Church artefacts likely to be removed following contested heritage guidance

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during a Christmas Day service at Canterbury Cathedral
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during a Christmas Day service at Canterbury Cathedral (PA Archive)
9:51am, Tue 11 May 2021
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Some artefacts will most likely be removed from churches in light of new guidance for parishes addressing concerns over memorials with links to slavery and other contested heritage.

The Church of England guidance aims to enable churches and cathedrals to consider the history of their buildings and congregations, and to engage with everyone in their community to understand how physical artefacts may impact their mission and worship.

It comes after the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about the issue last year, saying that justice is crucial to forgiveness as he stressed a need to learn from the past so that it is not repeated in the future.

The guidance offers a framework to approach such questions locally and, where necessary, to engage with the relevant bodies who oversee changes to cathedral and church buildings.

This is not about destroying heritage or history, but providing a more balanced view

In June 2020, the Church of England announced a consultation on approaches to contested heritage following a series of cases around the country.

The guidance published on Tuesday has been informed by a wide-ranging consultation which has included every Church of England diocese and cathedral, and others including heritage bodies and specialists in church monuments.

The guidance notes that while churches and cathedrals are above all places dedicated to the worship of God, for a range of reasons, members of communities may not always feel welcome in these buildings.

A reason could be the presence of objects commemorating people responsible for the oppression and marginalisation of others.

The guidance specifically addresses the issue of heritage associated with racism and the slave trade, including plaques, statues, inscriptions and other monuments, and it is hoped that by doing so it will establish a methodology which can be used for other forms of contested heritage.

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

Becky Clark, the Church of England’s director of cathedrals and church buildings, 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.”

She was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme if some “physical things” are going to be removed, and she replied: “It most likely does, but the most important thing about this framework is it’s an aid rather than pre-empting decision-making processes.

“It doesn’t insist upon any particular outcome or any particular course of action.”

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.”

On the Today programme last June, the Most Rev Justin Welby was asked if people should forgive the “trespasses” of people immortalised in the form of statues, rather than tearing them down.

He said: “We can only do that if we’ve got justice, which means the statue needs to be put in context. Some will have to come down.

“Some names will have to change.

“I mean, the church, goodness me, you know, you just go around Canterbury Cathedral, there’s monuments everywhere, or Westminster Abbey, and we’re looking at all that, and some will have to come down.

“But yes, there can be forgiveness, I hope and pray as we come together, but only if there’s justice.

“If we change the way we behave now, and say this was then and we learned from that, and change how we’re going to be in the future, internationally, as well.”

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