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Leader comment: removing the Colston window

16 June 2023

“GO, THOU, and do likewise.” Luke 10.37, from the parable of the Good Samaritan, is fitting to adorn any church. It would take a serious reason, then, to remove, say, a stained-glass window containing it. The Bristol Diocesan Chancellor, the Revd and Worshipful Justin Gau, acknowledged last week that St Mary Redcliffe had such a reason. The window is in memory of Edward Colston (1636-1721), whose family motto was this text. As the Chancellor, granting a faculty to replace the window, points out, it is a “grotesque” instruction from someone who benefited from, knew about, and disregarded the deaths of thousands of African slaves when he was an investor and, eventually, deputy governor of the Royal Africa Company. During his 12 years’ involvement, it has been calculated, the company embarked 84,500 Africans to work the American and Caribbean estates. Records suggest that 65,200 disembarked, indicating 19,300 deaths at sea, nearly a quarter of the human cargo. Colston’s fortune grew by the equivalent of £5 million-£50 million, depending on how a modern comparison is made.

The Church, no less than society at large, is wrestling with its saint-sinner reflection; but there is exhibited a widespread inability to comprehend that every individual must inevitably combine both good and bad. Judgements are being made daily about people, from serving clergy to television personalities and politicians, in a culture that commendably acknowledges how little one can know of someone’s life, but retains a willingness to judge people absolutely on the little that is known.

Chancellor Gau’s judgement of Colston is a valuable lesson. By accepting St Mary Redcliffe’s petition, he agrees that modern sensibilities must be in play when considering historical figures. “I am . . . satisfied that the work and mission of the church are being hindered by the presence of the window.” Contemporary morality must also be considered, however, though the Chancellor dismisses as illogical the argument that, “because Person A carries out an immoral act, Person B should be exculpated from blame for carrying out the same immoral act.” He draws on the church’s research to show that there was enough condemnation at the time for Colston to know the moral value of his involvement in the transatlantic trade in slaves; and a sermon given in Westminster Abbey in 1685 is quoted: “We have as it were conspired with Satan, and entred into a confederacy with Hell itself.” The surprise, and shame, is that the Church of England, as well as the City of Bristol, continued through the 20th century to praise Colston’s philanthropy without regard to his means of funding it, even though this was uncovered by a cleric, H. J. Wilkins, in 1920. The removal of the window, far from indicating that the Church is “‘worshipping’ the god of ‘woke’”, to quote an objector to the plan, is an act that should have happened many decades ago.

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