Memory, repentance and reparation: the Sam Sharpe Lecture and the Church of England

For an institution with such a penchant for commemoration, the Church of England has a powerful capacity for forgetting. For an institution with such a searching liturgy of confession, the C of E has a remarkable resistance to repentance. And (if we count ourselves as members of this Church) we need to ask ourselves why.

I’m prompted to these reflections by the invigorating experience of attending, for the second year running, one of the Sam Sharpe Lectures, run by the Sam Sharpe Project, a collaboration of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Jamaican Baptist Union and others. The Project is named after the enslaved Baptist deacon who organised the Baptist rebellion of 1831-1832 in Jamaica, and was executed by the British colonial authorities for his role in it. It seeks to explore and promote his story and legacy, in the context of the British Baptist Union’s strategy for turning its Council’s historic 2007 Apology for Slavery into concrete actions: The Journey. The focus on Sam Sharpe symbolises an emphasis on the faith and agency of enslaved people and their descendants and the theme of liberation from below which the Project foregrounds as his legacy. The annual lecture is one of its main means for exploring and furthering his story and his legacy and thereby development of the British Baptist Union’s process of repentance and reconciliation with their brethren.

This year’s highly distinguished lecturer was Professor Verene Shepherd, Professor of Social History at the University of the West Indies, the Director of The Centre for Reparation Research at The UWI, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a past member and chair of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Co-Chair of the National Commission on Reparations in Jamaica and a Vice Chair of the CARICOM Reparation Commission. Prof Shepherd was chosen, we were told by the Revs Wale Hudson-Roberts (the racial justice coordinator of the British BU) and Karl Johnson (General Secretary of the Jamaican Baptist Union), with the express hope that her lecture would provide impetus and resources for taking that process forward.

After hearing her speak, it was easy to see why. Professor Verene Shepherd spoke on the Women in Sam Sharpe’s Army, but also on reparations. It was at once an exercise in the recovery of memory through historical retrieval of the role of women in resisting slavery, and an argument for reparations in the names of those women, and the men, too, whose names, punishments and in some cases their testimony, are recorded in the sources.

Women enslaved in the Caribbean had no choice but to resist slavery, Prof Shepherd argued. They formed part of a long history of black women resisting enslavement, abolitionists who should be remembered alongside the men & white women usually commemorated. And indeed those women are now being commemorated in Jamaica. Sharpe went from plantation to plantation, Bible in hand, to swear the enslaved people there to rebellion, and to organise them into revolutionary cells. Women responded to Sam Sharpe’s call to resist. Their experience of slavery suffices to explain their participation. The forced exploitation of their labour, the appropriation of their reproductive agency to reproduce slavery, rape, their legal defeminisation and racialisation to justify their treatment: this coercion provoked gendered patterns of resistance to white supremacy enacted through racialised slavery. The sources attest women’s daily acts of resistance to wear down the slavers, like malingering, as well as outright armed revolt. And they suffered their share of the horrific exemplary punishments meted out by the British governor: hangings, lashes of the whip, permanent transportation. And for them we should engage in the path of reparative justice, Prof Shepherd urged us.

(The Unveiling Ceremony for the Freedom Monument at Montego Bay, Jamaica, commemorating those who fought for emancipation in the war of 1831-2. Image: Montego Bay Cultural Centre).

For them, and for many other reasons she adduced. Reparation, she argued, rests on moral, political and economic grounds, not only with respect to enslavement but also emancipation (a racist act that compensated slave owners by reckoning the enslaved as property), post-colonial indebtedness and under-development and other legacies of colonisation post-emancipation (‘a century of intellectual apartheid’); climate change, and centuries of environmental degradation; and the strictures of neo-colonialism. We should see reparation, she argued, as part of decolonial justice and a way to address the continuing harms of anti-black racism to people of African descent globally.

She took us through the history of the development of reparations justice, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commissions 10 point plan. She emphasised the responsibility of colonisers, the intergenerational psychological trauma of enslavement (a point also made by last year’s lecturer, Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin), the continuing effects of slavery and colonialism (as recognised by the UN’s Durban Declaration of 2001), and monetary compensation and debt cancellation as means to help Caribbean nations achieve UN development plans. The benefits of the exploitation of the enslaved are, she noted, like the harms, also transmitted across generations. These are not simply things which others did to the dead, long ago.

The Baptist Journey is proving to be a slow one, going by Wale Hudson-Roberts’ assessment in an article from 2017. Other institutions, such as a number of universities and seminaries in the US and the UK (Glasgow, Cambridge and Bristol), have gone further, faster. But at least there has been a serious, fully articulated apology and there is a commitment to action and a process and a relationship within which efforts can be made, and initiatives like the Sam Sharpe Project pursued, to drive the process forward. All these developments are well in advance of the position of the nation states responsible of the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery, including the UK. We tend to remember ourselves instead as a nation of Wilberforces, the ones who ended the slave trade, as David Cameron did while telling our former colony Jamaica to ‘move on from the painful legacy of slavery’, and while his government enacted the hostile environment that would result in the Windrush crisis. As Afua Hirsch wrote recently, ‘The Caribbean is Britain’s own Deep South, where enslavement and segregation as brutal as anything that existed on American soil took place at the hands of British people.’ Yet because it happened far away, the British are remarkably complacent about our major role in the slave trade and plantation slavery: ‘that distance facilitates denial.’ We forget the century and more of colonial rule that followed emancipation even more easily, except as the background to the arrival of The Empire Windrush in 1948.

I think it is fair to say that the Church of England, as an institution, shares in this national complacency about British slavery, slave trading, and colonialism. For all the slow progress of the Baptists’ Journey, they are far, far ahead of Anglicans in England. The Church of England’s Synod voted ahead of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade accept an amendment to a motion on modern day slavery, which apologised for the Church’s complicity in the slave trade and recognising the damage done to the enslaved. Chiefly in view here was the ownership of the Codrington Plantations and those enslaved there, in Barbados, bequeathed to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in 1710. Both Archbishops at the time, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, supported the amendment and the following year they participated in a Walk of Witness as an act of repentance. Sentamu called on the British government to apologise for slavery, and Williams advocated that the Church of England consider paying reparations. These actions come far short of the British Baptist Apology and the process to which it has committed itself in relationship with its Jamaican counterpart. To my knowledge, no comparable steps have been taken since. Indeed, little if anything appears to have happened on the question since 2007, even while other British institutions have researched their complicity and, in the case of Glasgow University, produced a practical plan, worked up in partnership with the University of the West Indies. And this failure of repentance seems to be bound up with a failure of memory, as Duncan Dormer of the USPG points out.

Reparation as a process of addressing injustices and wrongs committed seems deeply in keeping with the sort of repentance envisaged by the New Testament. It is powerfully exemplified for us in the story of Zaccheus. It is consistent with the repudiation of the cheap grace Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified in his book Discipleship. The intergenerational effects (harms for some, benefits for others) of slavery and colonialism, and the continuity provided by institutions involved, provide a basis for exploring reparatory justice on the part of institutions like the Church of England. Indeed the Church has, as Rowan Williams pointed out in 2006, core theological reasons, in belief in the body of Christ and the communion of saints, not to distance itself from the sufferings of the enslaved or its own part in owning and exploiting them and in justifying and defending slavery.

Professor Robert Beckford, in his response to the lecture, picked up on this failure and underlined its ecclesial seriousness. It is no wonder, he remarked, that the Church of England struggles to attract black and brown people when it fails fully to apologise or make reparations after participating in genocide. It signals that something has gone wrong with the Church’s theology. You can’t call yourself people of God and refuse to perform the Shalom required when the peace of God is broken, he argued. ‘You can’t call yourself my brother and sister and convince me you think I and my ancestors are fully human if you don’t repay this debt.’

It is difficult to overstate the gravity of this challenge to the Church’s moral standing, but also to its claim to be one of the churches of Christ, and its right to the enjoyment of the fellowship of all Christians of African descent (and not just African descent) whose history includes the history of slavery and colonialism. It is therefore a deeply troubling challenge – ‘uncomfortable’ is far too mild – but also I think a profoundly salutary one. Indeed, I think it is an act of generosity. Nor is Professor Beckford the only one challenging the Church on this issue: there are those on the inside like Canon Eve Pitts who have been raising it for many years, a work of astonishing faithfulness.

The Church has many challenges on its hands, including other legacies of devastating failings. Yet this challenge also goes to the heart of its identity and its mission, indeed to the integrity of the gospel it proclaims. It requires deep, extended listening, learning, dialogue, reflection and a path toward action. It is a challenge for a deep theological reflexivity about the Church’s history and its reluctance to face up to it. It is, finally, an opportunity for the Church to work at reconciliation with people in the Caribbean and of Caribbean heritage, including fellow Anglicans, including its own members, in making amends, and so also to enter itself into the freedom the gospel affords, in Rowan Williams’ words, ‘to face ourselves, including the unacceptable regions of … our history.’

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