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Paul Vallely: Commissioners’ slavery fund poses difficult questions

24 January 2023

How to calculate what is owed for past wrongs asks Paul Vallely

© Lambeth Palace Library 2023

Treasurer's accounts to the Governors of Queen Anne's Bounty, which are held at Lambeth Palace Library. The Church of England had links to the slave trade through Queen Anne’s Bounty

Treasurer's accounts to the Governors of Queen Anne's Bounty, which are held at Lambeth Palace Library. The Church of England had links to the s...

THERE is an interesting contrast in the objections from inside and outside the Church to the announcement that the Church Commissioners are to set aside £100 million to establish a fund to “address the past wrongs of slavery” from which church investments are said to have benefited (News, 13 January).

Objectors within the Church have focused on the proportionate allocation of resources. How can the Church find £100 million to compensate for its part in the slave trade when it doesn’t have enough money to maintain Christian worship in this country — and when vicars are losing their jobs and parishes are being merged and the Census shows that Christians now number less than half the population?

The objections have been psychological — why should congregations put money in the plate if the Church can find £100 million “down the back of the sofa” to spare for this? — and theological: didn’t the Reformation assert that you cannot buy your way out of sin?

Outside critics have come from the other direction: £100 million is “chickenfeed”. The Church’s shares in the South Sea Company were worth the equivalent of £443 million when the company stopped trading in slaves. So, the Church’s reparations fund should be quadrupled — or even raised, others say, to £1.3 billion. Not that the Church is speaking about reparation — the term used in the Lambeth Conference Call on Human Dignity last year. Presumably, church lawyers have had a say in revising the terminology.

What are we to make of this? The precedents are interesting. Two years ago, the Jesuit order in the United States pledged to raise $100 million to atone for its part in slavery. But then US Jesuits actually relied on slave labour and slave sales for nearly 150 years to sustain clergy and to build churches, schools, and even Georgetown University.

There have been philosophically interesting debates over the apology culture that arose in the 1990s. (Pope John Paul II apologised for no fewer than 94 things, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, in the run-up to the New Millennium.) Many argue that judging the past by the standards of the present is intellectually dishonest. We are all children of our time. The present is no holier than the past.

Yet when, in 2006, the General Synod issued its apology for the Church’s involvement in slavery, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams said that the body of Christ did not just exist in the present: “It exists across history, and we, therefore, share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors.”

One of the features of structural sin, to borrow a term from liberation theology, is that, when we inherit wealth, we also inherit responsibility. The key question is: how do we calculate that? A detailed reading of the Commissioners’ report shows that this is a good deal trickier than newspaper headlines suggest.

Moreover, it offers no guidance on how we balance the injustices of the past against those of the present. Victims of clerical sex abuse, for example, have raised questions about why the wrongs of those who are alive should not be righted first. Perhaps it is because it is easier for church leaders to apologise for the mistakes of previous generations than it is to acknowledge the mistakes that they have made themselves.

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