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Why our material legacy matters

11 March 2022

Widening access to heritage spaces is not a ‘woke fad’, argues Renie Chow Choy


The Nigerian-born artist Victor Ehikhamenor with his mixed-media piece Still Standing, in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, last month, which is part of “50 Voices in 50 Monuments”. The piece is on display next to a memorial plaque commemorating Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson, who led the British sacking of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 (News, 17 February; Letters, 4 March)

The Nigerian-born artist Victor Ehikhamenor with his mixed-media piece Still Standing, in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, last month, which is part of “50 Voices in 50 Monuments”. The piece is on display next to a memorial plaque commemorating Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson, who led the British sacking of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 (News, 17 February; Letters, 4 March)

THESE days, Christians in the UK like to remind themselves that Christianity isn’t “a Western thing”, emphasising that Jesus and his earliest followers were Middle Eastern, in an attempt to rectify Eurocentric views about the religion and its history.

Yet Christianity’s association with Western dominance is not actually an error of perception, but a point of fact. Indeed, one hardly needs to point out that in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where large numbers of Christians reside today, the material evidence for Christianity is sparse or non-existent until the age of seaborne imperial expansion.

In contrast, here in this country, we are tripping over our Christian heritage, so abundant are its material manifestations in the form of cathedrals, abbeys, churches, chapels, colleges, and so forth. The British have a funny relationship with these inheritances. Some see them as national treasures that need to be fiercely defended against the “woke mob” who scour them for connections to past injustices. Others dismiss them as the stuff of museums and galleries, a distraction from the gospel, having little to do with “real Christianity”.


AND what about diasporic communities? For those of us whose Christian affiliations must be explained with reference to the British Empire, the hallowed places of worship in the metropole are at once awe-inspiring and anxiety-inducing.

Pious feeling is aroused by the antiquity of a sacred place’s witnessing to centuries of prayer and faith. But the devotional instinct is soon disrupted by unwelcome moments of self-awareness, with which racialised peoples are all too familiar.

Opulent ecclesiastical art and architecture impress at first, but soon raise questions about England’s supremacy, the Established Church’s wealth, the transmission of its culture across the world. The eye fixates on monuments, images, texts, flags, emblems that signal barriers to belonging, and which prompt the question whether those from the peripheries can ever enter the heart of the Establishment.

In short, when Christianity’s global expansion has been wedded to England’s territorial expansion, its heritage spaces are not neutral spaces. They imply uneven relationships of power: master v. student, expert v. observer, citizen v. foreigner, original v. imitation, precedent v. latecomer — and this is why “postcolonialism” is a perpetual state of being, and not a completed geo-political event.

Thus, widening access to the English Church’s material inheritances cannot be dismissed as the latest leftist fad or an act of virtue-signalling. On the contrary, it constitutes a necessary intervention as the Church of England seeks to tell the story of its history with integrity.

On the one hand, to exaggerate the material nature of our Christian heritage — to tie it to English soil and blood — is to disregard diasporic communities who have been brought into a relationship with English Christianity as a consequence of empire. On the other hand, to reject the material culture of the Church’s inheritance on the basis that it has nothing to do with “spiritual heritage” (the gospel, scripture, discipleship) is to render diasporic communities rootless, ignoring one of the clearest legacies of the Church’s alliance with empire, which is that the shapes, colours, sounds of English churches — the material manifestations of faith — were passed to the colonised and became our heritage, too.


THE nation’s ecclesiastical inheritance belongs to diasporic communities, too, not by birth, but by faith. Widening engagement with the Church of England’s heritage spaces will mean employing viewer-centred approaches that involve marginalised people in articulating the meaning, significance, and function of ecclesiastical artefacts today.

It will also mean that we tell stories about our historic environments in ways that mediate their complex nature rather than avoid it. In this vein, the “50 Monuments in 50 Voices” project, which showcases individual responses to memorials at St Paul’s Cathedral, is a bold and productive initiative (News, 18 February). My own project, “London’s Iconic Churches: Inclusive Interpretations of Christian Heritage”, similarly seeks to reveal the connections that Christians from ethnic-minority or immigrant backgrounds have to monumental church spaces usually associated with national history, and I welcome new participants.

England’s Christian heritage is long and enviable: it inspires gratitude and faith, and should be celebrated. But this can happen morally and consistently only if we are willing to interpret and enliven our material inheritances in ways that resist both possession on the basis of ethnicity and nationality on the one hand, and an over-spiritualisation which neglects the human need for connection to the physical on the other.

Our historic ecclesiastical environment ought to be the receptacle of broad, inclusive, and honest memories, function as sources of renewal rather than alienation, and offer everyone an encounter with love that transcends time and space.

Dr Renie Chow Choy is Lecturer in Church History at St Mellitus College, and author of Ancestral Feeling: Postcolonial thoughts on Western Christian heritage, published by SCM Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.99); 978-0-334-06090-1.

She will be taking part in an online panel discussion on Christian heritage, identity, and place, on Monday (14 March). For more information and to book tickets, visit here 

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