Simon Heans returns to the question of slavery and empire, and the manner in which we are or should be implicated in it. what should we mean by the ‘prayer of acknowledgement of the failure?

Next year is the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. Anticipating this commemoration at its February meeting, General Synod passed a motion apologizing for the Church’s involvement in slavery following interventions by both archbishops. Rowan Williams spoke of the need of ‘prayer for acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us and not of some distant ‘them.’’

Now I am all in favour of praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, but I do not think that is quite what the Archbishop had in mind by ‘prayer for acknowledgement.’ After all, the subject of such prayer would appear to be us rather than them; their sins but only insofar as they are partly ours. The purpose seems to be to help ‘us,’ to ease ‘our’ guilt, rather than to help them, the traders in and owners of slaves, who were the ones, let’s not forget, who committed the sin. And this is surely to get things precisely the wrong way round.


Perhaps the root of the problem, the reason why, in the Archbishop’s mind, intercessory prayer has become a type of self-expiation, lies in the Archbishop’s understanding of the Church. He spoke of ‘the body of Christ’ as ‘not just a body that exists at any one time’ but that ‘exists across history.’ But for the Catholic Christian the counterpart to the Church’s existence ‘at any one time’ is its existence, not across, but outside history, in Heaven and in Purgatory, where we find the Church Triumphant and Expectant.

Let us, for argument’s sake, omit the Archbishop’s reference to prayer and ask if his judgement (and that of the General Synod which passed, nem con, the motion apologizing for the Church of England’s historic role in slavery) is correct.

That is certainly an interesting question, but it is not a theological one: it is historical and political. The point the Archbishop was making about the past still being part of the present, though he chose to make it with God-talk (‘the body of Christ’), comes not from theology but the secular philosophy of history. It is perhaps most familiar in R.G. Collingwood’s dictum ‘all history is contemporary history.’ That of course is why history – and this is especially true of the history of slavery – has always been a political battleground.

Take, by way of illustration, the Daily Telegraph leader the day after the Synod debate that attacked the Archbishop for failing to emphasize ‘the heroic efforts of William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson in revolutionising public opinion, and of the Royal Navy in enforcing the legislation passed by Parliament in 1807.’ The writer went on to claim that, ‘In the matter of the slave trade, Britain was peculiar in merit rather than guilt.’

Britain’s role

That is true – up to a point. The campaign against the slave trade was led from this country; but, on the other hand, it was a British form of commerce in the first place. Those connecting lines on the map that you drew at school showing ‘triangular trade’ tell the truth. Amazing Grace’s John Newton was one of many thousands of British seamen whose livelihood came from ‘slaving.’ According to Philip Curtin [The Atlantic Slave Trade], during the eighteenth century the majority of African slaves (3.8 million) went to the Caribbean, and they were mainly carried in British-registered vessels. Some of them went to the Codrington Estate, managed on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (and which figured prominently in the Synod debate), where the mortality rate was as high as 40% in 1740. In fact, historians tell us that conditions for slaves in the Spanish and French Caribbean colonies were much better than those on the British plantations. Stanley M. Elkins wrote that in Catholic colonies ‘the very tension and balance among three kinds of organizational concerns – church, crown and plantation agriculture – prevented slavery from being carried by the planting class to its ultimate logic.’ A comparison between the French Code Noir or the Spanish Codigo Negro Espanol and the Code of Barbados will show why it was British slave masters whom contemporary observers regarded as the most brutal. So much for the legends of ‘cruel’ Spaniards or ‘arbitrary’ French government that we imbibed with our mothers’ milk!

The wider perspective

I would therefore propose that, if we are to say with the Telegraph’s leader writer that Britain was ‘peculiar in merit’ in leading the way to the abolition of the slave trade, we have also to agree with General Synod that the British record on the treatment of slaves has little merit. In fact, the comparative evidence would suggest that it is ‘peculiar’ in lacking any kind of merit or redeeming features.

The historical argument is morally inconclusive, at least as regards Britain and slavery. But as Catholics and Evangelicals, we should not be narrowly focused on the Anglican past. We ought to look for the wider perspective and ask about the general relationship between Christianity and slavery. Should Christians feel, if not guilty, then at least uncomfortable on that account?

As we know, liberals believe that their sort of Christianity, which sits light towards Scripture and creed, is the only kind that is good for people. And their case is in some measure historical. Disapproval of Christians in the past is one mark of the liberal: dogma and deprivation of liberty go together, the one is the cause of the other. But the history of Christianity and slavery – the most extreme deprivation of liberty possible – shows exactly the opposite to have been true.


Consider the disappearance of slavery from Europe during the Middle Ages. That was the achievement of dogma. G.K. Chesterton puts it well: ‘The Catholic type of Christianity was not merely an element, it was a climate; and in that climate the slave would not grow.’ And it was the prevailing wind of Christian dogma, specifically the very dogmatic doctrine of salvation through baptism, that created the climate. ‘That the Church willingly baptised slaves was claimed as proof that they had souls, and soon both kings and bishops – including William the Conqueror and Sts Wulfstan and Anselm – forbade the enslavement of Christians’ [Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God].

Thus was slavery replaced by serfdom. Was this an advance for human liberty? Here is the view of Marc Bloch, the twentieth century’s foremost expert on feudalism: ‘The slave had been an ox in the stable, always under his master’s orders; the serf was a worker who came on certain days and who left as soon as the work was finished.’

Contrast the situation in Europe with that which obtained in the Islamic world. Here slavery was endemic; indeed it continued into the nineteenth century and was only ended by British naval embargoes of Muslim slave ships (the Telegraph leader was right there) and slave caravans in Africa being intercepted by British and French colonial troops.

Disobedient sons

But, we might well ask, if Catholic Christianity created a climate in which ‘the slave would not grow,’ how then did it take root again and grow so spectacularly in the Spanish, French and Portuguese colonies of the New World?

This was not because of the liberalization of papal teaching. On the contrary, it became more stringent. Under the influence of Thomas Aquinas, a series of papal pronouncements, beginning in 1435, made it clear that the taking of slaves, whether the people involved were Christians or not (and there had been some disagreement in this matter), was always sinful.

The reason why slavery was revived by the armies of Catholic Europe in the Americas is simple: they were disobedient sons of the Church. So, it should also be said, were some of their fathers in God. Fr Joel Panzer, the author of the definitive study, The Popes and Slavery, points out that American bishops in the South went along with the disobedience of their flock regarding slavery right up until the outbreak of the Civil War, and goes on to draw a parallel with a more recent collusion over the question of contraception.


But what about Anglicans engaged in the slavery business at the same time? Should they be called disobedient sons of their Church? Not really, because the bishops attempted to exercise no magisterial authority. In keeping with the rationalist spirit of the age, a number were more or less sceptics where the historic creeds were concerned and their moral teaching was similarly conformist. So it was left to nonconformist figures and groups who stood outside the religious establishment to lead the abolitionist campaign. What united Clarkson and Wilberforce, the Quakers and the Methodists, was their firm adherence to Christian dogma.

Robin Blackburn, soixantehuitard and still an editor of New Left Review, wrote a very big book a few years ago called The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776–1848 and in the final chapter he quotes the reaction of a Marxist friend who complained that he had given more space to British abolitionism or ‘mewling vicars and parliamentary hypocrites’ than to the Spanish American liberation movements. Blackburn’s rather rueful response is that the former’s activities led to the emancipation of more slaves.

Rodney Stark, in the book to which I have already referred, makes an excellent case for Christianity as the main solvent of the slave system. Chapter 4 of For the Glory of God should be required reading for all members of Synod before they revisit this subject, as they surely will, next year. And Stark should also be read by members of Forward in Faith, for the subject of that chapter is the struggles and achievements of Catholics and Evangelicals who were ‘seeking to renew the Church in the historic faith’!