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Open letters exchanged as Save the Parish questions Commissioners’ slavery-legacy grants

16 January 2023

Alamy

A stained-glass window in Holy Trinity, Clapham, depicting the abolitionist William Wilberforce

A stained-glass window in Holy Trinity, Clapham, depicting the abolitionist William Wilberforce

THE Church Commissioners have responded to criticism from Save the Parish about spending priorities, after announcing a £100-million investment fund in response to revelations about 18th-century links to the slave trade (News, 10 January).

On Wednesday, the chairman of Save the Parish, the Revd Marcus Walker, published an open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he suggested that “before the Church can find £100 million for this new project, it needs to show that it can sort its own house out and fund its frontline.”

Fr Walker, who is the Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, in London, wrote that the scheme, which had been “widely reported as ‘reparations’, comes at a time of deep crisis for the Church”. Recent census results had shown that a majority of people living in England did not consider themselves to be Christians.

He argued that funding should go “directly to the front line”, protecting clergy from cuts and parishes from mergers. The C of E’s “Strategic Development Fund as an attempt to fund congregational growth . . . has been shown not to work”, Fr Walker wrote, citing Sir Robert Chope’s report released last year (News, 10 March 2022).

In the press release announcing the new investment fund, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, had said: “We recognise this investment comes at a time when there are significant financial challenges for many people and churches. . . We remain fully committed to our work to support the mission and ministry of the Church of England and we believe that this research and our planned response will help us to do so today and into the future.”

In an interview with the Church Times last week, Dr Walker, who is deputy chair of the Church Commissioners, had also emphasised that £1.2 billion had been pledged by the Church Commissioners to parish work over the next three years (News, 11 May 2022), and that the new investment fund would not detract from this sum.

“When you’ve got a large fund, and you’re trying to spend it well and wisely, then you cover a range of bases. There’s always people who say you should spend all your money on this, or you should spend all your money on that, and what we’re trying to get is a balanced approach,” Dr Walker said.

The new fund would be built up with contributions of around £11 million per year, and profits from the fund would be distributed as grants to organisations working with communities that continued to be disadvantaged by the legacy of the slave trade.

Save the Parish received a response on Monday, in an open letter from Dr Walker.

“I hope that you will share with me the belief that visibly demonstrating that the Church is for all will demonstrate the Church’s commitment to justice to more people across our nation,” the Bishop writes.

“We can do this through taking responsibility for past involvement in the degradation of fellow humans — the need for us to this is critical to many from communities who have not previously seen us do this in a way that is meaningful to them.”

He went on to say that “categorising the new funding commitment as ‘reparations’ is inaccurate and misleading,” and “it would not be possible, either practically or morally, to allocate any amount of funding to repair the damage caused by the generations of human misery inflicted through the transatlantic chattel slave trade.”

Addressing criticism of the Strategic Development Fund, Dr Walker wrote that, “while improvements will continue to be made to these funding streams to ensure they have the most impact possible, we must also acknowledge that the pandemic disrupted many mission projects and, in terms of the numbers of new disciples created, we should bear in mind Sir Robert’s counsel to allow projects time to achieve their desired outcomes and for the full impact of funding to become clear.”

The exchange of open letters attracted much comment on Twitter. The Bishop of Kirkstall, the Rt Revd Arun Arora, who co-chaired the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce on whose recommendations the fund is partly based (News, 23 April 2021), wrote that he was “saddened” and said that Save the Parish presented a “false dichotomy of parish v justice”.

“Commissioners have spent many more millions on parish ministry over decades & continue to further invest in them via dioceses,” he continued.

The think tank Ekklesia stated: “We fully support funding parishes, but utterly oppose this divisive stance against reparations, which will be seen as colonialist and racist by those deeply impacted by the history.”

Others voiced support for the position taken by Fr Walker and Save the Parish, however. Dr John Milbank, an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham, wrote: “[Archbishop] Welby seems to have forgotten that it was Anglicans who did more than anyone in history to end slavery forever. And in fact it is doubtful if the CofE as such ever profited from slavery.”

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