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Slavery, Colonialism and Christian Memory

Symposium report

The Revd Dr Jane Leach, Principal

  • What to teach?

  • How to teach?

  • What to do?

 

These questions were John Wesley’s questions to the group of preachers that he first gathered in conference in 1744 and these were the questions addressed by those who gathered for an event hosted by Wesley House Cambridge in July 2022 on the occasion of the college’s final weekend of centenary celebrations.  The theme of the event was  Slavery, Colonialism and Christian Memory at which we considered the ways in which churches and educational institutions might ethically and constructively handle the legacies of slavery and colonialism: 

  • What should be taught about our histories as churches and educational institutions – do we own up to our past? 

  • What teaching methods and ways of learning and experiencing the world should be preferred – are we open to broadening our approaches in order to learn from one another?

  • What do we do about the atrocities of the past as they present themselves in the injustices and repeated traumas of the present?

Sonita Alleyne

Master

Jesus College, Cambridge

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Jane Leach

Principal

Wesley House Cambridge

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An interview with Sonita Alleyne

Since the death of George Floyd the injustices that remain in the USA and elsewhere around the world in the wake of the slave trade have taken centre stage.  In the UK, Wesley House’s neighbour, Jesus College, has attracted a lot of media attention since it requested the Church of England remove a memorial to an 18th centenary benefactor involved in the slave trade, and as it has repatriated a 16th century Benin bronze to Nigeria, obtained during the sacking of the ancient kingdom of Benin in 1897.

The symposium began with an interview between myself and Sonita Alleyne, the Master of Jesus College, who has been under considerable personal attack for the College’s stance. 

Reflecting on how she has dealt with the legacies of colonialism and slavery as the Master of Jesus College, Sonita described her astonishment and disappointment at the Church of England’s judgement that the memorial to Tobias Rustat, an investor in the Royal African Company, would have to stay in the college chapel: “It is not appropriate to ask people whose family members were enslaved to worship in a building where there is a memorial to someone who capitalised murder and rape and enslavement.  You are asking them to expose their soul in a place that is not safe.” 

Connecting this experience with the experience of many Carribean people on their arrival in the UK and finding racism in British churches, the Master went on to say, “Whatever previous generations have put up with in churches – like my parents coming to the UK from Barbados – young people now will not put up with such humiliations.  The norm has been reset and that provokes a backlash but the tide has turned and we need to listen to the generations that are coming to understand where the fight is now.”

 

I was aware as I introduced Sonita and as I interviewed her that the subject is a potentially explosive one.  From the outset I wanted to underline the Wesley House’s commitment to an ethos that is both decolonial and inclusive and to invite deep listening and a stance of care and curiosity so that we can learn.  I was delighted that our speakers and our audience were from a variety of backgrounds: Black and White British, Anglo and African American; Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese, Carribean and West African; Black and White South African – but I know too, that our shared and divisive histories can bring up strong feelings of injustice and guilt, denial and demands, protest and paralysis.   I hoped that the design of our day, beginning with Sonita’s willingness to share both personally and professionally, would help to create a space in which we might all learn through encounter and through sitting long enough with the discomfort to allow it to change our attitudes and behaviours.  Time would tell. 

Listening to Sonita was a good beginning: on the subject of cultural objects: “People say this is a difficult subject to talk about.  It’s an easy subject. If we have stolen property we should return it.”  On the subject of sacred space, “Read your bibles and practise your religion.  Speak for God.” And on the subject of post-colonial guilt, “The point is not to feel responsible for the past.  The point is to take responsibility in the present for what you know now.”

Ruby Quantson-Davis

Peace Researcher

Activist

Member of Wesley House

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Uncomfortable Listening

Beginning her presentation in the afternoon, peace researcher, activist and Associate Member of Wesley House, Ruby Quanston-Davis began by explaining how tiring it is every day to hear again and again about problems rooted in the systemic injustices that stem from colonial times and which underpin so many of the instabilities that so many of the world’s poor experience today. 

 

First she sought to draw energy from her own Ghanian heritage through singing.  Gradually first African and then others members of the audience stood and began to clap and dance and join in.  The energy in the room changed. Second, she asked us to sit with the discomfort of the truth long enough to be moved by it.  “The truth is that colonial exploitation and enslaved labour have stacked the deck in favour of colonial nations in ways that continue to undermine the life changes of the so called global south.”

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Adam Ployd

Vice-Principal

Wesley House

Valentin Dedji

Enfield Methodist Circuit

Colin Smith

Wesley House Trustee

Superintendent Minister, Cambridge Circuit

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Ruby’s presentation followed that of three other speakers:  Adam Ployd, Vice Principal of Wesley House, unpacked the theological and ethical implications of the official slave catechism of the Methodist Episcopal Church South.  As he read out the injunctions to slaves to humility and obedience and to bear their sufferings in this life the unholy combination of the machineries of slavery and of Christian evangelism became more and more apparent. For an enslaved person to question their estate, their treatment, or their masters was not only to endanger their life but their eternal soul.  It made for uncomfortable listening.

 

 

 

In his presentation on John Wesley’s opposition to the slave trade, Colin Smith, Trustee of Wesley House, quoted Wesley’s Thoughts on Slavery, asking as Wesley asked, “Did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this?”… they frequently geld them, or chop off half a foot: After they are whipped till they are raw all over, some put pepper and salt upon them; some drop melted wax upon their skin; others cut off their ears, and constrain them to broil and eat them. For rebellion," (that is, asserting their native liberty, which they have as much right to as to the air they breathe,) "they fasten them down to the ground with crooked sticks on every limb, and then applying fire, by degrees, to the feet and hands, they burn them gradually upward to the head."

 

It was uncomfortable listening because even though the slave trade has been abolished its impacts have not been addressed: international trade remains skewed by the legacies of slavery; the families of enslaved persons in the lands to which they were taken bear economic and social injustices that have persisted well beyond the abolition of slavery; and as Valentin Dedji, our third speaker pointed out, in terms even of acknowledging the atrocities of the past there is not even an official day of remembrance to slaves who lost their freedom and their cultural inheritance and their lives; or to families who lost mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and children – never to be heard of again.  In this context, he argued, the repatriation of stolen cultural objects to countries like his own native Benin, are important signs that the harms done to generations of people through the machineries of colonialism and slavery are beginning to be acknowledged. 

Bill Mullally

Director of Supervision

Wesley House

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The faith to set out on these stormy waters

In the final session of the symposium we were invited into reflective groups led by Bill Mullally with a challenge issued by one of our African American guests, “Do we have the faith to set out on these stormy waters?” “Our habitual responses to these issues are not governed by our heads,” he said, “are we willing to get below the waterline?”

By the end of the afternoon the indications were that for many people the small groups had provided an opportunity to express some of the profound discomfort of the day but also to articulate the shifts that were beginning to happen in them as a result of sitting long enough with that discomfort. 

We began by choosing pictures or words that evoked our feelings about the day; explored the overlaps and tensions that emerged as we shared in small groups of people of mixed ethnicities and cultures; and reflected on the actions we need to take as educational and church leaders. 

“I came unconvinced that reparations are necessary.  I am beginning to think I was wrong.”

“I realise that much of our educational practice requires students to embrace western ways of knowing and being and doesn’t really listen to anything else.”

 “This is what all theological education should be.  Not only head work – reading academic papers to each other – but heart and soul work that leads to action.”

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What to do

Founded as a theological college for training British Methodist ministers in 1921 Wesley House now focuses its work on Global Wesleyan Theology, Leadership and Ministry Development and Faith in Public Life.  The majority of our students are from the global south and are part of capacity building projects for the global south sponsored by our own bursary fund, by the United Methodist Church and (while funds last) by the World Mission Fund of the British Methodist Church. 

 

Wesley House does not own any precious cultural artefacts that ought to be repatriated nor has it benefitted directly from the slave trade – our founder earned his money selling off-the-peg suits to Italians – but as I reflect on the day and upon the mission of Wesley House as it enters its second century I feel a strong commitment to develop ever more explicit educational philosophies that embrace ways of knowing and being that draw on the best of western educational practices and those indigenous to other cultures and so empower our students and enrich us all; and I feel the urgency of finding grant making bodies and donors whose generosity can help to fund these kinds of events as well as scholarships for students who otherwise could not access the kind of education that British people can take for granted - not so that we can inculcate in them western ways of working, but so that we can support them to become critical and creative contributors to a global conversation. 

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