As we previously noted, on 12 April Jesus College released a statement on the Rustat Memorial judgment in which the Master, Sonita Alleyne, said:
“Having taken advice, and after much thought, the College Council has decided not to appeal the disappointing judgment. While we believe the judgment is fundamentally wrong, the time and costs involved in appealing the decision are significant, and the grounds on which we are allowed to appeal are restrictive.
We will take our time and consider what to do next. The presence of the memorial in our Chapel continues to be a serious issue for our increasingly diverse community. We strongly believe that our stance will place us on the right side of history.”
On the following day, the Church of England released a statement on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury which begins:
“Places of Christian worship should be sacred spaces where everyone can encounter the unconditional love of God, and to know and worship him in Jesus Christ. I have questioned previously why it is so difficult to move the Rustat memorial in Jesus College chapel – which causes such pain and distress to people whose ancestors were sold into slavery – to a place where it can be understood in context. I stand by those comments.
Memorials to slave-traders do not belong in places of worship. Jesus College wished to move the memorial to a place where it could be studied as an important historical memorial, without disrupting worship. I have no doubt that the law was followed in this instance, and that the Church of England’s contested heritage guidance was used. But if we are content with a situation where people of colour are excluded from places of worship because of the pain caused by such memorials, then clearly we have a lot further to go in our journey towards racial justice.”
I fear the Church of England is setting itself a ‘monumental’ task. It was part of the establishment in the 18th and early 19th century and for the most part strongly defensive of slavery. For example, the very first paragraph of six and a half pages on Anglicanism and the legality of slavery in Michael Taylor’s excellent “The Interest – How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery” led me to Bishop Richard Watson of Llandaff who tried to distinguish between buying men (OK) and stealing them (not). Watson is buried in St Martin’s Church, Bowness-on-Windermere, where in the southeast vestry/office he has a memorial by John Flaxman. Against the wall of the south aisle of the same church is a marble slab commemorating John Bolton, a slave trader and plantation owner who died in 1837 – after abolition! Admittedly the churchyard has a headstone dated 1822 inscribed to the memory of a freed slave named Rasselas Belfield, thought to have been in service locally.
If I can find all this on a whim in five minutes, it suggests that the Archbishop is opening the way to wholesale vandalism of the country’s churches. Much better, surely, to commission a (rather large?) set of marble plaques to be prominently positioned in every ‘guilty’ church admitting the ‘culpa, maxima culpa’ of the Church in past days and expressing its deep repentance now.
Furthermore, the exemption under the Ecclesiastical Exemption (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (England) Order 2010 operates on the basis that the exempt denominations, including the Church of England, have “their own arrangements for handling changes to historic buildings which provide the same standards of protection as the secular system operated by local planning authorities”. If the C of E makes any significant change to its criteria for authorising alterations, will that still provide “the same standards of protection” as secular controls?
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