Thursday, 17 September 2020

Slavery, race and the Christian Church: A Reflection

 

SLAVERY, RACE AND THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH

 

The recent killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and across the world, has rightly, and powerfully, shone a fresh light on racism in the United Kingdom today and the way in which this country was not simply complicit in the Atlantic slave trade, but was at the heart of it.

 

In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death there was a legitimate fury that led to certain statues and symbols being toppled or questioned: the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol being one, and the ongoing campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College in Oxford another. We see the power of symbols and iconography and how they inform and shape our understanding of history.

 

In the light of this the Archdeacons of the Diocese of Southwark have written to the incumbents, churchwardens and Parochial Church Councils of the Diocese asking us to research any connections between our churches and the Atlantic slave trade.

 

This article sets out the connections that Croydon Minster, as Croydon Parish Church, has had with slavery and seeks to set this history in the context of how we might act today.

 

History and Remembering

 

History is about collective memory; and how we remember matters. Remembering is not just a recollection of a past event it is a piecing together of what has gone before; it is a re-membering: putting the pieces, the members, back together. The opposite of ‘re-member’ is not ‘forget’, but is ‘dis-member’. Black Lives Matter is asking us to re-member, not dis-member the past. That means we must tell, to the full, the stories of the past in a way that affect real lives in the present and shape the future.

 

This should be obvious to Christians because at the heart of the Christian faith is an act of remembering. The Eucharist draws us into the past – the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross - to make sense of the present – as disciples who walk in the way of the cross - and anticipate the future – as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet of the Lamb of God. The word anamnesis is the Greek word used in the Gospels when Jesus says ‘do this in remembrance (anamnesis) of me’. Anamnesis translates as ‘remembrance’ or ‘make present’. In that sense the past recollection is made present and active and therefore transformative. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the context of complicity in slavery, it is amnesia and not anamnesis that is prevalent in the United Kingdom today.

 

The statues of the likes of Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes tells us that British history is not benign and cannot be told nostalgically. Rather, British history has long festering and seeping wounds that infect how we live life today; the poison of those wounds comes out in ‘passive’ and ‘active’ racism. People of black, Asian and minority ethnic heritage[1] are on the receiving end of the dis-memberment of British history and the story of who we are today when the full story is not told.

 

Discovering ‘Our’ Story

 

It would seem that slavery has been a feature of human societies for millennia. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and in the market place in Rome Pope Gregory the Great saw Angles, English heritage slaves, for sale.[2]

 

It is also true that the New Testament refers to slavery apparently uncritically. We cannot gloss over that. It is part of our story. Both Jesus and St Paul use the imagery of slavery and slave owners, sometimes enjoining mercy on the part of slave owners, but also saying slave should be obedient. St Paul uses the word doulos which can translate ‘slave’ or ‘servant’ to speak of the Christian being ‘a doulos of Christ.

 

This imagery became toxic as slave owners and traders, who ‘professed and called themselves Christians’ felt able to appeal to what they saw as a Biblical mandate for their practices.

 

Ironically it was from the same Judaeo-Christian source that the abolitionists, amongst them evangelical Christians such as William Wilberforce, made the case against slavery. Scripture also speaks of the freeing of slaves, both Israelite slaves from Egypt and release of captives in a Year of Jubilee.

 

What is clear is that by the 18th century British society was utterly entwinned in the Atlantic slave trade and the commerce which was reliant on enslaved people from Africa.

 

What does that have to do with Croydon Minster today? Global and national stories must be told and so must the local. That is why the Archdeacons of the Diocese of Southwark wrote to us to research any connections between our churches and the Atlantic slave trade. These connections may be expressed by monuments in the building, the naming of an institution associated with the church or benefactions over the centuries. The Archdeacons did not ask us to tear down any such connection, but to begin to account for them and how we interpret them today.

 

Some research undertaken by David Morgan has shown that there are such connections. This is not surprising given the prominence in the locality of Croydon Parish Church. The fire of 1867 destroyed memorials which were to families associated with slavery, but we know that memorials existed.

 

The Bourdieu family, who lived locally at Coombe House, erected a memorial to Phillippa Bourdieu. It was a Grecian style monument near the rood screen of the church. They owned the Hoghole Estate in Jamaica in the parish of St Thomas in the Vale.

 

The last pre-revolutionary Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, has a plaque in the Lady Chapel. He would certainly have known of slavery and been complicit in it, although we do not know, without further research, if he profited from the trade.

 

We also find that the associations with slavery extended right into English society, including the Church of England. The Reverend East Apthorp, who was Vicar of Croydon in 1770s arrived from America having been ejected from Boston by the independence movement. In England Apthorp initially stayed at Addington Palace. The Palace was substantially rebuilt by Barlow Trescothick, a slave owner, who was married to Apthorp’s sister.

 

Apthorp’s father Charles was the Paymaster General of the North American Colonies, and we can be certain that he made money out of slavery.   Charles Apthorp married Grizzelda Eastwicke whose family owned a plantation in Jamaica. We also know that East had brothers who made money from slavery. Indeed in the Baptism Register for Croydon Parish Church in the 1780s there is an entry for the baptism of an ‘adult negro servant’ of the Apthorp family.[3] This man was not a member of the Vicar’s household but someone who has come over with one of Apthorp's brothers. We can only speculate if he was a freed slave.

 

Those are the facts: so where does that take us, as a church community today?

 

Sin and the Image of God

 

It must be stated, absolutely and categorically, that slavery was, and is, always wicked and wrong; racism was, and is, always wicked and wrong. In Christian terms we would add that slavery was, and is, sinful; racism is sinful.

 

Slavery and racism, which are intimately related, are sinful because the enslavement of another human being diminishes their dignity which we believe is God given to all people. Slavery is the ultimate and enduring deprivation of liberty which makes human beings a commodity to be sold and bought. Racism is wrong because it reduces people to a category, a subject, a ‘thing’ and not a person to be known, cherished and valued.

 

A Christian account of being human, drawing on the Hebrew Scriptures (most vividly the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land), sees human identity as free and subject only to God and not another person.

 

We draw our understanding of human dignity from the Book of Genesis which speaks of human beings made in the image and likeness of God and into whom God breathes his living giving spirit (Genesis 2.7).

 

Furthermore as Christians we see that divine image marred through human sinfulness, of which more below, and because ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23): all people – irrespective of race - are in need of restoration into the image of God. In Jesus Christ we see the fullness of human potential as one who lives a sinless life because he remains a bearer of the image of God.

 

As the first letter of John teaches, ‘Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen’ (1 John 4.20). He also states this very clearly and dramatically saying, ‘All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.’ (1 John 3.15). The enslavement of a human being is a catastrophic failure of love, and precludes a true love of God.

 

Some have called slavery the ‘original sin’ of modern western society. Original Sin does indeed tell us that we are bound up and implicated in patterns of behaviour that precede our individual existence but into which we are bound by our very membership of the human race. In Christian thought the sin of Adam speaks of the predicament we find ourselves in. Original Sin could be called ‘inherited sin’ because it is something received even if not merited, but something we all too readily make our own.

 

The doctrine of Original Sin has had a bad press in modern times. It is assumed to be a deeply pessimistic account of the human condition, implying individual wickedness from birth. Rather, it is better seen as a generous account of humanity because it acknowledges that we are all caught up in inherited patterns of human behaviour and consequences that are not of our own doing, but that we are formed by, precisely because we are social creatures and part of humanity. Attitudes to race, stemming from slavery are an illustration of how original sin works.

 

Being in Christ: A New Creation

 

For Christians life ‘in Christ’ (Greek en Christou) is the way to restore life lived in the image of God and to break the crippling inheritance of sin. St Paul teaches that the capacity for renewal is in Christ, the Second Adam: the First Adam, the first anthropos - human being - led humanity to reject the ways of God, so the Second Adam makes possible the reversal of that sinfulness through a radical obedience to God, even to death. It is this way of life that leads us ‘from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land’ (from the Church of England Baptism Service Common Worship: Christian Initiation p. 87).

 

Baptism which initiates us into the Body of Christ acknowledges both our uniqueness, who we are – ‘God has called you by name’ – and that we find our identity within a wider mystical society, the Communion of Saints. So in Baptism our deep identity is not eradicated but cast in a new light, for we also become members of a ‘new race’ as Christians. As St Paul writes:

 

As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28)

 

St Paul connects this new identity in Christ to the coming New Creation which is cosmic and personal: ‘So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ (2 Corinthians 5.17). The ‘new race’ of being a Christian must never be into a notion of ‘whiteness’ or middle-classness or any other secular cultural construct, but rather into the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8.21)

 

The Christian narrative is one in which we are led to a vision of the New Creation in Christ. The vision of the New Testament is one of a new race of those redeemed in Christ. Identity is not defined racially or tribally. The Revelation to John describes a vision of heaven in which the twelve tribes of Israel are present, as is to be expected, but the seer continues looking and then writes:

 

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white with a palm branch in their hands. (Revelation 7.9)

 

Slavery, Racism and the Church Today

 

As I stand at the altar of Croydon Minster and see the faithful gathered for the Eucharist I get a glimpse of John’s vision: I see people of many nations and heritage gathered around the Altar of the Lamb, and it warms my heart.

 

I, and I am sure the vast majority at the Minster, find it hard to believe that this has not always been recognised by ‘those who profess and call themselves Christians’. Yet we know that as recently of the arrival of Caribbean migrants on SS Windrush in the 1950s that the Church of England was frosty at best and hostile at worst in its reception of Black Anglicans from the Caribbean.

 

Some will say that we cannot judge people of another age by our standards. In some ways that is true; but judgement for all of us will be against the enduring message of the Gospels.

 

I behold the congregation of the Minster - and look at myself - there are people who harbour ill-will, bad thoughts, a ‘past’, envies, quarrelling and strife. There may even be people who have a racist side to them.

And so comes the call of our patron saint, St John the Baptist, that we should repent and amend our lives.

 

The Church is made up of people who get things wrong. All of us gather as broken and in need of perfecting, conversion and repentance. The conversion of society begins with the conversion of the human heart.

 

This raises big questions about how we handle apology, sorrow, regret, remorse and historic complicity. At this time penitence is appropriate. Acts of penance – personal and corporate - are not virtue signalling. They are times when one acknowledges one’s own sinful actions in the past and resolves to amend one’s life, by God’s grace. The Christian Gospel however declares that through Jesus Christ we can break the ‘habits of sin that lead to spiritual death’.

 

It also lays down the challenges for how the church: what does our church look like in how different faces are seen, voices heard and contributions valued. If we really are the Body of Christ, what is our body language as ‘people of from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb’?

 

© Andrew Bishop, 2020

 



[1] BAME is an term that is not without its detractors as being too all encompassing. The recent BBC website article ‘Don’t call me BAME’ illustrates this point (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-53205008/race-and-identity-don-t-call-me-bame accessed 30th June 2020). Someone who is Black may be or African or Caribbean heritage and Asia is a big place and culturally diverse. The lesson is that we should deal with people of any race or heritage as individuals and not groups, whilst acknowledging there is a commonality, though not uniformity, of experience amongst many.

[2]  Gregory was reputed to have said, on seeing the English slaves ‘Non Angli sed angeli’ – ‘not Angles, but angels’, which is an interesting comment in the light of the colour of those slaves. That should not allow for a ‘superiority narrative’ in relation to the race and heritage of slaves.

[3] That the person baptised was an adult was worthy of note as it was very unusual then (the Book of Common Prayer has a rite for ‘Public Baptism of such as are of Riper Years’; that the Register notes the man was ‘a negro’ is utterly irrelevant to Baptism.

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