COMEMMORATION OF THE BILL FOR THE ABOLITION OF THE SLAVE TRADE Background Note to Southwark Diocesan Synod Motion A brief background In the mid eleventh century Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, preached a sermon which brought about the release of slaves held captive in the city of Bristol. 800 years or so later and, for the twentieth year in succession, William Wilberforce brought a bill before Parliament for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and on 25 March 1807 it received the Royal Assent.
March 25 2007 falls on Passion Sunday. In 2007, nations across the world - from and among whom enormous amounts of capital was made in the trade of ‘flesh’ or slaves - will commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition Act. Yet by 2007 it is estimated that there will be 20 million slaves worldwide. Many feel that nothing much has changed over 1000 years or so.
For 350 years, more than 10 million men women and children were exported as slaves from Africa and over 11 million imported across the world. Wilberforce’s colleague in the abolition campaign, Thomas Clarkson - a pioneer of mass movement protest and the popular dissemination of statistics - estimated that at the height of the triangular trade between Africa, the West Indies and Europe, 80,000 lives were traded yearly to plantations to feed appetites for sugar and cotton. Today memories of the magnitude and the consequent dehumanising legacy of the slave trade run deep.
A vision for the 2007 Project Initiatives surrounding and supporting the Bicentenary of the Act are sensitive and feelings run high. There is some anxiety, for example, that the commemoration will not reflect the diverse experience of those whose forbears were subjected to the dehumanizing processes of slavery. The good news is that there is a determination among partner denominations in Churches Together in England, that churches will have a significant stake in the Commemoration as they seek partnerships with anyone who will share their values. The retelling of the stories of slavery and redemption, of freedom and the promise of new creation, belongs to all the churches to proclaim with the authority and authenticity of black and white voices and experiences. But who tells the story of slavery frequently determines what version of it is heard.
Since May 2004 Churches Together in England has called together interested parties at day and residential conferences in order to determine the issues raised by the Abolition Commemoration; to achieve a consensus of the values embedded in the 2007 Project, and to address the opportunities presented to the church and nation arising from the Bicentenary of the Act.
The Vision of the 2007 Project is to commemorate the Bicentenary in ways that:
challenge modern society to engage with Christian values;
encourage people to engage with the values that drove the abolitionists to change society;
challenge us to consider how their methodology and values can transform our relationships as individuals, communities and societies.
A Project Director After due process, the Churches Together in England appointed Richard Reddie to the post of Project Director. Moving from a senior post in ROTA (Race On The Agenda) Richard started work in March. His tasks are to:
ensure that the message of the commemoration is clearly articulated by the churches;
raise awareness of the significance of the commemoration across and among the churches and in national life; and
provide a ‘one stop shop’, facilitating the planning and implementation of activities and outcomes from the commemoration; supporting organisations that are willing to work with an explicitly Christian ethos and, as far as possible, ensuring proper co-ordination of the commemoration among churches and agencies.
In order that projects of lasting value can be followed through it is envisaged that funding from charitable trusts for the post of Project Director will be renegotiated into 2008. Richard is supported by an executive committee whose areas of expertise ensure that the commemoration is expressed through a wide range of spiritual and cultural ‘conduits’. He is assisted on a day to day basis by Kate Yates the set all free Project Officer.
Engagement, resources and involvement To date discussions with mission and other agencies have so far ensured that:
an ecumenical Lent course in 2007 explicitly related to the commemoration will be sponsored by Churches Together in England.
the Bible Society will provide commemoration resources to the churches for Bible Sunday in 2006 and will dedicate the end-of-year edition of Transmission to the commemoration;
in 2007 the Christian Resources Exhibition will strapline its exhibitions across the United Kingdom with the commemoration identity and will open its seminars to include issues raised by the commemoration and their impact in the churches, mission agencies and other bodies;
approaches have been made (and others are planned) to organisers of significant Christian gatherings, seeking their co-operation in marking the Bicentenary in their programmes;
theological societies are considering theological responses at their 2007 conferences.
a Commemoration Service at Westminster Abbey for Tuesday 27 March 2007 is being planned.
discussions are underway with the BBC to have a dedicated Songs of Praise on this subject to be broadcasted on Sunday 25 March 2007.
a deal with a leading religious book publisher to produce school materials on modern and contemporary abolitionists has been negotiated.
Richard Reddie is writing a history book on the slave trade for Lion Hudson.
there is liaison with Churches around the country to inspire tailored responses to the abolition. So far, churches in York, Hull, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham have registered an interest.
Government Commitment to the 2007 Project An Adjournment Debate held in Westminster Hall in October 2004 supported the United Nations International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery. Fiona Mactaggart, then Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, made an explicit acknowledgement of the fundamental debt owed to ‘the strong Christian commitment that underlay the work of people such as Thomas Clarkson… Granville Sharp… and, of course, William Wilberforce, the politician, evangelist and philanthropist. When first asked to use his influence to bring an end to the slave trade, he replied:
“I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me.”
‘We are grateful that others took a different view and went on to commit most of his parliamentary career to that effort.’ Ms Mactaggart also acknowledged the significant contribution of many Africans who displayed great courage and heroism in bringing the slave trade to an end, including Olaudah Equiano whose imagined encounter with John Newton is brilliantly portrayed in a new CMS/Riding Lights play ‘African Snow’ which will tour the United Kingdom in 2006.
The motion before Synod Anti-Slavery International has given unswerving support to the Commemoration while reminding us that its work is unfinished. There is no room for complacency because it is a sad fact that despite being outlawed, an estimated 27 million people are thought to be living in conditions of slavery today through human trafficking, forced and bonded labour, indentured or child labour. And while we are rid of the transatlantic trade, the implicit and explicit racism that undergirded slavery remains to be combated wherever it emerges in personal, social, national and international relationships.
The resolution before General Synod acknowledges the sensitivities and opportunities surrounding the Commemoration.
The first part of the resolution recognises the opportunities churches may seize to make the most of the Bicentenary in terms of their evangelistic and social outreach into their communities, their links with other minority ethnic churches, and the opportunities provided by resource providers to the churches.
The second part acknowledges the unfinished nature of ridding the world of the scourge of slavery. It invites churches and individuals to consider where and how their weight might be placed in bringing about an end to modern slaveries without ‘dumbing down’ the historic stories of capture and release and invites us to support agencies that are in a position to give voice to the release of those held captive.
The third part of the motion asks the churches to seize opportunities to protest against human trafficking in all its forms; to request the Government to provide resources to those released from bonded labour by funding personal and emotional support to those rescued from bondage and to encourage joined up thinking and action with member nation of the European Community; and finally requests the Archbishops’ Council to resource the churches in their proclamation of the stories of release and redemption in such ways that make a difference to their communication of the Gospel story.
Resources Members of General Synod may like to follow up some of the issues raised through the resolution before it and the following websites and recommended reading will be helpful.
Anti-Slavery International’s website www.antislavery.org, provides very good resources in terms of history, education and engagement with slavery. It is clearly laid out with good links. A ‘must use’ for anyone who wants a one stop shop in preparation for 2007. Membership of the Anti-Slavery International opens the door to excellent resources. Churches with websites might like to consider adding a link to the Society.
Churches Together in England websites: www.setallfree.net and www.churches-together.org.uk;
The following books are useful readers for members of Synod who want to build up a fund of knowledge behind the Commemoration issues.
Saints in Politics. The ‘Clapham Sect’ and the Growth of Freedom. E.M. Howse. An Open University Book, now out of print but still available (try www.abebooks.com) - an authoritative review of the Clapham Sect in paperback.
William Wilberforce. Reginald Coupland. Scholarly and readable not as heavyweight as
William Wilberforce. Robin Furneaux. Scholarly and heavyweight. Good bibliography, indexes and notes.
Henry Thornton. Standish Meacham. An interesting account of the life of Wilberforce’s fiscal and political mentor and member of the Clapham Sect - a brilliant parliamentarian and strategist in the Abolitionist movement.
The Slave Trade. Hugh Thomas. A very big book exploring the awkward reality of the complicity of Christian and Muslim societies in the slave trade. Dense, but worth persevering with.
Amazing Grace. Edited by James Basker. A remarkable anthology of poems and songs by and about slaves and slavery. Endless resource of reflection and quotations.
Bury the Chains. Adam Hochschild. A very recent and readable history of the British struggle to abolish slavery, written by an American. Reads a bit like Pompeii by Robert Harris.
Rough Crossings. Simon Schama. A heavy weight but highly readable book set against the American Revolution, plotting the passage of returning slaves back to Africa. ‘No one who reads it will ever feel the same way again about what it means to be British, American – and black.
The Wilberforce Connection. Clifford Hill. A historical review of the influence of the Clapham Sect and a challenging invitation to answer an important question, ‘If that is what it was for them, what is it about for us today?’