church of england statues monuments memorials
Church of England

If ‘contested’ monuments, statues and memorials must fall, who shall stand?

The guidance issued by the Church of England in respect of its ‘contested heritage’ (specifically monuments, statues and monuments relating to the slave trade and/or colonialism) is confusing (to put it politely). And that confusion, in the context of ‘Black Lives Matter’, is not only historical (in respect of warped biography) and practical (in respect of monument removal or ‘contextualisation’), but theological and soteriological. Certainly, churches and cathedrals are places dedicated to the worship of God; and certainly, for a range of reasons, members of communities may not always feel welcome in these buildings; and undoubtedly, one such reason could be the presence of objects commemorating people responsible for the oppression and marginalisation of others.

But another reason could be that people (laity and clergy) aren’t overly welcoming if you support Boris Johnson or voted for Brexit or don’t want to listen to yet another woke sermon on diversity and inclusion inspired by the pages of the Guardian. People make many excuses for not going to church, but ‘That statue offends me’ isn’t really one of them. And if it is, you need to turn your eyes to heaven, pray for a sense of priorities, and then look around you, because the congregation is crammed with people who offend others (and even oppress them) on a daily basis. Wouldn’t Jesus be rather more concerned with a church which marginalises living Conservatives than with one which has a monument to a dead slaver? Don’t the attitudes and words of living people have a greater impact on the Church’s missional, pastoral and liturgical activities than words inscribed on a slab of marble?

The Rev’d Marcus Walker made some very good points in yesterday’s Telegraph, ‘The Church of England’s slavery review takes an un-Christian starting point‘:

Remove, relocate, alter, contextualise. That is the advice. We don’t get to choose those among whom we’re going to be buried – not into the future at any rate. Which is good, as we don’t get to choose those among whom we’re going to spend eternity. Crooks, thieves, adulterers and murderers sit alongside saints and heroes. Quite often they’re the same people; only occasionally do we know it. We are all a mix of holy, virtuous, ambiguous, self- interested, and downright sinful. It’s what makes us human.

..Jesus was remarkably silent about the great issues which vex us these days – gender, sexuality, slavery, the lot. What he was very vocal about was forgiveness. “Judge not, let as ye judge so shall ye be judged” is probably the golden thread that runs through his teaching. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” puts a heavy burden on us if we refuse to forgive.

And this isn’t just about little sins that we don’t care very much about. The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector sees a genuinely good man standing in judgment over the agent of a vicious oppressive regime (who will have stood accused of using extortion and sexual abuse as part of his day-today work). One of them praised God for his own goodness, the other lowered his eyes to the floor and said, “have mercy upon me, a sinner”. Only one of the two went home justified. It was not the pharisee.

But the pharisee is the patron saint of our day. As we prepare to stand in judgment against long-dead agents of slavery and empire, we had better be pretty sure we have no sins of our own that might be held up when we too are judged, just as we now judge.

And there are some robust letters in today’s edition:

SIR – I read that the Church of England is now joining in with this unintelligent destruction of memorials (“Church tells parishes to review slavery links”, report, May 10).

We are all sinners, so if wrongdoers’ memorials are removed, there would be none left at all.

Frances M Berrill
Hassocks, West Sussex

SIR – Some of the monuments in my local church are to the Dukes of Norfolk in Tudor times – not saints, any of them. They are Grade I listed, however.

When will people realise that you cannot change the past? Slavery has existed for millennia, and in all civilisations. Should we put an apologetic notice on the pyramids?

What we can do is hunt out and eliminate modern slavery, which is everywhere, and happening now, all over this country and in the wider world. The present is something we can change, if we have the will.

Linda Shelley
Woodbridge, Suffolk

SIR – In his recent efforts to cancel history, perhaps – given his family ties to India during the Empire and a personal role in the oil industry in Africa – the Archbishop of Canterbury could start with himself.

After all, the Church of England has cancelled that truly Christian virtue – forgiveness.

Matthew Burrows
London SW18

SIR – Just when and how did Church authorities assume control of the fabric of parish churches?

Throughout most of English history, the people and their civic leaders built, furnished and maintained their churches in whatsoever manner they chose. Only the chancel was an area for ecclesiastical responsibility. What is the legal foundation for the “director of churches and cathedrals” ordering church councils to examine historic memorials for evidence of “contested heritage” (report, May 11)?

The same question applies to diocesan officers who contrive to tell local churchgoers what they may and may not do with their churches, but pay little, if anything, towards the cost, and indeed demand a handsome contribution from the parishes each year towards their own expenses.

Tom Bliss
Sleaford, Lincolnshire

Thank God the Church of England didn’t embark upon its temple-cleansing during the Victorian era. Imagine all those memorials to debauched artists and sexually-perverted literary greats whose ‘contested morality’ would have required them to have been taken down. What a loss to all future generations it would have been if the bust of Shakespeare had been removed from Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon just because he wrote a few homoerotic sonnets to a ‘fair youth’.

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.

To single out those who traded in human beings or somehow benefitted from slavery is, as Fr. Marcus say, to play the pharisee: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men..‘, when, in fact, you may be a whole lot worse.