As part of Black History month I was asked as a priest and someone with an academic background in history, to write a short piece on the history of the church and anti-blackness. We then thought we would like to share it on our church page as part of our own journey of repentance.

The Church of England’s history with anti-blackness, in particular its relationship with slavery is a murky one. Murky in multiple ways, firstly that there are some clear examples of its explicit involvement in some atrocious acts against humanity that leave the church far from clean, but also murky because the depth and extent to which the modern church benefits from colonial slavery is difficult to establish. This is partly because money and influence are sometimes tricky to trace in history, and often because a lot of the Church’s greatest sins happened abroad. It is quite possible to think that the Church in England was not racist, because its racism was most profoundly expressed not in England.

What is clear for all of us aware of the church today is that, as much as we might claim that we are not of the world,[1] the church largely reflects the culture it is in. Likewise the Church of England and its extensions across the globe, historically have reflected the racist, colonising and slaving world more than the gospel of equality and liberation that it has professed to believe in. There is a reason why the likes of Edward Colston felt comfortable being a baptised member of Temple Church in Redcliffe. The whole world is now aware of Colston and his part in the transportation and selling of 84,000 men, women and children with the Royal African Company, but he was a baptised member of the diocese I am now a minister within. He was a worshipper in the Church of England and he was just one individual, part of a country and a church that profited from slavery.

Why were the likes of Colston so happy in the Church of England? Because the Church of England was entangled in slavery, just like every other part of the English governing system. To demonstrate this let me bring to you two case examples.

Firstly, we have Codrington College in Barbados, that proudly claims to be the oldest Anglican seminary in the Western Hemisphere. It is named after Christopher Codrington who donated two slave plantations to the Church of England mission agency the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in foreign parts (SPG – now called USPG). Priests were trained by an institution and a society that owned slaves on the plantations from 1710 to 1833. Being the Church, you might presume that surely the slaves were treated better than their counterparts owned by “less Christian” masters, but the Church was not distinct from the world around it. There is evidence that the slaves were branded on their chest with the word “SOCIETY” to show who they belonged to. There were uprisings, and protests on these Anglican slave plantations because the conditions were so harsh.[2] In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act meant the slaves were set free, but just like other masters of freed slaves, SPG and the Anglican church was compensated for its loss of profitability at the cost of £8,823, over £600,000 in modern terms.[3] Where did that money go? As colonial Britain got richer and richer, the Church of England got richer and richer and the Church of today is built on such wealth with the investment fund of the Church of England currently sitting at £8.7bn.[4]

The second example comes from Cape Coast Castle Chapel in Ghana. Once more this was a chapel owned by SPG, once more the Church of England was operating in the midst of crimes against humanity in the name of profit. Cape Coast Castle was built by Europeans who were in Western Africa purchasing and transporting slaves across the Atlantic. They were Christians so needed somewhere to worship and a chapel was built. It just so happens that this chapel was built directly over the caves where men, women and children were imprisoned before being auctioned off. The eucharist, the meal where we claim we are all one body, was celebrated directly over the place where black bodies, bearing the image of God, were in chains.[5]

So, we may be left thinking that that was the church of then, we are part of the church of today and the church of today is no-longer anti-black? Well, when in history did the church stop believing that white bodies are worth more than black bodies? Was it when the church received compensation for its slaves that were set free? Was it when the Church stayed silent during the creation of concentration camps in the second Boer war where 22,000 Black children died?[6] Was it when the Windrush generation experienced the same racism in the Church of England that they experienced in the rest of society?[7] Was it when our Black clergy of today cry out that they continue to be discriminated against because of their race? When in history did the church stop being anti-black?

Lord have mercy.

Recommended further reading – to start with!

A.D.A France Williams, Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England, SCM Press, 2020.

Robert Beckford, Jesus is Dread, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1998

These videos explore these case studies more in depth – all from USPG’s rethinking mission conference.

Bishop Rose Hudson-Wilkin – now Bishop of Dover, formerly Chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons https://youtu.be/22oZLMpwnRyY

Revd Dr Daniel Justice Eshun -Whitelands College Chaplain, University of Roehampton https://youtu.be/R_yxcqZFbto

Revd Dr Michael Clarke – Principal of Codrington theological college, Barbados. https://youtu.be/NxVuN9czgAo

Rev Aidan Watson is the curate of Christ Church Downend.

[1] John 17:16

[2] http://www.codrington.org/site/index.php/historical-overview

[3] Bennett, J. Harry. “The Problem of Slave Labor Supply at the Codrington Plantations.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 37, no. 2, 1952, pp. 115–141. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2715340. Accessed 21 Oct. 2020.

[4] https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/church-commissioners-england-publish-their-2019-annual-report

[5] Read more here https://theculturetrip.com/africa/ghana/articles/ghana-s-slave-castles-the-shocking-story-of-the-ghanaian-cape-coast/

[6] Lucking, Tony. “SOME THOUGHTS ON THE EVOLUTION OF BOER WAR CONCENTRATION CAMPS.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 82, no. 330, 2004, pp. 155–162. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44231057. Accessed 21 Oct. 2020.

[7] https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/end-sin-racism-online-service-hears-ahead-windrush-day