Natalie Solent

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006
 
Of some relevance to our current debate is the recent vote by the Church of England to apologise for the slave trade.

I can see why the Church of England ought to apologise for slavekeeping on the part of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which I take from the context to have been an Anglican society. The article says:

The organisation owned the Codrington Plantation in Barbados, where slaves had the word "society" branded on their backs with a red-hot iron..."
The irony of a society obstensibly dedicated to spreading a gospel of "love thy neighbour" burning and mutilating its captives jars and should jar.

But the entire slave trade? Plenty of Anglicans were involved, it is true. Although there were also Anglicans who fought for its abolition, Nonconformists were more prominent in the abolitionist movement.

If it were the case that modern Anglicans tended towards complacency or denial about the evils of the slavery, then an apology would be a good thing. They don't, though. I haven't read a full account of this conference, so I might be wrong, but this is looking worryingly like just another example of Anglicans compulsively apologising for everything. Like, really everything. Dr Williams says:

"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 prayer for acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us not just of some distant 'them'."
I've met the idea before now that your sin "helps drive the nails into the body of Christ." More Catholic than Anglican, I'd have thought, and unfashionably intense - not that that has any bearing on whether it is true. But Dr Williams seems to be saying that your sin is shared by other people. Is this a carefully thought out doctrinal pronouncement on original sin, the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons, or some other issue that theologians debate - or is he just winging it? Could be either. The Archbishop is a genuinely clever and good man [UPDATE: now I've said that nice bit, don't start me on this because when I grind my teeth it gives me earache] who does not always think before he speaks.

[ADDED LATER: Since first pressing "publish" I have made several changes to the wording of this post to accomodate the fact that the more I thought about what the archbishop said, the more confused I got. The conference has focused on us inheriting the "the sinfulness of our predecessors" but the first part of the archbishop's forumulation does not privilege either direction of time. Our predecessors could equally well inherit our sin. Or could they? God outside time, I can go with that, but human action - including sin and repentance - does privilege later time over earlier time. As I said, I wish I knew whether what he said was at all thought out.]

Deep waters, Watson. I do hope it's clear that if we are to have this cross-temporal sharing of sin it must be universal. Otherwise it is going to pan out that the whites inherit the sins of all whites, which means the blacks inherit the sins of all blacks, and we're halfway back towards slavery being justified by the curse that Noah laid upon the descendants of Ham. I'm not happy about this focus on descendants. One has a feeling that the next step might be to start talking in terms of "bloodlines".

The debate heard from descendants of the slave trade including the Rev Nezlin Sterling, of Ealing, west London, who represents black churches. She told the synod that commemorations of the 200th anniversary would revive "painful issues and memories" for descendants.
No one now living remembers the enslavement of Africans by Europeans. Memories cannot be inherited.