It’s still not too late to say sorry, writes John Buckeridge . I went to an Anglican church today to witness an apology. Nothing surprising there you might say – saying sorry for past sins is part of the liturgy at a typical Church of England service. But this was no normal church service, and no normal apology for sin. For the first time ever, I attended church with the Queen and the Prime Minister. Not that I was sitting anywhere near them or the other dignitaries, but I was there at Westminster Abbey in my best suit, for the National Commemoration Service for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. I went because I wanted to witness the moment where the leaders of my nation acknowleged the crimes and deep hurt our forefathers had committed and said sorry. It didn’t happen.
But why say sorry? Surely it was all such a long time ago.
This would be true if a previous apology had been given – but it has not. Incredibly on abolition, slaves received no apology and no recompense, but slave traders were compensated for reduced incomes! It maybe 200 years too late, but an apology is still overdue.
There was a recognition of past wrongs in the service and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, accepted that our nation and the church itself had done terrible wrongs and had owned and cruelly mistreated slaves. In the weeks earlier he had made a full apology and has called on the church to consider appropriate ways to pay back the money it gained directly from the slave trade.
Others have apologised – the civic leaders of Liverpool – a city enriched by the slave trade has formally apologised. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone has said sorry. But the Prime Minister and the Queen have not. Mr Blair has expressed regret, but no more. The service readings and testimonies powerfully spoke of the pain and hurt caused. But what was missing was a clear, unequivocal apology from our PM or head of state. Then just as the service approached a prayer of absolution for sins Toyin Agbetu, a well-known campaigner on behalf of British Africans loudly interrupted. Standing near the Queen and the Prime Minister he shouted at all of us: “You ought to be ashamed.” The atmosphere was electric – but none of the people around me seemed surprised at the outburst. It had all been going so smoothly – too smoothly. Outside as Agbetu was taken away for police questioning, he told reporters, “The Queen has to say sorry. It was Elizabeth I. She commanded John Hawkins to take his ship (Hawkins was the first recorded Briton to kidnap and enslave black Africans). The monarch and the Government and the Church are all in there patting themselves on the back.”
After the Queen and PM left Westminster Abbey I turned to talk to a well-known black church and community leader who was sitting near me. I asked what he thought of the service.
“It’s about what happens next, isn’t it. If that’s ‘it’ if that is the sum of the apology, then it’s ‘cheap grace’. If the Government can spend £2bn on Iraq it can spend the same on building up communities where gangs and crime seems the only option for a lot of black young men. A lot of people in the black community feel that way and we are waiting to see whether anything will happen, or if it’s just words.”
And as for me – I’m not responsible for the past, but I am sorry for it and want to be part of healing the hurts and helping to build a fairer and more just society. You can choose to do the same. Join in.
John Buckeridge is the senior editor of Christianity magazine.