Rustat memorial Jesus College Cambridge
Society and Social Structures

Rustat 1 – 0 Welby | Jesus College Cambridge must retain its memorial to Tobias Rustat

“Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?” pleaded the Archbishop of Canterbury to Synod in February, as he bemoaned the fact that the Master of Jesus College Cambridge, Sonita Alleyne, a black woman, has to look at it every time she sits in her stall. “Why is it so difficult to do that?” he implored. “Why do they have to go through hearing how it ‘doesn’t really matter’ or it is ‘not strictly accurate’ and so on, but all they want to do is put it somewhere safer where they can comment on it, not to blow it up?”

In the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Ely, Deputy Chancellor David Hodge QC has dismissed the Archbishop’s pleadings, and ordered that the 17th-century monument to Tobias Rustat must remain, and so the Master of Jesus College must continue to endure the “pain and discomfort” of its presence. And so also must Jesus’ students, who may now opt never to darken the doors of the chapel again, deeming the space to be ‘unsafe’ and somehow not ‘inclusive’.

The full judgment is 108 pages long, and it is a thing of nuanced beauty. It isn’t possible to link to it, so this summary will have to suffice, which is also a thing of nuance and beauty. There are two particular sections which merit quoting in full. The first asks the question which this blog posited last year: if Rustat should go, then who shall stand? And “If you remove Rustat’s memorial today, why not open his grave and expel his body tomorrow?” It was observed that Jesus College was Thomas Cranmer’s home for more than a decade, from 1517 to 1528. He, too, has a memorial in the chapel:

44. In his written evidence Professor Goldman had raised the issue of the Cranmer memorial on the south wall of the south transept of the Chapel, posing the question: ‘If Rustat, why not Cranmer?’ Thomas Cranmer had been Archbishop of Canterbury for twenty years, from 1533 to 1553, and he had been responsible for the production of the Book of Common Prayer and the 42 (later reduced to the 39) Articles of Religion, the foundational creed of the Church of England. But, according to Professor Goldman, he had also been a murderous misogynist who had shown violent hostility to religious freedom and all those who had rebelled against the English Reformation or had held to the old Roman Catholic religions and its ways. In 1533 Cranmer had pronounced Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn to be lawful; three years later he pronounced it null and void. He took Anne’s confession before her execution in May 1536, knowing full well that she was innocent of the crimes laid against her. Cranmer’s biographer describes these events as ‘a stain on Cranmer’s reputation’ whose integrity was ‘soiled’ by his conduct. In short, Professor Goldman contends that it would be easy indeed to build an unanswerable case against Thomas Cranmer and to campaign for the removal of his memorial from the Chapel. Why, he asked, were the fellows of Jesus College not doing so? Why tolerate such behaviour, which runs counter to all modern principles and practice? Is a man who invested indirectly in the slave trade worse than a man who sent soldiers to kill communities that wanted freedom to worship as they wished, and who was instrumental in the execution of three defenceless and essentially innocent young women? If the answer to these questions was that we must recognise that political and religious beliefs, and attitudes to women, were different in the 16th century, then the same argument should apply to Tobias Rustat: in his case, he was engaged in perfectly legal investment in a perfectly legal trade (even though it is abhorrent to us today). Religious persecution, murderous misogyny, and profiting from slavery are all wrong. In short, if Rustat, why not also Cranmer? Professor Goldman makes it clear that that he would never support such a campaign. Cranmer was a great figure in his own right, one of those few about whom it might rightly be said that they formed English identity. He is the most distinguished son of the College. He is correctly placed in the College Chapel where he should remain. But it is a truism, which Professor Goldman claims is apparently lost on the fellows of Jesus College, that all great men and women have feet of clay, and that with political and religious leadership comes error, misjudgement and worse. Rustat, and Cranmer, were both servants of monarchs who expected loyalty; their sins derived from that loyalty. So Professor Goldman asks again: If Rustat, why not Cranmer? Professor Goldman put these points to the Dean, who acknowledged that there were clearly elements of Cranmer’s life which he found “regrettable”. The Dean’s response was that not all memorials were the same. Rustat’s memorial was causing practicable and demonstrable difficulties over worship in the Chapel, which was not the case with Cranmer. These had arisen from a particular inquiry into the legacy of slavery. There had been no corresponding inquiry into the Protestant Reformation. The Dean pointed out that the Cranmer memorial was very different in its size and location, and that it merely bore Cranmer’s surname.

The next extended quotation is not only a thing of nuance and beauty, but of gospel-rich theology. Essentially, Jesus forgave Tobias Rustat, and so must Jesus College:

9. I bear in mind also that whilst any church building must be a ‘safe space’, in the sense of a place where one should be free from any risk of harm of whatever kind, that does not mean that it should be a place where one should always feel comfortable, or unchallenged by difficult, or painful, images, ideas or emotions, otherwise one would have to do away with the painful image of Christ on the cross, or images of the martyrdom of saints. A church building is a place where God (not the people remembered on its walls) is worshipped and venerated, and where we recall and confess our sins, and pray for forgiveness. Whenever a Christian enters a church to pray, they will invariably utter the words our Lord taught us, which include asking forgiveness for our trespasses (or sins), “as we forgive them that trespass against us”. Such forgiveness encompasses the whole of humankind, past and present, for we are all sinners; and it extends even to slave traders. Jesus recognised that it would not be easy to be one of his followers; yet he led by his example. The first words Jesus uttered from the Cross, as he suffered in terrible agony caused by others, were not words of anger or vengeance; incredibly, he thought of others: the very people who were hurting him, and he begged God to pardon them: “Then said Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.” (Luke 24, v. 34).

Tobias Rustat was a sinner, as are we all. The Archbishop of Canterbury may prefer to condemn him to obscurity for the sin of slave-trading (or at least to a less prominent corner of rarely-frequented room), but Deputy Chancellor David Hodge QC prefers to focus on the Christian duty of forgiveness:

A theology of forgiveness is not reducible to simplistic categorisations. From a Christian perspective every memorial is a memorial to a sinner, however fulsome any tribute to their life, character and achievements may be, 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.

And Deputy Chancellor Hodge also dismissed the Archbishop’s (and others’) “false narrative” that Rustat was a slave trader who amassed great wealth and used it to endow Jesus College. While not disputing that slavery and the slave trade were “evil, utterly abhorrent, and repugnant to all right-thinking people”, the truth is that Rustat’s investments in the Royal Adventurers brought him no financial returns at all, and he realised his investments in the Royal African Company only in May 1691, some 20 years after he had made his gifts to the college. “I would hope that when Rustat’s life and career is fully and properly understood, and viewed as a whole, his memorial will cease to be seen as a monument to a slave trader,” he said.

The mission and ministry of Jesus College chapel is not hindered by the presence of the Rustat memorial; rather, it is an abiding reminder that ‘all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God‘ (Rom 3:23), and that every sinner may repent and enter the kingdom of heaven. Wouldn’t this have been a far better stance for the Archbishop of Canterbury to have taken, instead of pleading with the zeitgeist: “Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?”, when it isn’t that at all?