy Ford, described the guidance as “invaluable” to justice. “It recognises the complexities we experience as the beneficiaries of past exploitation and our need to understand the experience of those who continue to feel the pain of that exploitation. In Bristol Cathedral we are committed to moving forward, not to obliterate history, but to restore and repair our relationships with those whose history is not yet expressed in our building.”

Last month, a report from the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce recommended that the forthcoming Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission should “take decisive action to address the history and legacy of the Church of England’s involvement in the historic transatlantic slave trade” (News, 5 March). It said: “Regarding monuments and the built environment, deciding what to do with contested heritage is not easy. While history should not be hidden, we also do not want to unconditionally celebrate or commemorate people who contributed to or benefitted from the tragedy that was the slave trade.”

The Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender, who chairs the Church’s Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), said: “Our history, faiths, attitudes, actions and heritage are all under scrutiny. This guidance on Contested Heritage offers practical resources for places of worship to respond to concerns over church buildings, examining how we can offer a balanced message and interpretation, ensuring we are not perpetuating a biased historic message.

“This is not about destroying heritage or history but providing a more balanced view. This is essential and appropriate in the light of the discrimination and injustice experienced by people of colour in all walks of life, not least in the life of the Church of England.”

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