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General Synod to consider rule change for ‘contested heritage’ memorials

26 June 2023

Bristol Cathedral

Workers cover references to Edward Colston in windows in Bristol Cathedral, in June 2020

Workers cover references to Edward Colston in windows in Bristol Cathedral, in June 2020

CHURCHES and cathedrals that are proposing to move, remove, or alter memorials considered to be “contested heritage”, i.e. connected with racism and slavery, will have to give a clear account of how they have reached their conclusions, if changes to the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules are approved by the General Synod.

The debate about contested heritage — defined by Historic England as objects or places that can be seen as “symbols of injustice” and “a source of great pain for many people” — was sparked by the events that followed the killing of George Floyd in the United States on 25 May 2020, and included the throwing into the harbour of a statue of the Bristol slave trader, Edward Colston.

It prompted Bristol Cathedral and St Mary Redcliffe, to remove panels dedicated to Colston (News, 30 September 2022), and many others to look afresh at the suitability of memorials in their buildings.

The Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England issued guidance in May 2021 (News, 14 May 2021). It emphasised: “It is important to remember that this is not about judging people in the past by the standards of the present but about how items of contested heritage and wider issues of under-representation affect our ability to be a church for all in the 21st century.”

It suggests: “The significance we have ascribed heritage is not fixed and does change. The question is the criteria by which we assess significance.”

The guidance suggests that churches and cathedrals should consider how the presence and presentation of an object affected their ability to be a place open to all as a “local centre of worship and mission”.

The guidance takes into account issues concerning worship and iconography raised by the Windrush Group, and the parallel work of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Task Force, which published its report, From Lament to Action, in April 2021 (News, 23 April 2021).

Amendments to Rules 4 and 5 concern permissions submitted to the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC), where proposals involve “the movement, removal or alteration of a statue, plaque, memorial, monument or other article because it is considered to conflict with the role of the church as a local centre of worship and mission”.

If the changes are approved, those documents will have to include “an explanation of how the intending applicants, in formulating the proposals, have had due regard to guidance issued for the purposes of this sub-paragraph by the Church Buildings Council under section 55 of the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007”.

The DAC will have to state, with its reasons, whether it considers the applicants’ explanation “adequate” or “not adequate”. Amendments to Rule 7 require the diocesan chancellor to state how the guidance has been taken into account in determining the petition.

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