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Jesus Christ forgave Tobias Rustat, judge argues, and so must Jesus College

23 March 2022


The Rustat memorial in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge

The Rustat memorial in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge

THE consistory court of the diocese of Ely has refused to grant the petition of Jesus College, Cambridge, for a faculty authorising the removal of a memorial dedicated to a benefactor of the college, Tobias Rustat (1608-94), from the west wall of the Grade I listed college chapel.

The petition, which had been supported by both the Dean of Chapel and the Bishop of Ely, was heard by the Deputy Chancellor, the Worshipful David Hodge QC (News, 25 January). It had been advanced on the basis that any harm caused to the significance of the chapel as a building of special architectural and historic interest by the removal of the memorial was substantially outweighed by the resulting public benefits in terms of pastoral well-being and opportunities for mission.

The college contended that, because of Rustat’s known involvement in the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, the continued presence of his memorial in such a prominent position, high up on the west wall, created a serious obstacle to the chapel’s ability to provide a credible Christian ministry and witness to the college community and a safe space for secular college functions and events.

Ranged against the college were 65 parties opponent to the petition, represented in court by Justin Gau. Another party opponent, Professor Lawrence Goldman, appeared in person, and two other parties opponent were neither present nor represented. The parties opponent contended that the court should give no weight to the petition since it was the product of a false narrative that Rustat amassed most of his wealth from the slave trade and used moneys from that source to benefit the college.

The college emphasised that Rustat was involved as an investor, lender, and member of the Court of Assistance with two companies, the Royal Adventurers and the Royal African Company. These had traded in enslaved people, and he was fully aware that the two companies were involved in that trade. That involvement, the college said, both pre-dated and post-dated his gifts to Jesus College.

The college called six witnesses, including the Dean of Jesus College Chapel, the Revd James Crockford; the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway; and the Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne.

The Dean explained the memorial’s incongruence with the Christian gospel, and how its continued presence frustrated the chapel’s credible witness and ministry to all.

He said that, when officiating in the chapel, “I have had a growing sense of discomfort when presiding at the altar under the gaze of the memorial. At the College eucharist on Sunday mornings in the nave, as I give the absolution, or the Gloria in Excelsis strikes up, or I elevate the consecrated bread and wine, there are few places to look other than straight at the Rustat memorial.”

He also reported students’ disquiet at the memorial, citing one student who had been “very, very active” in the chapel but had stopped attending because of it. Four or five months later, Dean Crockford reported, the student heard the organ and went in. They said: “It was shocking seeing the memorial . . . the scale and the height and the text; I was very angry. It was brief — I didn’t want that to be the last taste in my mouth leaving the Chapel. I just left.” That student has not been back in since, the Dean said.

In the course of his cross-examination of the Dean, Professor Goldman emphasised Rustat’s other fine qualities of duty and fidelity and loyalty to his King, which could not be entirely discounted because of one facet of his whole life, his investment in two royal companies engaged in the slave trade. The Dean agreed, but maintained that those qualities could be engaged with elsewhere than in the chapel.

Bishop Conway stated that we cannot “unknow” that Rustat profited from the African slave trade, and that the presence of the memorial offended Christian teaching and had a deleterious impact on the chapel’s mission.

Ms Alleyne, who like all other witnesses gave evidence facing away from the Rustat memorial, said that she felt an extreme personal dilemma in relation to the memorial’s retention in the chapel: “Each time I go in, it feels as though my presence says to others that it is OK to ignore or condone Rustat’s industry in the slave trade.”

She argued: “There is no intention to ‘cancel’ Rustat from the college’s history. No one is denying that he existed. No one is denying his generous donation to the college. However, to be clear, neither the Fellowship nor the Council wish the memorial to remain in our Chapel where its presence is in conflict with the college’s religious objective and with the use of the chapel as a place of mission and worship.”

She also contended that the college had changed since the majority of the parties opponent had been students there, quoting pre-pandemic attendance statistics from 2020 in which 36 per cent of students identified their ethnicity as other than White.

Professor Goldman, as a party opponent, counselled against “judging the past by the standards of the present”, and argued that it was “intellectually and morally illegitimate to convict figures from the past for transgressing principles that we now uphold,” since they “lived in a different age, acted according to different conventions and believed different things.”

It would compound the errors of scholarship, he argued, if Rustat were to be “cancelled” and removed “because Jesus College wishes to assault carefully selected aspects of the past”. There was no real cross-examination of Professor Goldman, and Mr Gau commended his evidence.

Mark Hill QC, who appeared for the college, said that, notwithstanding the emotive elements of these proceedings, or the controversy raised by so-called “contested history”, the petition was simply a request for permission to carry out a relatively minor change to the consecrated chapel of Jesus College. Mr Hill maintained that the petition did not require any general excursus into the morality of slavery, Christian ethics, culture wars, “wokeism”, virtue signalling, or “cancel culture”.

Mr Gau, for the parties opponent, said that nowadays it was “a Christian truism that slavery is abhorrent and to be condemned, but, in the past, Christian churches around the world failed to condemn slavery”. Bishops in the House of Lords did not support abolition owing to financial self-interest.

“The past is a different country,” Mr Gau said, and “if Rustat is a stumbling block to the chapel . . . then he is a stumbling block to the very essence of the college,” and “every brick of the college is tainted by his influence.” Rustat was a man of enormous wealth and charity who transformed the finances of Jesus College and significantly shaped its identity as an academic institution over the years.

In his judgment, Deputy Chancellor Hodge said that, even bearing in mind the importance of the chapel’s position as a collegiate centre of worship and mission, he did not find the justification advanced by the college for the memorial’s removal to be convincing, particularly since the chapel is Grade I listed, so that serious harm “should only exceptionally be allowed”.

He was not satisfied that the removal of the memorial was necessary to enable the chapel to play its proper duty in providing a credible Christian ministry and witness to the college community, or for it to act as a focus for secular activities and events in the wider life of the college.

The public benefits in terms of pastoral well-being and opportunities for worship and mission would not substantially outweigh the harm that would result to the significance of this Grade I listed chapel as a building of special architectural and historic interest.

No one disputed that slavery and the slave trade were “evil, utterly abhorrent and repugnant to all right-thinking people” and “entirely contrary to the doctrines, teaching and practices of the modern Church”, Judge Hodge said.

But, on the evidence, the parties opponent had demonstrated that the widespread opposition to the continued presence of the Rustat memorial within the chapel was indeed the product of the false narrative that Rustat had amassed much of his wealth from the slave trade and that it was money from that source that he used to benefit the college.

The true position was that Rustat’s investments in the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading in Africa brought him no financial returns at all and that he realised his investment in 1691, some 20 years after he had made gifts to the college.

The college had relied upon views expressed by student members of the college and at least one of its fellows that were founded upon the entirely false narrative that Rustat had “amassed much of his wealth from the Royal African Company”.

Although this was never explicitly stated by the college, this false view had taken hold among some at least of the student body that Rustat was “heavily involved in the horrific crimes of slavery”, and that it was this that had led to the view that it was wrong for him to be “glorified in the heart of” the college community.

Although the Dean had refused to accept this, Judge Hodge found that members of the college, and especially its students, had not been given a true picture of Rustat’s financial life, and that the false picture they had been given contributed to the college’s perception and concerns that the continued presence of his memorial in the chapel was having a demonstrable negative impact upon its mission and ministry.

Mr Gau was right to point out that the college should not have allowed that false narrative to spread unchecked, Judge Hodge said, and, if the college did not know that was happening, then it could not have been as much in touch with or receptive to the views of its students as it claimed.

If even a limited degree of participation in the corporate governance of companies that traded in enslaved people necessarily justified the removal of a memorial commemorating the life and “industry” of that investor, then the walls of college chapels and churches throughout the country would be stripped of many fine artistically or historically significant memorials.

Judge Hodge said: “No one disputes that slavery and the slave trade are now universally recognised to be evil, utterly abhorrent, and repugnant to all right-thinking people, wherever they live and whatever their ethnic origin and ancestry. They are entirely contrary to the doctrines, teaching and practices of the modern Church.”

It had to be remembered, however, that both the investment in companies which were engaged in the slave trade and the trade in enslaved people were entirely lawful at the time such investment was made, and were considered acceptable in many respectable sectors of society.

He was persuaded that the appropriate response to Rustat’s undoubted involvement in “the abomination” that was the slave trade was not to remove his memorial from the college chapel but to retain it in the religious space for which it was always intended.

“In this way, the Rustat memorial may be employed as an appropriate vehicle to consider the imperfection of human beings and to recognise that none of us is free from all sin; and to question our own lives, as well as Rustat’s, asking whether, by (for example) buying certain clothes or other consumer goods, or eating certain foods, or investing in the companies that produce them, we are ourselves contributing to, or supporting, conditions akin to modern slavery, or to the degradation and impoverishment of our planet.”

Moreover, whilst any church building must be a “safe space” in the sense of a place where one should be free from any risk of harm, that did not mean it should be a place where one “should always feel comfortable, or unchallenged by difficult or painful images, ideas or emotions,” Judge Hodge said. Otherwise one would have to do away with the painful image of Christ on the cross or the martyrdom of saints.

A church building was a place where God — not the people remembered on its walls — was worshipped and venerated, Judge Hodge said, and where we recalled and confessed our sins and prayed for forgiveness, which “encompasses the whole of mankind, past and present, for we are all sinners, and it extended even to slave traders.”

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