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ACC: Day visit to slavery site proves sobering

23 February 2023

Neil Turner

The Primate of West Africa, the Most Revd Cyril Kobina Ben-Smith, with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Jamaica, the Rt Revd Howard Gregory, in a cell at Cape Coast Castle on Wednesday of last week

The Primate of West Africa, the Most Revd Cyril Kobina Ben-Smith, with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Jamaica, the Rt Revd Howard Greg...

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has described as “almost beyond words” what he and the ACC witnessed on a day’s visit to the Cape Coast Castle Museum, in Ghana, devoted to the Gold Coast slave trade. It had been “a powerful reminder of the need to look at ourselves and consider what justice before God means”.

It led him at the final press conference to make a staunch defence of the Church Commissioners’ decision to invest £100 million in communities damaged by its legacy, although he acknowledged: “We realise we have to do a bigger and better job at saying why this is right as Christians, and persuading people it is the right thing to do.”

Given the scale of the transatlantic trade in chattel slaves from this part of the world, the issue was prominent throughout the ACC meeting. Speaking at an act of reconciliation in Christ Cathedral, Accra, the Archbishop said that the trade demonstrated “an industrial approach to cruelty that has been the characteristic of Europe over the centuries since the Renaissance”.

Its deepest element, he said, was the denial of humanity which led to slaves’ being described in the American Constitution as three-fifths of a person: “A dreadful precursor of Auschwitz. . . In all of them we see a coherent pattern of denying the humanity of others.”

He spoke soberly, too, of the scrawled messages on the wall of the Lollards Tower of Lambeth Palace, a cell with eight iron rings, where 15th-century prisoners had declared themselves “imprisoned by a cruel Archbishop of Canterbury”.

The ACC’s newly elected chair, Maggie Swinson (News, 17 February), was also visibly moved by the encounters, acknowledging herself to be “someone with former chattel slaves in my past, and living in a city [Liverpool] which was part of the transatlantic triangle. We live out every aspect of the trade, experiencing it through a wide range of people.”

She described a moment alone in the darkness of the dungeons at Cape Coast, “where it was quite conceivable my ancestors could have waited to be taken to a place of no return. I felt so cut off from God in that place. The desolation is something I shall be reflecting on for some time.”

The ACC’s outgoing chair, Dr Paul Kwong, Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, also referred to slavery in his address at the closing service in St George’s Garrison Anglican Church, Accra. Referring to the transfiguration, he urged the Church to “listen to Jesus”.

The great temptation, as individuals and the Church, he said, was to “settle in, to prefer to stay up in the air. We hear complaints whenever our faith comes too close to live issues. The chapel we visited [at Cape Coast] represented that kind of thinking and theology. We must listen to the Lord Jesus in the ordinary day-to-day lives . . . in the people who are around us . . . down on the plains of real life.”

A resolution carried at the meeting “laments the widespread historic involvement of the Church in the slave trade and other forms of colonisation around the world from the 17th to the 19th centuries, the impacts of which are still being felt across the Communion; grieves the abject failure to see the image of God in all human beings represented by involvement in and profiting from slavery; [and] calls on the Churches of the Communion to work with the Anglican Communion Office to build on work already under way in parts of the Communion to devise a programme of work that seeks to address past damage and combat modern manifestations of this evil”.

Archbishop Welby emphasised, in answer to questions about how the Commissioners’ fund would be directed to the right people, that the money would be directed not to the descendants of enslaved people, but to the communities that had felt the impact of the trade most deeply.

The investment would be led by those who were on the Advisory Council and knew the area, “not by people from England saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do to you.’ It will be impact investment; so it will have a return — with the aim of starting new businesses, creating employment, training, for the community to be more vibrant in their life. They are where the talent is.”

He elaborated: “The object of the decision is seeking to make the issue of past and modern slavery and trafficking much clearer as something that is fought against today.

“When the announcement was made about the money, one of the most startling things was the 200 letters and emails I received, 98 per cent of which said, No, you shouldn’t be doing this. We’re going to do it, but we need to realise we have to do a bigger and better job at saying why this is right as Christians, and persuading people it is the right thing to do”.

The Church was acknowledged to have made four times that amount from the slave trade. The £100 million “must just be a down payment, because repentance desires sacrifice. We are called to transform unjust structures, to live out the Beatitudes. . . It isn’t enough to say, ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with you.’”

Read the Bishop of Norwich’s account of visiting the Cape Coast Castle Museum

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