As Edinburgh council apologises for links to slave trade and contextualises street names, George Pitcher makes an impassioned plea for the Church of England to move beyond words, and for all Christians to own the sins of our collective past


Source: Twitter / Edinburgh Council

Last week, Edinburgh took its turn to apologise for its historical links to the slave trade. The city’s councillors accepted all ten recommendations of a review group that examined its colonial legacy, publicly acknowledging “the city’s past role in sustaining slavery” and issuing an apology to the people who suffered.

Named thoroughfares such as India Street and Jamaica Street will be “re-presented” to explain their historical significance and St Andrew Square’s Melville Monument, dedicated to the memory of Henry Dundas, now has a plaque to contextualise those who were enslaved as a consequence of his actions.

These initiatives follow similar moves by the authorities of Glasgow. Since the violent death of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of police in the United States, a series of high profile responses have occurred across the UK, from the sacking of slaver Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, to controversy over plaques and monuments in churches, such as that commemorating Tobias Rustat in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge.

Words and actions

This latter debacle highlights what can perhaps, most charitably, be called an ambivalence in the Church of England’s attitude to the slave trade. On the one hand, Most Rev Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, has apologised on behalf of the Church for its links to slavery – most notably through its 18th-century investment trust known as Queen Anne’s Bounty. On the other, Jesus College was refused permission to have the Rustat memorial removed. The Church is sorry for supporting the slave trade, but not so apologetic that it intends to do anything about it.

Apologies must be accompanied by atonement to have any gospel substance

Perhaps that is unfair. The Church has indicated, in some of its actions, that it needs to “own” its history, and does so by visibly explaining the historical context of such monuments - which makes a claim to honest and candid expiation. But the ownership of this history needs to be taken on by the membership of the Church - if it is to mean anything - not just by its leadership. In this respect, anecdotal evidence is far from encouraging.

A poor excuse

In our own parish in East Sussex, I have been given - on two separate occasions by different members of our congregation - this attempted exculpation for the colonial slave trade, in these exact words: “We’re never told the positive side of the slave trade.”

When one has retrieved one’s breath sufficiently to inquire what this positive story might be, it turns out that African Americans would “still be living in mud huts” were it not for the slave trade – a worldview almost too grotesque to address seriously – or that the wealth generated from the slave trade was put to good social use in Britain.

Colston, for example, built schools and hospitals in Bristol. Try as one might, it proves impossible to shift that kind of mindset from a moral equivalence that accepts that murdering thousands of children over there, so that hundreds here might benefit, is not a zero-sum equation.

Scriptural ambiguity

It’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could validate these attitudes scripturally. The biblical meta-narrative has the Jewish people led out of slavery in Egypt as a divine covenant. Similarly in the new covenant, the Messiah leads his people out of the slavery of sin through his own sacrificial and penal substitution.

But, in brutal truth, the Christian testament is far from clear on the literal status of the slave. The apostle Paul writes that there is “neither slave nor free… because you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). But this Pauline stricture appears to be confined to the members incorporate of the Body of Christ, while actual slaves are to continue in earthly bond.

The evidence for this is to be found in the shortest of Paul’s epistles, his letter to the wealthy Philemon, a leader of the Colossian church. The letter centres on the fate of Philemon’s slave Onesimus, who has run away to join Paul and whom Paul is now returning to Philemon. Paul’s attitude is not that Onesimus should be freed, but that he should be treated well, as any other human being, and that perhaps Paul can avail himself of Onesimus’s services once again when he is out of his Roman gaol (an aspiration that proved over-optimistic).

The ownership of the Church’s history needs to be taken on by the membership, not just its leadership

This theme in the epistle to Philemon divides Christian scholarship. Sarah Ruden, in Paul Among the People (Image Books), argues that Paul created the Western conception of the individual human being, “unconditionally precious to God and therefore entitled to the consideration of other human beings.” Before Paul, in this view, a slave was subhuman, untermensch in the darkest vocabulary of the 20th Century, and entitled to no more consideration than an animal. By contrast, Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his magisterial A History of Christianity (Allen Lane), described the epistle as “a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery.”

It must be doubtful that this literature has directly fed the opinions of the communicants described above, but such ambiguity goes some way to legitimising them. A civilised response to that must be that apologies, such as that of Archbishop Welby, must be accompanied by atonement to have any gospel substance.

That means witness in action, rather than word. Not in sackcloth and ashes, but in reparations, tangible pastoral ministry to the descendants of those who suffered in the slave trade and demonstrable counter-balance of the monuments that celebrate slavers. Because unless and until our Church can show evidence that it is so responding, we remain complicit in their crimes.