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Bristol Cathedral display tackles slavery past

02 September 2022

Sarah Meyrick visits the exhibition ‘All God’s Children’

Bristol Cathedral/Lee Pullen

Visitors viewing the exhibition “All God’s Children” last week

Visitors viewing the exhibition “All God’s Children” last week

A NEW exhibition was launched at Bristol Cathedral last week, as part of the cathedral’s effort to understand its links with the transatlantic slave trade. The intention is to “inform a wide-ranging conversation” about the past and to help to “repair and restore damaged relationships”.

Research commissioned for the exhibition “All God’s Children” found that, of the thousand or so people buried or memorialised in the cathedral and its grounds between 1670 and 1900, about 20 per cent had a close connection with the slave trade.

Two memorials are viewed as particularly challenging: the Edward Colston memorial window (News, 19 June 2020), and the memorial to Robert Codrington, described in the display as “one of the most powerful symbols of the Church of England’s willingness to profit from slavery”.

The exhibition has two parts. Inside the cathedral, a series of panels explores the cathedral’s connections with the slave trade through its memorial and grave-markers. Outside, on College Green, a series of portraits by the photographer Garfield McKenzie features comments and questions from Christians in Bristol, some of whom live with the legacy of slavery and experience racism today.

The exhibition is framed as a consultation. Visitors are asked to leave their feedback about what the cathedral should do next. For example, should the cathedral have a permanent exhibition? Should problematic monuments be removed or replaced with something new? A list of FAQs, information on modern slavery, and a prayer card are on hand to facilitate reflection.

“For hundreds of years many of the men and women who gathered in this Cathedral enslaved, bought and sold their sisters and brothers of colour,” an introductory panel says. “They exploited, raped and murdered them, and the exploiters did not see their actions as being incompatible with the Christian faith.

“We know that [the Cathedral] cannot be truly welcoming until the story of the painful legacy of slavery is told within these walls and until the contribution of all our sisters and brothers to our shared life is recognised.”

The Dean, the Very Revd Dr Mandy Ford, said last week that the need to address the legacy of the slave trade had become pressing after the toppling of the Colston statue in 2020 (News, 12 June 2020). “It became really clear that we had to do something. We had to do it now — and we had to get it right.”

There has been soul-searching in the city in the past two years: the city council has a legacy steering group, which ran a two-year initiative called Project Truth.

The cathedral exhibition has been in the planning for a year, helped by sponsorship from the Cathedral Trust and the Society of Merchant Venturers, which also has clear connections with the slave trade. “They, too, are on a journey,” Dr Ford said, “and a lot of our research will benefit them because they’re trying to understand who their members were.”

Abby and her brother, Sam, visitors to Bristol Cathedral last week

The Chapter commissioned a historian and museum consultant, Dr Katherine Prior, to conduct the research that forms the content of the display. “We’ve been hugely blessed by Katherine’s expertise, because not only is she very familiar with the Caribbean sources, but she’s also highly attuned to the sensitivities of what she’s doing,” Dr Ford said.

“And one of the things that I was determined was that, in doing this research, we wouldn’t just be researching the dead white people. What Katherine’s done . . . is to give story and dignity to those who were enslaved. That’s been really important.”

The issue went far beyond the infamous names, Dr Ford said. “I wanted us to be really clear that this isn’t about one or two bad boys. It’s just not all about Colston. No middle-class person in Bristol is untainted.”

The Colston window depicts the story of the Good Samaritan and includes the words: “Go thou and do likewise.” “There are one or two people who have said to me that they find that really offensive, and I can understand that,” Dr Ford said.

But whether the memorials would stay was an open question, she said. “We are taking a stance against racism, but we’re not taking a stance on memorials — because that’s what the whole purpose of the consultation is. I think I’m trying to be as undefended as possible, and to help our volunteers and staff to be able to inhabit that space.

“Inevitably, there are folk in the congregation who think we’re impossibly ‘woke’. But I hope that they will come to understand why it’s so important. I think we will only know if we’ve got it right once we get more feedback.”

But her hunch was that the desire for truth-telling might win. “My sense in my conversations with folks in the city so far is that they don’t want their history wiped out. Mostly people would rather [the window] stayed there, but that we explain truthfully what we now know about Edward Colston and why all these Victorians wanted to make him the poster boy for philanthropy.”

Abby and her brother, Sam, visiting from London, stumbled across the exhibition. “It’s a good thing,” Abby said. “I think a lot of Black British people feel like their history isn’t really spoken about.” She appreciated the tone of the display: “It felt like the naked truth, like they didn’t try and take things out.”

They both welcomed the idea of something permanent in the cathedral. “It would make sense. I’m sure the Church is doing a lot now with the wider community, but it’s a big part of their history. I think that if they don’t have it, then it would be a bit like they’re trying to hide it away,” she said. “But I think a cathedral is about more than the past.”

Dr Ford said that she had been touched by people’s support for what the cathedral was attempting: “The really key thing, when we get to the end of this, is that we’re listening to the right people — and that’s our sisters and brothers who are black Christians in this city — about what we do next, and what would help them to feel that it’s their cathedral.”

The exhibition runs until the end of October, and will probably reopen in the new year. At that point, the Chapter will sit down and work out what to do next. “I would hope that by Easter next year, we’d have a roadmap,” Dr Ford said.

Somebody told her that the exhibition was “very brave”, Dr Ford said. “This was a middle-aged white visitor. I thought that was interesting. I think people do recognise that we are putting our head above the parapet. Katherine says there’s no such thing as contested heritage: all heritage is contested. Absolutely true. But I’m not blind to the fact that there’s a lot of political stuff washing around.

“I think we’re slightly ahead of the curve on this; and I’m very conscious that, for that reason, we are being watched.”

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