Church of England issues guidance on memorials with slavery links

Bristol Cathedral has already removed dedications to slave trader Edward Colston, whose statue was thrown in Bristol Harbour during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.(Photo: Facebook/Bristol Cathedral)

New guidance has been issued by the Church of England to help churches and cathedrals address concerns over memorials with links to slavery. 

'Contested Heritage in Cathedrals and Churches' focuses on memorials for people or events connected with racism and slavery.

It recognises the "anger" over monuments to people with such links, expressed in the toppling of statues during protests last year.

"If such actions cannot be condoned, the feelings behind them can be understood, and we can consider how to react," the report says. 

The guidance says churches should "be places of welcome and solace for all people", but recognises this may not be the case for everyone at present because of contentious memorials and dedications. 

It continued, "In a Church context, examples of such material culture can be found amongst the monuments, memorials, gravestones, imagery and texts both inside our buildings and in our churchyards.

"The effects of enslavement continue to impact the lives of many UK ethnic minority communities to whom, at best, these objects may be reminders of an 'overcome' past, a horror from which we celebrate our extrication; at worst, for these objects to remain in place with no discussion or interpretation could be taken to imply that the oppression and disenfranchisement they evoke for many in affected communities is socially and theologically acceptable to the Church." 

Elsewhere, it suggests that churches with contested heritage should engage in conversations with the local community. 

"The passions around this—on all sides—mean that there needs to be open dialogue," it reads.

"Our aim has been to find ways of mediating discussion that will help churches and cathedrals and their wider communities to develop solutions that will ultimately tackle the issues behind the feelings that contentious memorials evoke.

"It is important to remember that this is not about judging people in the past by the standards of the present, but about how items of contested heritage and wider issues of under-representation affect our ability to be a Church for all in the 21st century." 

It added, "Conversations around the roles of memorials necessarily touch on the Church's own complicity in structural sin."

The guidance recognises that consultations may conclude with the decision not to remove a particular monument, but says that churches should nonetheless engage in research, consultation and reflection where concerns are raised, to assess how much objects may impact on missional, pastoral and liturgical activities.

The release of the guidance comes not long after a major report into institutional racism in the Church of England which said decisions must be made about monuments and statues connected to the slave trade. 

"While history should not be hidden, we also do not want to unconditionally celebrate or commemorate people who contributed to or benefitted from the tragedy that was the slave trade," the report said. 

The new guidance has been produced in consultation with every Church of England diocese and cathedral, as well as heritage bodies, church monument specialists, and specialists in UK minority ethnic representation in the Church of England. 

Commenting on the guidance, the Church of England's Director of Churches and Cathedrals, Becky Clark, said: "With this guidance, the Church of England is seeking to provide a framework for parishes and cathedrals to lead discussions about how the heritage in our buildings can best serve our commitment to be a welcoming and inclusive Church today.

"Church buildings and their interiors have been adapted over centuries in response to practical needs, architectural styles, as well as to society itself.

"The issues of contested heritage require us honestly and openly to discuss ways in which our buildings can demonstrate our commitment to social and racial justice as a reflection of our faith in Jesus Christ."

The Dean of Manchester, Rogers Govender, who Chairs the Church of England's Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC) said: "The Black Lives Matter protests which took the world by storm last summer have had a huge impact on how we view racism in church and society in general. Our history, faiths, attitudes, actions and heritage are all under scrutiny.

"This guidance on contested heritage offers practical resources for places of worship to respond to concerns over church buildings, examining how we can offer a balanced message and interpretation, ensuring we are not perpetuating a biased historic message. This is not about destroying heritage or history, but providing a more balanced view.

"This is essential and appropriate in the light of the discrimination and injustice experienced by people of colour in all walks of life, not least in the life of the Church of England. I would encourage all parishes and Cathedrals to respond in a positive way to this challenge."

Some churches and cathedrals have already begun research and consultation processes on their statues and memorials. 

Among them is Bristol Cathedral, which examined dedications to Edward Colston, whose statue was thrown into Bristol Harbour during Black Lives Matter protests last year. 

The cathedral subsequently removed elements of a stained glass window recording a dedication to Colston which have been retained for future educational or display use.

The Dean of Bristol, Mandy Ford, welcomed the publication of the guidance, saying: "As a cathedral and a city, in Bristol we know first-hand the strength of feeling surrounding issues of contested heritage. As we seek to find ways to honour those whose stories are untold and to give voice to communities that have suffered injustice, this guidance will be invaluable.

"It recognises the complexities we experience as the beneficiaries of past exploitation and our need to understand the experience of those who continue to feel the pain of that exploitation.

"In Bristol Cathedral we are committed to moving forward, not to obliterate history, but to restore and repair our relationships with those whose history is not yet expressed in our building."