Contested heritage – A review of the Church of England guidance

In a guest post, Trevor Cooper, of the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance, looks at the issues surrounding “contested heritage”.

Introduction [1]

The killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020, captured in a shocking video, was followed by protests across the world, including in the UK. These included a demonstration in Bristol on 7 June when a statue of Edward Colston was thrown into the harbour. This and other events galvanised public debate regarding statues with a connection to slavery. On 5 January 2022, having opted for jury trial, four of those who pulled down Colston’s statue were found not guilty of criminal damage, which has encouraged further public debate. Two churches in the Church of England have now sought approval for the removal of memorials.

This article summarises the current position in the Church of England (C of E) on memorials related to slavery, and compares it to the secular position, discussing a number of aspects that might usefully be subject to further development. It falls into four parts:

Secular Planning Law Backgrounda summary of the secular law for contested heritage;

Church of England: June 2020 to April 2021the June 2020 position taken by the C of E, and developments in the first part of 2021;

Contested Heritage“: a description of the guidance published by the C of E in May 2021, and its use; and

Discussion “Contested Heritagea discussion of five particular aspects of this guidance.

The Conclusion to this discussion is followed by a list of the Notes and references used in the post.

Throughout this note, the word “church” should be taken to include cathedrals.

Secular Planning Law Background

The C of E has its own internal systems for approving changes to its buildings, whether listed or not. These are the faculty jurisdiction for parish churches and a separate regime for cathedrals.[2] For relevant external changes to churches, and for change of use, the C of E additionally requires secular planning permission. However, like a number of other denominations, it is exempt from seeking listed building consent for statutorily listed churches. In this respect, the C of E and the other exempt denominations are “expected to take into account the legitimate views of the wider heritage world”. [3]

Historic England, the Government’s adviser on heritage, published a set of “legitimate views” for listed buildings two years before Colston’s statue came down, in its May 2018 Position on Contested Heritage in Listed Building Decisions. This included a useful definition, which in its current form reads:

“By ‘contested heritage’ we mean historic objects, structures, buildings or places where the associated stories or meanings have become challenged … when heritage becomes contested, strongly-held views tend to exist on all sides”.[4]

The original Position said of contested heritage:

“Historic England encourages contemporary responses to contested heritage that do not lead to the removal or significant alteration of protected historic sites or monuments. … there are sometimes calls to remove or alter the building or monument … we would usually recommend that clear, long-lasting and/or innovative reinterpretation [can be used]” [5]

HE’s view has remained substantially unchanged since 2018, though has been considerably expanded. The most recent version uses the phrase ‘retain and explain’ to summarise the policy.[6]

Given the continued level of public interest, on 25 September 2020 the Government set out its views in a Ministerial Statement. The statement, which is worth reading in full for its acknowledgement of the issues, said:

“We believe that the right approach to statues, however contentious, is to retain and explain their presence …” [my italics].[7]

On 18 January 2021, the Government stated that the “retain and explain” policy “now forms part of national planning policy and should be applied accordingly”. A Press Release stated that “Historic England and the Secretary of State will apply the new policy of ‘retain and explain’, meaning historic statues will only be removed in the most exceptional circumstances [my italics]”.[8]

In April 2021 the relevant measures were put in place, among other things confirming that the demolition of an unlisted statue or commemorative memorial needs planning permission. Local Planning Authorities are to consult the Secretary of State if they intend to grant such permission when the statue or memorial has been in place for ten or more years. HE is to be notified of applications for full or part demolition of memorials that are on, or are part of, a listed building, with Grade II buildings being brought into the net; HE is also to be notified of the decision.[9]

The Government summarised the position regarding contested heritage on 18 June 2021:

“… the removal of these historic assets, whether listed or not, now requires listed building consent or planning permission. If a council intends to grant permission for the removal of a particular asset, the Secretary of State will be notified in order to decide whether to call in the decision for determination”.[10]

Another development is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which at the time of writing is passing through Parliament. For criminal damage to a memorial, this will remove the current link between the maximum sentence and the value of the damage caused, allowing a maximum prison sentence of ten years for any damage. The definition of “memorial” is wide, and is not restricted to immovable items.[11]


Church of England: June 2020 to April 2021

  • 3.1 June 2020: initial statements and actions
  • 3.2 Spring 2021: Archbishop’s interviews
  • 3.3 From Lament to Action

3.1 June 2020: initial statements and actions

Events in the C of E moved quickly after the Colston statue was pulled down. On 16 June 2020 dedicatory panels mentioning Edward Colston were removed in Bristol Cathedral and St Mary Redcliffe. In mid-June 2020 it was reported that reviews of monuments and their links to slavery had begun or were being continued at Bristol Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, Manchester Cathedral, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey. The bust to Sir John Cass was removed from St Botolph’s Aldgate, City of London.[12]

On 19 June, Becky Clark, director of cathedrals and church buildings for the Archbishops’ Council of the C of E, said:

“We acknowledge that dialogue alone is not sufficient, and must have real outcomes. These may include the alteration or removal of monuments. . . Churches and cathedrals are considering how they can address the issues …” [13]

A week later, on 26 June 2021, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4 about life after the COVID-19 pandemic. In the course of this, there was a discussion of monuments in churches to those engaged in the slave trade. The archbishop emphasised the possibility of forgiveness, linking this to the necessity of justice, then added – in remarks which later he wryly admitted had got him in “terrible trouble” for “speaking carelessly” – that “you just go around Canterbury Cathedral, there’s monuments everywhere, or Westminster Abbey, and we’re looking at all that, and some will have to come down”. He emphasised this was not his decision, and that he had not said that monuments would be taken down from within Canterbury Cathedral. “We’re going to be looking very carefully and putting them in context and seeing if they all should be there [14]

Not surprisingly, the media showed considerable interest. The headlines and clickbait summarised the mixed messages in one or both of two ways: the need for a review of statues in churches, or that some statues in churches “will have to come down”. [15]

On the same day, the C of E issued a statement which referenced the Archbishop’s comments and was presumably intended to clarify the Church’s intentions. [16] It confirmed that “action is being taken … to consider monuments” and emphasised the need for open and honest dialogue, and that there was no single answer. It referred to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comment on forgiveness: “we can only forgive the actions of the past when we have justice in the present, and statues and memorials need to be seen in both the context of the past and the present.”[17] It repeated that there must be “real outcomes”, which may include permission for alteration or removal of monuments.

3.2 Spring 2021: Archbishop’s interviews

In early Spring 2021, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave two major interviews in which he returned to the subject of statues. Both deserve quoting at length:

La Repubblica, 20 March 2021: “On the statues, what we were looking at was whether we had memorials and statues where the language on them was so abusive that there was no way of putting it in context. I’m very glad to say that we’ve reviewed all the statutes, for instance, here at Canterbury, and that there was nothing that needed changing. Around the Church of England, I think there’s been one or two that were really terrible. They’ll go into a museum and there’ll be an explanation on why we now disagree with this person who 200 years ago had a statue put up there.”[18]

BBC, 23 April 2021: “… as a historian, I’m deeply committed to contextualization. …. You know that 99.99 per cent [of statues and monuments] will stay, but they will stay in many cases with saying, At that time, this was believed. Set this against the good news of Jesus Christ and what Christ says about the equality of all people, and then reflect on whether this person was wholly bad, worth a statue, or just a normal human being who lived in his time, her time, and got things really wrong”.[19]

These comments are strikingly similar to the secular planning mantra of “retain and explain”. Although the Archbishop’s remarks have no statutory force, they might be thought to carry moral and theological weight as to his vision for how he sees the C of E fulfilling its missional and pastoral obligations in handling the issues raised by the memorialisation of those involved in slavery.

3.3 From Lament to Action

The C of E’s guidance was published in May 2021 under the title Contested Heritage in Cathedrals and Churches. Whilst it was being drafted, the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce was working on a quite separate report, From Lament to Action, which was published on 22 April 2021. This made proposals for tackling racism in what the Archbishop of Canterbury has described as a ‘deeply institutionally racist’ organisation.[20]

The report’s recommendations included creating a new Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission. It suggested several workstreams for the new body. [21] For a workstream on “Slavery (including Monuments)”, the report proposed a Commission which should

“take decisive action to address the history and legacy of the Church of England’s involvement in the historic transatlantic slave trade…” [my italics].

And as part of its rationale it noted:

“While history should not be hidden, we also do not want to unconditionally celebrate or commemorate people who contributed to or benefitted from the tragedy that was the slave trade” [my italics]. [22]

Of the report’s 39 recommendations, 34 have been accepted.[23] In particular, the Racial Justice Commission has now been set up, though its published terms of reference do not refer explicitly to the workstream mentioned above. [24] Whether the Commission will have an active role in contested heritage, and whether this will be public or behind the scenes, is not yet clear.

The report itself is not a formal policy statement of any of the national church institutions. On the other hand, Contested Heritage explicitly takes into account the creation of the Racial Justice Commission, and both the above quotations were referenced in the Press Release accompanying that guidance, and may therefore represent the Church’s underlying hopes or intentions. [25]


4 “Contested Heritage“

  • 4.1 Publication
  • 4.2 Purpose of Contested Heritage
  • 4.3 Framework
  • 4.4 Mission of the church
  • 4.5 Use of Contested Heritage

4.1 Publication

On 11 May 2021, the C of E published its guidance on contested heritage, Contested Heritage in Cathedrals and Churches (referred to in this paper as Contested Heritage) and a Brief Guide.[26]

Separately, and not repeated in either of the documents, the relevant webpage contains a summary of what changes can be carried out without permission. For parish churches, this should be read in the light of the statutory schedule of minor works, and for cathedrals the types of proposal requiring approval.[27]

Both Contested Heritage and the Brief Guide stress that they are statutory guidance:

“As it [the document] is statutory guidance, it must be considered with great care. The standards of good practice set out in the guidance should not be departed from unless the departure is justified by reasons that are spelled out clearly, logically and convincingly”.[28]

This emphasises the weight that should be attached to them, though it is not suggested that they override current law.

The Brief Guide is intended as a “helpful starting point for those considering this topic for the first time”.[29] For the most part, the wording is taken directly from the full guidance. However, in some places the two have drifted apart, and these relatively minor differences could usefully be tidied up.[30]

One difference is worth highlighting. The Brief Guide expects one to consider:

“How does the presence and/or presentation of the object affect the ability of the church to be a place open to all as a centre of local worship and mission and/or complementary uses such as charitable works, community activities, commercial activity, or pilgrimage?” [my italics][31]

This echoes and considerably expands the existing statutory duty to have regard to a church’s purpose, namely that:

“A person carrying out functions of care and conservation . . . must have due regard to the role of a church as a local centre of worship and mission” [my italics].[32]

It is notable that this formal phraseology is not used in the equivalent passage of the full guidance; nor does that document make any mention of “commercial activity” (which was, for this author, a surprising inclusion in the Brief Guide).[33]

4.2 Purpose of Contested Heritage

The purpose of the full guidance, Contested Heritage, is to “provide a practical framework for addressing issues of contested heritage in relation to specific historic objects in a church or cathedral context”. The aim has been “to find ways of mediating discussion that will help churches and cathedrals and their wider communities to develop solutions that will ultimately tackle the issues behind the feelings that contentious memorials evoke”.[34]

It restricts itself to just one category of contested heritage, namely “the memorialisation in tangible form [which includes glazing and wall painting] of people or events connected with racism and slavery” in church and cathedral buildings. The guidance explicitly does not cover other physical forms of heritage such as buildings, books and manuscripts, nor intangible items such as financial endowments, nor other contested matters such as “gender, religion or sexual orientation”. However, such guidance in these areas “may also be needed” and it is hoped will be given future consideration. Although it is accepted that a different range of considerations would apply, it is said that the same principles or methodology could be adapted.[35]

Instead of attempting to summarise the guidance in its entirety, two significant elements are discussed in some detail – the framework for deciding on possible change and the weight given to the mission of the church.

This is to ignore other important matters which are covered or raised in passing, such as legal considerations, the need for wide and sensitive consultation and reaching out, the requirement for research to be of sufficient depth, the difference between “no action” and “no change”, the changing perception of church heritage, and the question whether it is desirable to carry out a proactive survey of all the contested heritage in a church.[36]

4.3 Framework

The purpose of the report is to “provide a practical framework”, and this is “to aid rather than to pre-empt the decision-making process”, as “each case needs to be considered individually”.[37]

The underlying framework is in fact the standard one for considering change in a church: it covers the significance of the object, the need for change, the options for change, and their impact on significance.

Within this framework, a number of questions and matters for consideration are proposed, though it is not suggested that this is a complete list. The guidance says these should be explored in consultation with “a representative group of experts and interested parties” in a “collective activity”.[38]

Questions regarding Significance: [39] What is the nature of the object?– does it mark a burial, commemorate an individual, record a gift or donation, etc? What evidence does it provide about the past, what is its historical interest, what is its level of artistic merit or interest? What is its significance to the local community and more widely, and to living family members? What makes the object contested today? How does the object refer (if at all) to its ‘problematic nature or contested origin’?[40] This last question is expanded into sub-questions, for example, whether the memorial celebrates the contested area, or deliberately hides it, or is silent on it.

Two points may be worth considering in future editions. First, in a separate section of the guidance it is explained that the heirs at law of the person commemorated are the owners of the memorial, and as owners “must be actively traced and consulted”. The framework does not make this clear, and probably ought to, as Consistory Courts sometimes place considerable weight on this.[41]

Secondly, whether the building is listed, and the grade of listing, should be taken into account when considering significance – the framework does not make this point.[42]

Questions regarding the need for change.[43] How does the object affect the ability to undertake worship and mission? Does the prominence of the object and its message make worship difficult? Would a change allow the building to be used more widely by groups not currently using it for community and civic functions, through changed relationships with such groups? How would the role of the building as a pilgrim or tourist destination, or its scholarly, historical or education interest, be affected by any changes?[44]

Questions regarding options for change:[45] Various options for change are listed, presented in order from least to most interventionist: making no change; providing interpretation in various different ways; adding to the object or providing a site-specific artwork to stand alongside it; altering it non-permanently, for example with a partial cover over the offensive elements; relocating it within the building or putting it in storage or handing it to another body, either on loan or permanently (though in general there should be a presumption against relocating a burial marker from a grave); permanent alteration, for example, by changing the inscription; or, finally, destruction (though even as a legal remedy this is unlikely to be acceptable). [46]

Considering the impact of change:[47] Some 23 different possible outcomes (i.e. results of the decision regarding the contested object) are put forward for consideration. Of these, 14 are in the area of mission, and 9 apply to the object. They are further categorised as potential strengths, weaknesses, threats or opportunities. They are presented in a matrix, showing which outcomes might occur with each type of change, though it is explained that this will vary with individual circumstances.[48]

The framework has no discussion of cost, except that when considering the impact of change, the ‘resources required’ need to be taken into account. Elsewhere it has usefully been pointed out that the minimum cost for removing a small wall-plaque and making good is about £1,500, on top of which are the costs of transport and storage.[49]

4.4 Mission of the church

The purpose of the ecclesiastical exemption from listed building consent is to allow churches “to adapt to meet changing liturgical preferences, and to meet the needs of today’s worshippers and other users”.[50] In line with the general duty mentioned above, and unlike equivalent secular decisions, decisions must take into account the impact on the mission of the church. Thus Contested Heritage gives particular weight to matters of mission.

The guidance says it “supports the mission of the Church by helping churches to be places of welcome and solace for all people”. Churches should be places “where all people are able to worship God, and be welcoming to all for the activities they undertake for communities”.[51]

It is of particular importance that “symbols of injustice and sources of pain are acknowledged and addressed”. At present, people might not feel welcome because of the presence of objects they find troubling “because of their depiction or commemoration of, or association with, the oppression or marginalisation of people on the basis of their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation”. Different levels of impact may be felt depending on whether the object commemorates an individual or celebrates a person or event. Furthermore, different degrees of involvement may be perceived between e.g. slave traders, financiers and beneficiaries of the slave trade.[52]

Additionally, ignoring different and under-represented narratives once they have been revealed may be viewed by some as being “complicit in the structural discrimination that exists in UK society”.[53] At worst, “for these objects to remain in place with no discussion or interpretation could be taken to imply that the oppression and disenfranchisement they evoke for many . . . is socially and theologically acceptable to the Church”.[54]

The impact of the object on the ability to undertake both “missional, pastoral and liturgical activities” and “worship and mission” must therefore be assessed. Similarly, proposed changes need to be considered from “liturgical, theological, missional and community perspectives”. The guidance indicates some of the questions that might be asked in this context: How is the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom affected? How is the capacity to teach, baptise and nurture compromised? In what ways is the building not being used by the wider community because of the object? How does it detrimentally affect liturgical use of the space?[55]

At the same time, “the high regard in which others hold these monuments and memorials can also be understood”.[56] Thus, the guidance says:

“On the one hand, the presence of memorials associated with contested heritage in churches today may be at odds with the message of the Church and its regard for its diverse congregation; on the other, this diverse congregation may also include those who would regard the removal of this material culture from their place of worship as objectionable.[57].

If there is a tension between a building’s heritage and its present-day Christian mission, then this tension must be responded to in a balanced and nuanced way ‘taking into account both the historical and aesthetic significance of an object and the painful feelings it may provoke”. [58].

The guidance explains:

“what needs to be proven is not principally that a memorial is to somebody (or perhaps donated by somebody) whose views or actions we would now condemn,[59] but rather that the presence of the memorial has a demonstrable negative impact on the mission and ministry of the church or cathedral; and, in the case of a proposed course of action that may be considered harmful to the heritage of a building, that substantially the same benefits could not be achieved by a less harmful option”.[60]

The guidance says that in all this:

“Discussions … should be framed to avoid starkly binary thinking that classes anyone as wholly good or evil. … From a Christian perspective every memorial is a memorial to a sinner, … and the final moral reckoning on all our lives is known to God alone. The focus of discussion should be the impact of a piece of material culture on a church or cathedral’s ability to be a place of welcome and solace to all, and how this should best be addressed, not on whether an individual deserves to be expunged from the historical record”.[61]

4.5 Use of Contested Heritage

It is believed that the published guidance has been referenced in just two judgments to date, both unopposed. Both were additive in nature, not proposing removing or changing an existing object.[62]

The first was a successful application for a faculty to create an educational area dedicated to the life and work of John Newton, in Olney church, Buckinghamshire. In support of the application, the judgment summarised Contested Heritage and also quoted from Lament to Action, using the second quote given above.[63]

The second was an unopposed application for a faculty to install a new mural monument at St Mary’s Church, Barnes, south-west London, to sixteen members of the local Hoare family who died in the later eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, and are buried in a vault in the church. This was in place of a monument lost to fire some forty years ago. None of those commemorated had connections with the slave trade, but a three-generations previous ancestor did. In considering the application the Chancellor and one of his consultees both referred to Contested Heritage in connection with the provision of appropriate interpretative material. The application for a faculty was approved.[64]

There are two cases in the offing known to the author to which the guidance will probably apply, one unopposed, one opposed. Both are applications for faculties to remove a memorial.

At St Peter’s, Dorchester, Dorset in late September 2020 by permission of the archdeacon a temporary cover was placed over part of the inscription on the memorial plaque to Dr John Gordon. Later a faculty application was made for the plaque’s removal. This is unopposed: it is understood that Historic England wrote a letter of objection, but did not wish to become party opponents. The application is presently being considered by the Diocesan Chancellor.[65]

The first opposed faculty application to which Contested Heritage will be relevant is likely to be for the removal of the memorial to Tobias Rustat from the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge and its placement in a display area. The application is opposed by a number of College alumni and has been objected to by some of Rustat’s collateral descendants. The Consistory Court hearing is set for early February 2022, and may well set an important precedent.[66]

In a recent and rather different development, works by Eric Gill are being evaluated at Guildford Cathedral, St Thomas the Apostle, Hanwell, London, St Mary the Virgin Lapworth, Warwickshire and St Mary, Garsington, Oxfordshire. The issue in these cases is the moral standing of the sculptor, not of the person being commemorated, and different considerations may well apply.[67]


Discussion Contested Heritage

Contested Heritage is a serious contribution to a newly-emerging issue; although a document of some twenty pages, it is straightforward and easy to read. However, in the author’s view, any future edition would benefit from further development in a number of areas, five of which are discussed here.

  • 5.1 Issue 1: Memorials and grave markers
  • 5.2 Issue 2: Significance
  • 5.3 Issue 3: Assessing need
  • 5.4 Issue 4: Contextualisation
  • 5.5 Issue 5: ‘Retain and explain’

5.1 Issue 1: Memorials and grave markers (paras 1 & 2 revised, 30 January 2022)

Many intra-mural memorials alert the viewer, either explicitly or by implication, to the resting place of a fellow human being. The grave is frequently under the floor of the same building, and often more or less beneath the feet of the reader. The guidance states that in general there should be a presumption against relocating a burial marker from a grave[68]. One would expect, therefore, for this presumption against relocation to apply to intra-mural memorials as well as those in a graveyard.

It is of course common for such memorials to carry inscriptions which deliberately celebrate at some length the “civic and community values” of the deceased, for others to emulate. This was common practice for centuries, and thousands of memorials carry such inscriptions. But this is independent of any role they have as grave markers.

It is therefore surely a mistake for Contested Heritage to suggest that “celebratory monuments, dedicatory inscriptions and statuary intended to make statements of civic or community values” are only “occasionally” also grave markers.[69]

If taken at face value, this passage in Contested Heritage would mean that memorials with such inscriptions will only occasionally be regarded as grave markers. If taken literally it would not only disenfranchise them from the presumption against relocation but might mean that the fact that they speak of an individual buried within the building is not given its due weight.

A future edition of the guidance could usefully correct this, as it could cause confusion. It might also unpack not only what is meant by ‘celebration’ on a memorial and why it might matter, but also the relevance (if any) of the object being a statue or other figurative representation.

5.2 Issue 2: Significance

Despite the upheavals of the past four hundred years in religion and in taste, our historic churches are blessed with a large number and rich variety of funerary memorials. In fact, they are one of the defining characteristics of Anglican church interiors and create a great deal of their interest and significance.

This not just aesthetic or historical. Inscriptions invite the viewer to muse on the life of the deceased, and to extend this reflection to their own life, all within a building permanently set aside for consideration of serious matters. Indeed, personal observation suggests that the average visitor to a historic parish church will spend considerably more time quietly looking at the memorials than at the architectural highlights. Importantly, memorials in a church are “discovered” by a visitor as he or she moves around the building at will, knowing that the memorials have been inserted into that very building over time as needed, and that each belongs to the building.

This is a quite different experience from being presented with a curated memorial in a museum or gallery, detached from the grave of the person it commemorates and its wider setting.[70][70] Today we are more than ever aware of the importance of a sculpture remaining within its original context, and this must be particularly true of commemorative memorials in a church, with their multiple layers of meaning.

Future versions of the guidance could usefully consider whether such factors should be given more weight than at present.[71]

5.3 Issue 3: Assessing need

Typically, when an existing element in a church is changed from its original state in order to improve the building’s missional effectiveness, this alters what can physically be done in the building. For example, the removal of pews increases space, a change in floor levels improves accessibility, and the movement of an altar allows worship to be carried out in a different way. The need for the change has an objective basis: new things will be done in the building which were physically impossible before; those things are demonstrably desirable; therefore there is a need for change.[72]

In contrast, the guidance requires the need for change to be evaluated not in terms of change allowing activities which were physically impossible before, but at least partly in the light of attitudes and reactions to the contested object – for example, the painful feelings it may provoke in some people, or the high regard in which others might hold the same object – and their consequences. This is a very significant shift in the notion of need.

The difficulty (an obvious one) is that this emphasis on individual reaction as the fundamental basis for change may make it difficult for the various parties and consultees to reach an agreed view on need. Although the guidance does not avoid these issues, it does little to resolve them except through an emphasis – a very welcome emphasis – on dialogue.

This may make it difficult for decision making bodies (the Consistory Courts for parish churches, the Fabric Advisory Committees or Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England for cathedrals) to weigh up the actual evidence for need in those cases where agreement cannot be reached. They may find themselves having to explore such matters as the reasoning behind the various attitudes, and their proportionality, relevance, standing and weight.

A further complication is that a congregation might wish to make a change in the absence of any evidence of actual negative missional impact in their particular case. For example, the congregation might recently have come to believe the object as it now stands is socially or theologically unacceptable; or might now fear they could wrongly be perceived as condoning the actions of the person commemorated (particularly if other churches are making changes); or in the light of current concerns they may wish to express their views about that person and others who behaved in the same way. How are such perceived needs to be weighed up?

It is noticeable that in the guidance such a proactive approach by a congregation is hinted at, but hardly discussed. On the other hand, a degree of activism was suggested in broad terms for the new Racial Justice Commission but has not fed through to its published terms of reference, and it is uncertain whether and how it will develop.

In all this, it feels to the author as though the guidance stretches the notion of ‘need’ to the limit, and the whole area may need further conceptual development in order to provide greater clarity for applicants and those charged with making decisions. Unfortunately, it seems to him that one proposed solution, shoehorning these issues into Historic England’s concept of ‘communal significance’, would only displace them, not make them easier to resolve.[73]

Despite these difficulties, the Courts have great experience in navigating choppy waters, so perhaps an agreed approach will emerge within the current framework. Time will tell.

5.4 Issue 4: Contextualisation

The guidance is silent on the question of historical contextualisation – that is, the extent to which one should interpret the actions of a person in the past in the light of the norms and expectations of their own time.[74]

This ignores the lead given by Archbishop Justin, quoted earlier, on the importance of contextualisation (as it happens, supported very recently, by the Pope).[75]

However, it may be that the Courts and other decision-making bodies will attempt such contextualisation, despite its non-appearance in the guidance. They may also wish to bring specifically Christian doctrine – for example, on fallenness, grace, forgiveness, remembrance and the status of human judgement – more to the fore than in the guidance, where it makes only the briefest of appearances.

The guidance suggests that in addition to slavery, heritage may in future be contested in other areas, such as gender, religion and sexual orientation. Indeed, given the experience with secular statues, it seems improbable that future cases will be limited to those spheres. It is therefore likely that the way in which the Courts and other decision-making bodies approach these questions for memorials to those involved with slavery will also in future apply to other matters.

5.5 Issue 5: “Retain and explain”

Finally, nowhere in Contested Heritage is there a stated presumption in favour of retention and interpretation, despite the fact that, as discussed above, Archbishop Justin has spoken out in favour of this approach for the very great majority of cases. In this respect, for listed churches the guidance also appears to be out of step with its secular equivalent of “retain and explain”.[76]

This may be an oversight. Or it may be that the authors of the guidance would argue that the general presumption in favour of no change is enough, and/or that missional considerations and a concern for Christian values makes a presumption in favour of ‘retain and explain’ inappropriate. But this is to put words into their mouths.

Whether this turns out merely to be a theoretical divergence between the C of E and secular jurisdictions or a true parting of the ways will perhaps depend on the actual proposals brought forward, their justification, and the decisions made.



Contested Heritage is an important document which will shape the Church of England’s approach to a complex issue. In an area where attitudes can be polarised and held strongly, it proposes an irenic, systematic and measured approach to consultation and decision making. Although in the author’s view it would benefit from further development in a number of areas, its publication is a major milestone on a matter which is likely to be with us for some time.


The author is writing in a personal capacity and not on behalf of any organisation with which he is connected. He would welcome corrections and improvements to this.

Trevor Cooper


At about the time the above paper was published, the Church of England published the full Terms of Reference for the Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission, discussed in sections 3.3 and 5.3 above. (The Terms of reference form the appendix of GS 2243 Paper for Racial Justice Debate for the February 2022 General Synod.)

These work streams will be co-led by members of the Commission.

They include a work stream on ‘Slavery’ as proposed in the report From Lament to Action. However, in that report this was named ‘Slavery (including monuments)’. It is not known whether the shortening of the name in the Terms of Reference to ‘Slavery’ alone is significant.

Trevor Cooper, 31 January 2022

Notes and references 

[1] I am extremely grateful to a number of people with expertise in the areas covered by this paper who were kind enough to comment anonymously on earlier drafts. The section on the secular background received its initial impetus from the excellent OUDCE seminar on Contested Heritage (27 May, 2021), led by Stephen Bond and Henry Russell. Any errors or oversights are mine. Website URLs were correct on 12 January 2022.

[2] A useful guide for parish churches is Charles Mynors, Changing Churches: a Practical Guide to the Faculty System (2016). For Cathedrals, see CFCE, A User’s Guide to the Care of Cathedrals Measure (2019) with the relevant Measure.

[3] Operation of the Ecclesiastical Exemption (July 2010), paragraph 1.

[4] Historic England, Checklist to Help Local Authorities Deal With Contested Heritage Decisions, (the “Checklist”). updated 26 October 2021.

[5] The original HE Position (published 8 May 2018) is no longer on the HE website. It may be found here. It contained the original version of the definition of contested heritage. The Position was published together with a Checklist to help Local Authorities deal with such decisions (see below).

[6] The 8 May 2018 Position remained on the HE website until (it seems) mid 2020, when it was replaced by a page headed ‘Contested Heritage’, which contains a briefer formulation on retaining monuments than that in the Position. The Local Authority Checklist was modified on 3 Dec 2020 and includes the most recent, expanded, formulation on retaining monuments which appears to be the first use by HE of the phrase ‘retain and explain’. The Checklist was further updated on 26 October 2021. The original Checklist of 8 May 2018 may be found here.

[7]  Hansard: Public Statues25 September 2020 Vol 680, Col 1322.

[8] Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Local Government and Communities Planning and Heritage Update; Statement, 18 January 2021. Press releaseNew legal protection for England’s heritage17 January 2021. Law and Religion UK, “Contested heritage” and listing statues: new proposals from MHCLG, 19 January 2021.

[9] E.g. the following came into force on 21 April 2021: Demolition Direction (England) 2021Consultation Direction (England) 2021;   Arrangements for Handling Heritage Applications (England) 2021;   Amendment to General Permitted Development (England) 2021; See Planning Practice Guidelines paras 125 and 126. The National Planning Policy Framework was updated 18 July 2021, see paragraph 198 and passim (esp. chapter 16 where relevant).

[10] Alex Sobel, Written Question for Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, UIN 13214, tabled on 9 June 2021, answered on 18 June 2021.

[11] Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, HL Bill 95. [now the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, see S50 Criminal damage to memorials: mode of trial]. 

[12] General: Church Times, (£), Anti-racism focus turns to church statues, 19 June 2020. Bristol: BBC, Edward Colston: Church windows honouring slave trader removed, 16 June 2020; and Bristol Cathedral, A Statement on Colston Windows, 16 June 2020; Church of England, Decision of Cathedrals Fabric Commission (Form 10), 10 October 2020; see also Bristol Cathedral, Research Brief: Monuments Audit of Contested Heritage in Bristol Cathedral. Subsequently Canterbury Cathedral stated that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that any monuments would be removed: The Times (£), Canterbury Cathedral resists Justin Welby’s move against statues linked to slavery, 6 February 2021, and Daily Mail, ‘Good history is not about judging’: Historian praises Canterbury Cathedral ‘for keeping statues with slavery links’ despite suggestion from Archbishop Justin Welby that some may be torn down, 9 February 2021. St Paul’sPantheons: Sculpture at St Paul’s Cathedral, c.1796-1916 [Link not secure]. Westminster Abbey: Daily Telegraph, (£), Westminster Abbey will review memorials reflect attitudes time, 15 June 2020; St Botolph’sNow St Botolph’s Church in Aldgate removes bust of John Cass following George Floyd killing in US, 18 June 2020.

[13] Church Times (£), Anti-racism focus turns to church statues, 19 June 2020.

[14] No transcript of the interview has been located. This account is based on the online Guardian of 26 June 2020 here, which has been compared with the Church Times of 3 July 2020 (p. 7). For Archbishop Justin’s later remarks, see the interview with BBC Nick Robinson, 23 April 2021 referenced below.

[15] E.g. Reuters: Church of England needs to review statues over slavery, archbishop says, 26 June 2020; BBC website: Archbishop of Canterbury: Church statues to be reviewed ‘very carefully’, 26 June 2020; The Times: Some Church of England statues will have to come down, says Archbishop of Canterbury, 26 June 2020; Catholic Herald: Justin Welby: Some statues on religious sites ‘will have to come down’, 26 June 2020.

[16] Church of England, Update on church and cathedral monuments, 26 June 2020.

[17] Cf Luke 11:4.

[18] La Repubblica, Justin Welby: “What I learnt from Covid, the threat of cancel culture and the truth on Harry & Meghan’s wedding”, 30 March 2021.

[19] Extract from Political Thinking with Nick Robinson, BBC Radio 4, 23 April 2021 (at 36min 20 seconds); for a lightly edited extract, see Church Times (£), Let’s question, but not have a culture war, says Archbishop of Canterbury 23 April 2021.

[20] For C of E institutional racism, see General Synod votes to apologise over racism, 11 February 2020. and From Lament to Action, e.g. p. 11.

[21] From Lament to Action; Archbishops’ immediate response at Archbishops’ statement in response to Anti-Racism Taskforce Report, 22 April 2021.

[22] From Lament to Action, p. 53

[23] Church of England Press Release, Racial Justice Officers: Statement by Archbishop Stephen Cottrell, Bishop David Walker and Canon John Spence, 12 July 2021; the proposal to appoint a Racial Justice Officer in each of the 42 dioceses was one of those rejected.

[24] Racial Justice Commission.. The Commission will concentrate on five key areas: participation (including appointments), education, training and mentoring, young people, and structures and governance (presentation to General Synod on 9 July 2021 here).

[25] Contested Heritage, p. 8; Church of England, Press release: New guidance will help churches and cathedrals to address questions of contested heritage, 11 May 2021.

[26] Contested Heritage, v1.1 Issued by the Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England, copyright the Archbishops’ Council;. A list of consultees is on p. 8 of Contested Heritage. The consultation process was confidential, carried out with parties selected by the C of E. Interviews on publication with Becky Clark: The Guardian, Church to consider removing or altering slavery monuments, 9 May 2021 and Daily Mail, Artefacts with links to slavery and colonialism could be removed from churches in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, 11 May 2021.  The Church Times reported (£) Review church monuments and commit to racial justice, says C of E guidance, 11 May 2021. Law and Religion UK, Church of England guidance on “contested heritage”, 11 May 2021.

[27] See the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules as amended (FJR) List A, at pages 54–61. For cathedrals, see A User’s Guide (referenced above), pp. 13–14.

[28] Statutory by virtue of being ‘issued by the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England pursuant to its powers under section 3(3)(a) of the Care of Cathedrals Measure 2011, and by the Church Buildings Council pursuant to its powers under section 55(1)(d) of the Dioceses, Mission and Pastoral Measure 2007’. The relevant measures are here and here. One reviewer of this article queried whether a document could be both ‘statutory’ and ‘guidance’.

[29] Brief Guide, unpaginated (first page).

[30] The most jarring is the different positions of the equivalent sections headed ‘Assess the need for change’/’What is the need for change?’, which affects the logic of the process being undertaken.

[31] Brief Guide, unpaginated (third page).

[32] Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018, section 35.

[33] Contested Heritage, p. 20.

[34] Contested Heritage, p. 7.

[35] Contested Heritage, pp. 7, 8, 11, 17, 18.

[36] Contested Heritage, pp. 7, 8, 12, 13–14, 18, 21.

[37] Contested Heritage, pp. 7, 8. Jean Wilson gives examples of the complexities which may be faced in her ‘Fallacies in Duration’, in Toppling Statues, ed. Marjorie Trusted with Joanna Barnes (Watford, 2021), pp. 11–24.

[38] Contested Heritage, p. 18.

[39] Contested Heritage, pp. 19–20.

[40] This could be better worded. Perhaps ‘facts which make it contested’.

[41] Contested Heritage, pp. 14, 20. On p. 23 the guidance incorrectly states that ‘disposal’ is transferring ownership ‘from the church or cathedral’. For ownership and the Court’s powers, see the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018, section 66. There is considerable case law on this matter, and a series of examples is discussed in D. Wilson, ‘The Arches Court, Wootton St Lawrence and church monuments’, Church Monuments, XXI (2006), pp. 141–84. For an example of the recent importance attached to finding the owner of a memorial, see Re St. Sebastian Wokingham [2021] ECC Oxf 1.

[42] Contested Heritage, pp. 19–20. Listing is briefly mentioned under ‘Options for Change’ on p. 22, and the need to look after designated heritage assets in the legal section on p. 14.

[43] Contested Heritage, p. 20.

[44] This last question would seem to fit more naturally in the ‘significance’ section.

[45] Contested Heritage, pp. 22–4.

[46] In passing, the guidance suggests that a memorial may ‘intimidate’ by its high position (that is, by ‘having to look up to see the person commemorated’). Is it really true of twentieth-century visitors to churches and cathedrals that they are intimidated by such things? (Contested Heritage, p. 23.).

[47] Contested Heritage, Section 4c (starts p. 29, unpaginated thereafter).

[48] There are some areas where the matrix needs to be treated with caution. For example, it suggests that a non-permanent alteration to a monument will not make any difference to its ability to be viewed or studied, and will not have an impact on the significance of the object or its wider context. Both of these will depend on circumstances.

[49] Wilson, ‘Fallacies in Duration’’, p. 23, [reference 37, supra].

[50] Operation of the Ecclesiastical Exemption, paragraph 1.

[51] Contested Heritage, pp. 7, 11. These assertions are perhaps new in formal guidance for considering change to churches. The second of the two can hardly be taken literally.

[52] Contested Heritage, pp. 11, 12–13. The distinction between ‘commemorate’ and ‘celebrate’ is perhaps not obvious, as dictionaries define the first as including the second, and in practice, most memorials containing more than a name and dates will as a matter of course say something to celebrate the life of the deceased, however short (“Loved by all who knew her”). Perhaps something along the lines of ‘overt celebration of some contested aspect of the life being commemorated’ is intended.

[53] Contested Heritagep. 12, for an alternative view.

[54] Contested Heritage, p. 11.

[55] Contested Heritage, pp. 17, 18, 20.

[56] Contested Heritage, p. 12.

[57] Contested Heritage, p. 12. It is not only the congregation whose views need to be taken into account.

[58] Contested Heritage, p. 21. This is not, of course, a complete list of factors required to be taken into account.

[59] This appears to assert it is not of principal importance to prove that the views and actions of the person commemorated are worthy of condemnation. But this surely is of principal importance, if one is to have a rational reason for making changes. The wording could usefully be looked at in future editions (together with the point about historic contextualisation, raised later in the article).

[60] Contested Heritage, p.13 (there is a similar statement on p. 29). One presumes that net missional benefit should be taken into account and that it should demonstrably outweigh the loss of heritage significance.

[61] Contested Heritage, p. 13. The final phrase about expunging from the historical record sets up a straw man; it could be replaced or removed altogether.

[62] In addition, at St Margaret’s, Rottingdean, Sussex with the agreement of the owners (in this case, the heirs at law), a faculty was granted by the Consistory Court to remove offensive words from two gravestones. The Chancellor referred positively to a draft of Contested Heritage (see Law and Religion UK, “Contested heritage” and offensive inscriptions: Re St Margaret Rottingdean (2), 4 February 2021).

[63] Law and Religion UK, Contested heritage: Reverend John Newton (1725-1807), 29 May 2021.

[64] Re St, Mary’s Barnes [2021] ECC Swk 10 with brief commentary here (scroll down).

[65] Church Times, (£), Plaque commemorating an 18th-century slave-owner to be removed from church; I am grateful to the churchwarden, Val Potter, for confirming the situation on 13 December 2021.

[66] Jesus College, Cambridge: Expanded Archive proposed as new home for Rustat memorial(and personal information). It is unfortunate that although the guidance nowhere uses the phrase ‘safe space’ about a church interior, the applicants have alighted on a use of the phrase in an interview, and used it on their website in support of their application; Procedural and evidential issues were considered in Re Jesus College Cambridge [2022] ECC Ely 1.

[67] Daily Telegraph, Eric Gill statues adorning cathedral under scrutiny as Church confronts paedophile artist’s ‘abhorrent legacy’ 14 January 2022.

[68] Contested Heritage, p. 22. No reason is given. Anecdotal evidence suggests to the author that it is not uncommon to feel distaste for removing grave markers without good reason, especially if taken quite away (a similar point is made by Wilson, ‘Fallacies’, p. 12 [reference 37, supra]). However, the tidying up of graveyards and cemeteries has been and is common, and may involve the removal of grave markers to a new position.

[69] Contested Heritage, p.19.

[70] As Nigel Llewellyn points out in his magisterial Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England (CUP, 2000), pp. 1–4.

[71] See Contested Heritage, pp. 20, 22–3, and Section 4c (Options Matrix).

[72] A fuller discussion would of course consider other sorts of changes, including the introduction of new memorials and adornments.

[73] For HE’s concept of ‘communal significance’, see its Conservation Principles (2008). The various elements which together make up ‘significance’ have been extensively debated in the heritage world.

[74] It appears to suggest that no contextualisation is required: Contested Heritage, p. 13.

[75] ‘A kind of dangerous “one-track thinking” [pensée unique] is taking shape, one constrained to deny history or, worse yet, to rewrite it in terms of present-day categories, whereas any historical situation must be interpreted in the light of a hermeneutics of that particular time, not that of today’ (speech to Diplomatic Corps, 10 January 2022, here.

[76] The Church Monuments Society has a similar policy, ‘don’t expunge, but explain’

Cite this post as Trevor Cooper, “Contested heritage – A review of the Church of England guidance” Law & Religion UK, 21 January 2022,


4 thoughts on “Contested heritage – A review of the Church of England guidance

  1. Pingback: Opinion – 22 January 2022 | Thinking Anglicans

  2. Are there likely to be plans for removing the tomb and effigy of King John, arguably the worse and most wicked king in English history, from the Quire of Worcester Cathedral?

  3. Pingback: Index – Contested heritage | Law & Religion UK

  4. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 13th March | Law & Religion UK

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