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General Synod digest: members hear about Commissioners’ £100m fund to heal slavery legacy

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker

REPARATIVE work to heal the legacy of slavery in the Church of England was discussed in the General Synod on Monday morning, after members were presented with an update on the Church Commissioners’ £100-million impact investment fund (News, 13 January 2023).

The presentation was followed by questions.

Introducing the work, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said that his visit to a slave prison in Ghana last year had been “an experience I will never forget”.

Next to speak was the Archbishop of York, who said that the “terrible legacy of enslavement” was racism, inequality, and discrimination. “This is our sin as well. Our Church colluded with, encouraged, and profited from human enslavement.”

Slavery remained a reality, and contradictions in theology and history still went uncorrected, he said. The Commissioners’ project would begin this process. Even the great victory of the abolition of slavery had culminated in compensation paid not to former slaves, but to the slave owners, Archbishop Cottrell said. Christianity was about “repairing rupture” and healing injustice; and the Commissioners were inviting the Church to build a different future. “We cannot compensate those who suffered from false theologies, but we can face the past more honestly and begin to repair and heal.”

The Bishop of Croydon, Dr Rosemarie Mallett, said that she had been frustrated by the “endless reports and little action” on racism and slavery in the Church. But there were now “growing shoots of good practice”, she said, pointing to the recent discussion about the Racial Justice Unit (see separate story).

She chaired the oversight group to help the Commissioners to shape their response to the historical findings that some of its precursor funds had benefited financially from slavery. Most of the group were of African descent, and each brought different expertise and experiences, she said.

The programme that they recommended was the product of a consultation with communities in the UK and globally. It was a bold and “audacious” project, which sought to bring about culture change, combining impact investment and research. “We recognise we can’t heal past scars of institutional racism, but it can change the way we work in the present and provide a legacy for a hopeful future.”

Jonathan Guthrie, an associate editor of The Financial Times and a member of the oversight group, said that his world was the City of London, which had a history deeply entwined with chattel slavery. Endowments were a good way to counter historic wrongs, he said. The new fund should serve as “penitent recognition of the Church’s involvement in a great crime against humanity”. He hailed the courage of the Church in proposing a fund, and asking an independent group to plan it: many other City funds equally enmeshed in slavery had not come close to this kind of moral reckoning, he said.

Roy Swan, of the Ford Foundation, another oversight-group member, recalled the US-led Marshall Plan which had donated billions to rebuild post-war Europe. He said that he had been “dumbstruck” when he heard about the Commissioners’ plans. Much like the Marshall Plan, the investment could inspire hope and rebuild “what was once lost”. The fund would unleash black people’s potential and innovation, he hoped. “The Church Commissioners are leading by example,” he said, and the fund would unlock further contributions from society. “I have not even a shadow of a doubt that this historic action will inspire others to act.”

These investments would benefit not only the descendants of slaves, but also the Commissioners, just as the Marshall Plan had been part of the “enlightened self-interest” of the US. Those who saw the new fund as a “loss to the Church” betrayed their failure to recognise that black people were part of the Church, and that “God was watching.” He recalled how Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail condemned US clerics for feigning interest in racial injustice and then failing to act. Sixty years later, Mr Swan wanted to express gratitude that the Commissioners had taken action.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Bishop of Croydon, Dr Rosemarie Mallett

The Dean of St Edmundsbury, the Very Revd Joe Hawes, said that the USPG had already begun its work exploring its own legacy of slavery, and hoped that this could be tied in with the Commissioners’ project.

Dr Walker responded that he was aware of the USPG’s ignominious history with slavery, and was keen to be part of the solution for them, as he had been with the Commissioners. He would be disappointed if their fund stayed at £100 million, as they longed for others to join in.

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Stephen Lake, asked whether the Commissioners understood the project as a slavery reparations fund, as it was often characterised in the media.

The Chief Executive and Secretary of the Church Commissioners, Gareth Mostyn, said that he had originally avoided using the word “reparations”, as the project was not about compensating individuals. He had since been exploring the idea with the oversight group, and they now saw reparations in a broader light. The hope was that the fund would be a “small step on a road to repair”. He hoped that this work could encourage others, such as the USPG, as they embarked on their own journeys.

Canon Douglas Machiridza (Birmingham) asked whether the fund would be enough or “only scratch the surface”.

The Revd Andrew Mumby (Southwark) was impressed with the “careful language” used in the project. Some white people could feel defensive and fragile while exploring these topics, he said. He asked whether the group could advise how they had avoided this.

The Revd Folli Olokose (Guildford) said that times were hard in parishes, and money was running low. Some parishioners had asked where the £100 million was coming from; so, he asked, how would the Commissioners communicate the reality of the fund to correct misinterpretations?

Dr Walker said that the project was about more than just money. To illustrate this, he asked the Archbishop of Canterbury what his recollections were of the visit to Ghana, and slave castles. Archbishop Welby said that he had been struck by the graciousness and forgiveness from Ghanaian church leaders, which he found “moving and overwhelming”.

Dr Walker said that the £100 million was felt to be a good middle ground between something big enough to show that the Church cared, but not so much that it would impinge on the regular allocations from the Commissioners for the C of E.

Mr Guthrie said that he had grown up seeing slavery as a “historic quirk” abolished by “wise white people”. He had been on a journey to understand how the heritage of slavery was all around, both in cultural and capital terms. The report would still be challenging for white readers, but there was nothing there that was wrong. It was simply a bold statement of reality.

The Revd Arwen Folkes (Chichester) asked whether the research had shown whether other parts of the Church were also enmeshed financially with slavery.

Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester) asked whether advice could be given to parishes on how to pastor and honour the descendants of slaves in their midst.

The Revd Jane Maycock (Carlisle) said that her nearest church included the tombstone of a freed slave, and a tomb for a local slaveowner. She asked for material to help parishes to engage with similar issues.

Mr Mostyn responded that the research had taken longer than expected because of how much there was to learn, and had been shared transparently across the Church. It did not go beyond Queen Anne’s Bounty, but it did show how many personal benefactors of the Bounty, also embedded in parishes, had benefited financially from slavery.

Dr Mallett said that one parish in her episcopal area had produced its own report on local heritage connected to slavery. “If you’re intentional about wanting to get under the skin of your community and church’s history, we can support you.”

Archbishop Cottrell said that his stipend was paid directly by the Commissioners, and that he therefore felt uncomfortable knowing that ten per cent of the Commissioners’ fund came directly from money made through slavery. This story was replicated throughout the Church, as Ms Maycock had indicated. Resources would be produced to educate people about this, he said. “We are doing something really significant here, but we take no pride in it.”

He also spoke of the evangelistic potential of the project, saying that he could now tell young people whom he met about how the C of E was finally being honest with itself about its history, and trying to make it right.

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