The Church of England has once again misunderstood the mood of the nation. Guidance published this week urges the country’s 12,500 parishes and 42 cathedrals to address, search out, assess and remove offensive artefacts of ‘contested heritage’. The framework follows the call by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, for a review of church statues. Of course racism must be taken seriously, but I doubt I was the only cleric who, upon hearing this development, let out a loud groan.
The edict is both a concession to advocates of divisive identity politics and a distraction from the more pressing issues on which the church should be focused. Covid unleashed untold misery and suffering across Britain, with the church being afforded a chance to play a leading role in healing divisions and championing national positivity. Instead of embracing this opportunity, precious time, energy and resources are being wasted on this misguided adoption of critical race theory. Becky Clark, the C of E’s director of churches and cathedrals, told the Today programme that the issue is about making sure ‘everyone feels welcome’ in our churches. Such platitudes are redundant: in my 25 years of ministry, I have never heard a parishioner complain of feeling unwelcome because of a monument.
It is particularly galling that the guidance appears to run directly counter to Christianity’s core message of forgiveness. It is possible that in my parish there are monuments to dodgy dukes, nasty nobles and pilfering privateers who creamed off profits from slavery and colonial excesses. A cursory investigation might put them in the ‘bad books’, but how do I know whether or not they made reparation, or even last-minute confession? Who am I to judge what happened centuries back, let alone what might have occurred in the secrets of people’s hearts? Who is anyone to judge? They are being posthumously put in the dock without the possibility of redress.
With the pressure to tick boxes, it would be all too easy to hurriedly chisel out a monument so as to erase figures from history without fully checking all the facts. This goes against the teaching of the church to not only forgive, but to see the best in people while giving the benefit of the doubt. Nothing in life is ever black and white.
And where will such identity politics lead us? Who is to say that the list of undesirables will be confined to historical figures involved in colonialism and the slave trade? Might it end up being expanded to include those judged to have had personality flaws and moral failings? Once the winds of change start to blow, they are very hard to stop. It is not unthinkable, for instance, that the momentum could edge towards removing reference in churches to any historical figure we might now accuse of misogyny or homophobia. With such mission creep, it is difficult to see who would be left. The majority of our most noted Britons would fail the test. They would include 1,000 years of royal blue blood. There is a rather striking stained-glass window of Henry VIII in Canterbury Cathedral’s chapter house — perhaps a ‘review’ of that could get the ball rolling.
History shows that even milder forms of iconoclasm are potential gateways into darker tendencies. One does not need to know the intricacies of the Culte de la Raison to recognise how the banality of bureaucracy can tip into a festival of destruction. Do Anglicans want to give the green light to a mob free-for-all? If this sounds alarmist then a cursory visit to many of our universities will show what our genteel Anglicanism could descend into. Sadly the declining Episcopal Church in America is already there, and friends speak of a prevailing atmosphere of fear for anyone who considers stepping out of line to the new orthodoxy.
Even if one were to accept the mistaken premise that churches need to assess their monuments, is digging up the wrongdoings of historical figures the best use of church time and resources? After the bleakness of the pandemic, we should be supporting our hurting and grieving parishes — particularly when it comes to the issue of mental health. Teenagers and young adults have taken the biggest psychological hit, and they desperately need our guidance, help and support. The church cannot afford the luxury of distractions and displacement projects, especially one as misguided as this.
Part of me is so frustrated that I want to jump in the car and race up to London to find any prelate lurking in Lambeth Palace or Church House and ask: ‘Where do you want me to invest my energies? Should I spend the next year pacing around my four churches with a clipboard weighing up obscure gravestones and monuments, or do you want me engaging full-on with the mass of folks approaching me online who are longing for spiritual insight? Realistically, I cannot do both.’ The irony is that a recent report from the General Synod clearly identified burnout due to too many expectations as a major cause of concern for clergy. How is this guidance supposed to help, exactly?
The very rare instances of wholly inappropriate monuments should be dealt with, if absolutely necessary, using common sense at a local level. It doesn’t require centralised guidance. The public will not forgive the church easily for diverging into some hard-left ideological project. If we do this, while shamefully ignoring those suffering at a time of national crisis, then we shall be throwing reason and nuance out of the stained-glass window. Our parishes will be all the poorer for it.
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