The Church of England last night said sorry for the role it played in the 18th century in benefiting from slave labour in the Caribbean.
The church’s general synod in London began its deliberations yesterday by commemorating its role behind the abolition of slavery in 1807, pledging members to continue campaigning against modern slavery. But the debate was transformed at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, with an apology being issued for the church’s complicity in sustaining – and profiting hugely – from the trade.
Although the motion was passed unanimously, the synod stopped short of endorsing a specific call for financial or other reparations.
When parliament voted compensation in 1833 – to former slave owners rather than the slaves themselves – the church 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 contemporary Bishop of Exeter and his business associates received even more, nearly £13,000.
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Rowan Williams, the archbishop, 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 church’s admission follows similar apologies by the late Pope John Paul II for the historic transgressions of the Roman Catholic church, its anti-semitism and the Inquisition.
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Speakers in the synod debate acknowledged that the church had played its part in justifying slavery during the long campaign by William Wilberforce and others such as the former slave ship captain turned minister John Newton, composer of the hymn Amazing Grace, to secure its abolition. Wilberforce brought bills before parliament for 20 successive years until legislation to abolish the trade was passed.
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.”
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.