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Church of England and Slavery

John Simkin

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Yesterday the Church of England said sorry for the role it played in the 18th century in benefiting from slave labour in the Caribbean.

When parliament voted compensation in 1833 - to former slave owners rather than the slaves themselves - the Archbishop of Canterbury received £8,823 8s 9d, about £500,000 in today's money, for the loss of slave labour on its Codrington plantation in Barbados. The Bishop of Exeter received even more, nearly £13,000.

A recent book, Bury the Chains, by the American author Adam Hochschild, clearly influenced the debate. It says the church's missionary organisation, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, branded its slaves on the chest with the word SOCIETY to show who they belonged to.

Rowan Williams, the present archbishop of Canterbury, told the synod that the church ought to acknowledge its corporate and ancestral guilt: "The Body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time; it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors, and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the Body of Christ, is prayerful acknowledgment of the failure that is part of us, not just of some distant 'them'.

"To speak here of repentance and apology is not words alone; it is part of our witness to the Gospel, to a world that needs to hear that the past must be faced and healed and cannot be ignored ... by doing so we are actually discharging our responsibility to preach good news, not simply to look backwards in awkwardness and embarrassment, but to speak of the freedom we are given to face ourselves, including the unacceptable regions of ... our history."

The Rt Rev Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, told the synod: "The profits from the slave trade were part of the bedrock of our country's industrial development. No one who was involved in running the business, financing it or benefiting from its products can say they had clean hands. We know that bishops in the House of Lords with biblical authority voted against the abolition of the slave trade. We know that the church owned sugar plantations on the Codrington estates."

The important point that was ignored in the debate was the role played by the Church of England in justifying slavery. The main point argued at the time was that there was no evidence from the scriptures that Jesus Christ ever argued that slavery was wrong. As he lived in a society (the Roman Empire) where slavery was the norm, the fact that he did not criticise it, meant that he must have been in favour of slavery.

We should not be too surprised by this point of view. At this time, the Church of England was also arguing against democracy and in favour of repressing those demanding equality. The 19th century is just one long argument against religion. The fact that Church leaders could find passages in the Bible to justify the dominant ideology, exposes the role that religion has been used to reflect the needs of those in power.

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