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Sins of the Father?

Sins of the Father?

We have covered the Confederate windows debate at the National Cathedral and the debate over the parish name at the Robert E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, VA and now we have learned of a similar controversy in the United Kingdom.  Yesterday, the Bristol Cathedral announced that they are considering removing windows donated by noted slave trader Edward Colston.  This is an expansion of the efforts of a local group to rename Colston Hall, a local and well-known performance venue.

From the Telegraph

“Campaigners have widened their focus to include the city’s cathedral, where the largest window pays tribute to Edward Colston and depicts symbols related to his work along with his motto “Go and do thou likewise”, taken from Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke.

In response to their calls [Bristol Cathedral Dean] Rev Hoyle said: “Opposition to slavery is dead simple. Slavery is wicked and evil.

“Removing the biggest window in the cathedral would be hugely difficult for me. If I can find a way of doing that, I would be perfectly prepared to have that conversation.””

The Dean suggested the Cathedral was caught in a difficult dilemma, and others suggest it is a re-writing of history.

“Colston was a major benefactor, a man of charity. He was also involved in a trade that wasn’t considered evil at the time, but we now know to be wicked. I think that’s a complicated conversation to have.

Christianity generally, and the Anglican tradition, including the Episcopal Church, specifically have had a long and difficult history with slavery.  When great Britain emancipated all slaves in its colonies in the 19th century, compensation was paid to slave holders, including members and institutions of the Church of England such as the Bishop of Exeter and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.  These were paid huge sums equivalent to millions of dollars in today.  In 2006, the Church of England formally apologized for their role in slavery and the slave trade.

At that Synod gathering the Rev Simon Blessant offered an emotional support of the apology saying; “the organisation [SPG] owned the Codrington Plantation in Barbados, where slaves had the word “society” branded on their backs”  Continuing, he said; “we were directly responsible for what happened.  In the sense of inheriting our history, we can say we owned slaves, we branded slaves, that is why I believe we must actually recognise our history and offer an apology.”

While apologies are good and necessary as it causes us to confront and admit the history of our institutions, how meaningful are they if we continue to seek the benefits of our participation in systems of systemic evil?  Are we complicit in maintaining the harm of an oppressive sin, even if the systemic sin itself is overturned, by our failure to forego its benefits?”   It is these questions that seems to behind the move to remove or alter church windows that either honor, or which were paid for by, those who supported slavery and benefited from it.  By worshiping under the images or symbols of the slave-power, isn’t our worship compromised?  Isn’t the transcendent beauty sullied?

By continuing to honor men like Colton, are we not suffering the iniquities of past generations and offering up our posterity to the same?



The LORD passed before [Moses], and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7



image: Colton window in Bristol Cathedral


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Cynthia Katsarelis

I love Bristol Cathedral and Dean David Hoyle. We have worshiped there for the last 6 summers and found a spiritual home away from home there. The sermons from the Dean and Canon Precentor, Nicola Stanley, are life giving, faith enhancing, and speak to God’s love and desire for compassion and justice for all. One is hard pressed to hear preaching that appeals more strongly to both intellect and heart.

Bristol was one of the largest ports for the slave trade. The city got quite wealthy from it. Barclay’s bank, Lloyd’s, and many other individuals and company’s got quite wealthy. The beautiful Georgian homes on White Ladies Rd and on top of Black Boy Hill? Funded by ship captains and plantation owners. Brass pineapples everywhere. Their political history with slavery is just as ugly as ours, a mayor who opposed taxation on income from slaves, etc. When slavery was abolished, the Brits compensated plantation owners for their “losses” but not the former slaves for their labor. And rights in housing and whatnot in Bristol and UK mirror ours. Slavery is in the fabric of Bristol just as much as it is in some of our cities, especially in the South, but not exclusively.

It’s up to the Bristolians (which I believe is also a rugby team) to decide what to do and how to do it. But there probably is a need to face up to it. There is a tendency to deflect their historic culpability with “but the Americans were worse.” We were them and they started it. In the climate of Brexit and some of the racist fallout, it may be good for them to have this difficult conversation.

I will send them fervent prayers.

Philip B. Spivey

These are two good options: If finances permit, move the window to a national, public, repository of “Episcopal History” which would include antebellum artifacts. As in a museum, the exhibit would be curated by an Episcopalian, lay or ordained, who is a descendant of American slavery. The curator would tell the story of the window within the context of the the Church’s role in supporting African enslavement.

As second option, and much less expensive, is my personal favorite: Leave the window in place and curate it much as you would in the first option. Granted, it would reach a much smaller audience, but the advantage would be that ‘in situ’ parishioners would be afforded an important history lesson.

As we progress in our understanding of history, I think we benefit most when we meet face-to-face with it and then—unpack it. For example, I would not broadcast “Gone with the Wind”, “Birth of a Nation” or “The Trump Inauguration Speech” without an in depth conversation before and after; these conversations would address the un-Christlike as aspects of “the message”.

We can do these same for our historic church windows.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Bristol Cathedral would have plenty of descendants from their island colonies, like the Bahamas, to draw on. They wouldn’t need an American.

Philip B. Spivey


Michael A. Foughty

Again, we are judging people of yesterday by the standards of today. Remember friends, two or three centuries from now we may be judged by their standards, and there may be calls to rip our memorials down. Or put another way, should we stop singing “Amazing Grace” because the person who wrote its words had been a notorious slave trader? Matthew 7:1-3

David Allen

I totally disagree with you that we are erasing history, as you claimed on FB. I think that we have decided that churches are not the place we wish that history to be remembered.

John Newton wrote Amazing Grace as part of the process that he put himself through seeking atonement for what he had come to realize was a great sin and celebrating the unmerited grace he found in that process.

Not even close to the same thing. What I would not choose to sing would be recovered sea chanties sung by the slave trader crews and memorializing their great sin!

Perhaps we could resurrect the monuments of our ancestor’s false beliefs that led to human sacrifice. The followers of Baal in the Levant who murdered their infants by burning them to death in the superheated hands of their idol. Or my ancestors, Los Mejica (Aztecs,) who cut out still beating human hearts on their blood soaked pyramids.

David Allen

Replace the window with something uplifting and relegate the bad history for the study of history. No one needs a constant reminder of the awfulness of the past.

Paul Woodrum

Keep the window. It is a part of history, not all of which is pleasant and it reminds of human evil from which only the grace of God can save us.

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