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Press: Rustat ruling brings out the anti-woke brigade

01 April 2022

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WHILE the attention of the Western world has been quite rightly focused yet again this week on current atrocities in Ukraine — and looks likely to be so for some time to come — the greatest interest the Church of England raised in the national press was last week’s tale of two tablets (News, 25 March), which appeared first on the Church Times website on Wednesday morning and on national newspaper websites that afternoon. This is as it should be — if a specialist newspaper doesn’t lead with the news, why should others follow?

The story of the failed attempt by Jesus College, Cambridge, to move, because of the subject’s business interests in the slave trade, an elaborate stone plaque carved by Grinling Gibbons in memory of its 17th-century benefactor, Tobias Rustat, brought out the anti-woke brigade.

That followed the decision of the Worshipful David Hodge QC, who was appointed Deputy Chancellor of Ely for the purpose of determining the petition, that the plaque should stay in place in the college chapel because of the “false narrative” that Rustat benefited from slavery. Apparently he invested in companies involved in the trade, but did not use any profit from them for the college because they were not making money at the time.

Keeping the Rustat plaque in place has been taken up as a cause by some of the college’s alumni. The college’s Master, Sonita Alleyne, who just happens to be the first black woman to head an Oxbridge college, has made no secret that she finds the plaque distasteful. Into the lists on her side came The Guardian, quoting her approvingly as saying: “There is such a thing as racial dignity in worship. That’s a thing that has been ignored . . . if we don’t like it we just have to suck it up or don’t come in.”

On the other side, Charles Moore, in The Daily Telegraph, took the opportunity not only to take a swipe at what the right-wing term (but fail to define) “wokery”. It seems largely to mean attitudes that they dislike. Moore also offered a glancing blow at the Archbishop of Canterbury for having the temerity to support the plaque’s removal (News, 18 February). “The monument is not a memorial to slavery, but to philanthropy. The fact that Rustat had done some bad things is not decisive,” Moore wrote.

In his support, The Times, also keen to sniff out wokery, had Nigel Biggar, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, who offered the bald defence that “Undogmatic perception will acknowledge the evidence that contemporary Britain does not generally suffer from systemic racism. If it did Alleyne would surely not be master of Jesus College. Nor Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi or Kwasi Kwarteng serve as members of the cabinet.” I think we can tell that Professor Biggar is white and that some of his best friends come from ethnic minorities.


NOW, it so happens that I am not generally in favour of removing statues and memorials, even those illustrative of a different mindset, providing, perhaps, that they are corralled with an explanatory message outlining changing times and attitudes. If every such memorial was removed, quite a lot of churches would be left bare, denuded of tributes to their benefactors.

But hard cases make bad law. One hundred and eighty miles across the country, there is a second, plainer, slightly later, marble plaque in St Peter’s , Dorchester, memorialising one John Gordon, who was an 18th-century Jamaican slave-owner.

When that plaque was set up, it boldly celebrated the “signally instrumental” part that he played in helping to suppress a rebellion by “negroes” during Tacky’s rebellion in the 1760s. That was indeed an uprising on the island where, Wikipedia tells me, “no country excelled Jamaica in a barbarous treatment of slaves or in the cruel methods they put them to death.” The rising’s leader, Takyi, had been a tribal chief in what is now Ghana (and apparently a slave-trader in his own right before he himself had been captured), and wanted to set up a black kingdom on the island, before he was shot and beheaded. Interestingly enough, one of the other leaders of the rebellion seems to have been called Kwarteng.

Did Gordon perhaps approve of the hangings and burnings at the stake meted out to the rebel leaders? On the plus side, the memorial back in Dorchester says that Gordon was held in universal esteem on the island. Presumably, this means among the white population, and that it was erected “as a mark of affection to the memory of the best of brothers”.

The Times had the story of the Gordon plaque, whose future will be decided by the Chancellor of Salisbury diocese. No one has objected so far to its removal to a museum. The paper quoted Val Potter, a churchwarden, who said that objectors had fallen silent when they read the wording on the memorial. I wonder what the anti-woke brigade has to say about that.

Stephen Bates is a former religious-affairs correspondent of The Guardian.

Andrew Brown is away.

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