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C of E prefers marble to people

22 April 2022

The Rustat judgment exposed flaws in the faculty process, argues James Crockford

Paul Vonberg Architects

An architect’s impression of the Rustat memorial displayed in a proposed exhibition space in Jesus College, Cambridge

An architect’s impression of the Rustat memorial displayed in a proposed exhibition space in Jesus College, Cambridge

IT IS no secret that college chapels are bucking the national trend, as each week of the university term young students pack themselves into the stalls, when most churches can only dream of such things. Some have a faith commitment; many haven’t. Plenty are suspicious of the claims of institutional religion, and find chapel a place where their caution will be taken seriously.

What does unite many of the current generation of students, though, is their concern for issues of justice, diversity, and inclusion. What is the distinct charism of this generation? Their sense of urgent insistence: we must build a better, fairer world, and why wait?

Last month, the refusal of a faculty to relocate the memorial to the slave-trading enthusiast Tobias Rustat from the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge (News, 25 March), gave a clear message to those young people: building that better, fairer world will just have to wait. Here we are, with students telling the Church, “We love our chapel, we want to be part of it, we want to go in, but that thing is there.” All they seemed to hear back was: “We care more about aesthetic integrity, thanks — after all, as slave-trader memorials go, it’s quite a good one.”

Fine historical buildings are among the greatest treasures and responsibilities that the Church of England holds in trust, and Jesus chapel is (to quote the opposing counsel) “one of the most important buildings in the country”.

Yet a quiet and considered group of students stood outside in the rain singing hymns on the last morning of the consistory-court hearing, holding home-made signs that noted: “Churches are people, not marble.” It is not a warm testament to the Church of England that it seems, to my students at least, to have come out in favour of marble — in Rustat’s case, all 3.5 tonnes of it, grandly enjoying the chapel’s prominent west wall to itself. The people, the judgment states, are transitory: they’ll be gone soon.

WE ALL knew that this was something of a first case, likely to test us as it would test the court. And my conclusions, after nearly two years on the case? The faculty process was simply not adequate to contend with issues of the legacies of racial injustice — legacies that, the summary judgment seems to say, can be solved by requiring black people to forgive white people. If the Church of England is to face up to those legacies adequately, structural and procedural change is needed.

While the Church of England seeks to understand the ways in which structural racism continues to play out in the contemporary Church, it could do worse than address the pervasive lack of ethnic diversity and gender balance throughout its faculty processes (and, yes, I say this as a white man). I recall dealings with upwards of 26 people across various heritage advisory and legal bodies involved with the case. They were unfailingly sensitive, considerate, and supportive. But, of those people, I can count the women on one hand; and I did not knowingly come across a single person who would not identify as white.

Those who feel most excluded and offended by the presence of the memorial would be hard-pressed to see themselves as adequately represented in the faculty processes. However hard those involved in such processes might try, if we are to address aspects of our church fabric which raise serious concerns about diversity and inclusion, we need urgently to ensure a far more diverse and inclusive range of people with the responsibility to advise on and authorise proposals.

And, while the Church of England attempts to take significant steps forward in listening to the lived experience of people of colour, its faculty processes — at least in this case — struggle to do so. They are structured to pit parties against each other, in an adversarial setting where such listening barely stands a chance. The result in this case? Something more akin to an 18th-century gentlemen’s fencing match than to a difficult, trusting, and sensitive conversation among brothers and sisters in Christ.

ADMITTEDLY, not many faculty petitions reach the stage of a hearing, where the adversarial mode really kicks in. But, if the media enthusiasm for treating such cases as full-on culture wars is anything to go by, we will need a more appropriate means for the determination of cases — one that better enables the Church to listen with care, respect, and trust to the genuine voices speaking of the disquiet and distress that may understandably arise from contested monuments. That listening must involve enabling the Church to hear things that it would rather not.

What, then, are my students to make of this? I doubt that any of that pervasive scepticism about the institutional Church is ready to budge any time soon. And, if this is the best that the Church of England can give them, I cannot blame them for that.

The Revd James Crockford is the Dean of Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge.

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