The Church of England will review thousands of monuments in churches and cathedrals across the country that contain historical references to slavery and colonialism, and some are expected to be removed.
The guide to be released this week encourages the C of E’s 12,500 parishes and 42 cathedrals to scrutinize buildings and grounds for evidence of disputed heritage, and consult local communities on what action to take.
Although decisions will be made locally, the guide emphasizes that ignoring contested heritage it is not an opinion. Actions that can be taken include the removal, relocation or alteration of plaques and monuments, and the addition of contextual information. In some cases, there may be no changes.
The guide comes after Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called for a review of the C of E’s built heritage following the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and the overthrow of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. . “Some [statues and monuments] it’s going to have to go down, ”Welby said at the time.
An anti-racism task force created by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York last month urged the K of E to take decisive action to address the legacy of its involvement in the slave trade. It said: “We do not want to unconditionally celebrate or commemorate the people who contributed to or benefited from the tragedy that was the slave trade.”
Measures have already been taken in several places. Bristol Cathedral has removed a window dedicated to Colston; St Margaret’s Church in Rottingdean, Sussex, has removed two headstones from its graveyard that contained racial slurs; and St Peter’s in Dorchester has covered a plaque commemorating the role of a plantation owner in suppressing a slave rebellion.
Becky Clark, director of K of E churches and cathedrals, who produced the guide, told the Observer: “Our churches and cathedrals are the most visible part of the K of E, a Christian presence in every community. The responsibility to ensure that they include, embrace and provide safe spaces for all is a vital part of addressing how historic racism and slavery still affect people today. “
The guide is likely to be controversial, both among those calling for all disputed heritage to be removed and those who say that such heritage is an important part of the nation’s history.
But Clark said the guide sought to “empower rather than close the conversation.” Rather than being prescriptive, it was intended to guide parishes through the built heritage assessment process and determine what actions to take.
“He makes no political statements except to say that the history of racism and slavery is undeniable, as is the fact that racism and the legacy of slavery are still a part of many people’s lives today. Responding to those in the right way is a Christian duty. Doing nothing is not an option. There has to be commitment to this.
“The job of local parishes is to discover how this impacts our communities today. Are there people who feel that this church is not for them because of the built heritage, and what can we do about it? “
In addition to statues and monuments that “celebrate or value those involved in the slave trade,” there were also “simple memorials to someone who was loved by his family,” he said.
At St Margaret’s Rottingdean, a Grade II listed 13th-century church on the Sussex coast, the tombstones of two music-hall singers who died in the 1960s were removed after a council court ruled that their inscriptions contained words that were “deeply offensive”. .
Although the flint-walled cemetery is the legal responsibility of the pastor, the tombstones are the property of the descendants of GH Elliott and Alice Banford, who wore black faces in their performances. A trial in February of Mark Hill, chancellor of the diocese of Chichester, said the descendants had been traced and had agreed to have the stones cut again to remove the term “derogatory and racist.”
Hill added: “Given the public interest (and hostility in some quarters) regarding this matter, it would be inappropriate to order the immediate reinstatement of the tombstones.” He suggested that the work be completed in two years, although the time frame could be extended.
At Bristol Cathedral, a dedication to 17th century slave trader Edward Colston was capped and will eventually be replaced with plain glass. Additional information on Colston, the slave trade, and C of E’s ties to the slaveholders will be provided. The cathedral is also conducting a comprehensive audit of monuments and plaques with slave or colonial references.
The window was created in Victorian times to commemorate Colston’s philanthropic efforts, said Mandy Ford, dean of the cathedral. “Bristol Cathedral was primarily enlarged by Victorian philanthropists in the 1860s. Many of those people made their money trading in Africa or India, and we have several monuments to families who were plantation owners.”
Ford, who was appointed a year ago, said there had been “two or three false starts” in dealing with the complexities of the disputed inheritance. “This cannot be another. Make no mistake: this is one of the elements of the problems we have to face around institutional racism, the failure of the K of E to be the church of the people. This is part of a bigger picture about diversity and inclusion, about who feels welcome. We want to be a place where everyone feels they can come ”.
A Dorchester church has covered a plaque commemorating an 18th century slave owner awaiting removal. The inscription on the St. Peter’s Church plaque celebrates the role played by plantation owner John Gordon in “quelling” a slave rebellion in which hundreds of people were killed.
A sign on the plaque says that the memorial “commemorates actions and uses language that is totally unacceptable to us today.” The plaque will be offered to a museum.