The Archbishop of Canterbury has dipped into the back pockets of the Church of England where the Church Commissioners keep their spare cash.
They manage an investment fund for the C of E of £10 billion made up of historic assets. They have agreed to give Mr Welby £100,000,000 to compensate the descendants of black people for having been enslaved six to 10 generations ago. Part of the justification for this is the recognition that some investments in the 18th Century accrued benefit from profits made from a number of sources but including the slave trade.
This raises some serious and interesting questions. However Justin Welby shows little interest in them. But if he does not, other members of his church do.
The redoubtable Rev. Marcus Walker, founder of the movement Save the Parish, has commented: “Suddenly, the Church has money. After decades of telling us there is no money to fund churches and ministers who keep the church alive on the front line, suddenly they have found £100 million behind the back of the sofa.”
It is an internal matter of church governance for the Archbishop to explain to the Rev. Walker why by prioritising his sense of historic complicity in the slave trade, he can find £100 million pounds to assuage his historical grief while ignoring the needs of his parishes. But whatever the justification it pays no attention to many other factors that some might consider had relevance. Does no credit accrue for having freed the slaves? It was the evangelicals in the Church of England (known as Wilberforce’s Clapham Sect) who did so much to triumphantly abolish slavery. Does this institutional self-deprivation have no financial implications to set alongside earlier profits? If not, why not?
It ignores too the financing of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. To pay for the ending of slavery, the government of the day borrowed £20 million to buy the freedom of those currently enslaved (multiply by 100 for today’s worth). This was a national loan that we funded by our taxes. In fact we only finished paying off in 2015. How many times over should citizens over the last 190 years be paying for the activity of their ancestors?
It also ignores the historical fact that it was largely Africans selling other Africans into slavery that fed the unspeakably cruel slave trade in the first place. Why are they exempt from any moral or financial calculation if such calculations are being constructed?
But the theological and philosophical questions are more interesting.
Slavery was ubiquitous. It has been practised throughout history. It persists today. In the arena of European history, something like 1.4 million white Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates from North Africa and sold into slavery there and in the Islamic Ottoman Empire. It is not facetious to ask why there is no reciprocal call for compensation from the mosques of North Africa to the white European descendants of those victims of the African indigenous slave trade.
The answer to that question lies partly in there being no philosophical mechanism for holding Africans and Turks of today either personally or economically responsible for the suffering of our European ancestors. So why is the African-American context different?
There are two reasons. The first is that the wounds of slavery in American have not been healed. The reasons for this are complex and impossible to deal with in this context. But the UK has soaked up American culture, absorbing and digesting it in a way that our non-English speaking European neighbours have been free from.
Partly through the power of social and public media, we are living a kind of proxy American cultural life here, with proxy American values.
It may have been ludicrous that BLM demonstrators in London held up their hands mockingly in their stand-off with British police shouting sardonically “don’t shoot”, oblivious of the fact that our daily policing is done by unarmed police who cannot shoot. But such is the emotive power of American cultural preoccupations no one seemed to notice the absurdity.
The progressive political philosophy that drives American culture has two ingredients in particular that affect us.
One is that the “victim” is always right; and secondly, the collective is takes priority over the personal.
This collectivism is of course a derivation of Marxist preoccupations and ought to be resisted by Christian theologians rather than be adopted and affirmed. It must be of some note that in Jeremiah we find a trajectory of theological development that moves from replacing collective guilt to the responsibility of the individual. The people of the First Covenant were initially warned than the consequences of sin would flow down the generations. But subsequently Jeremiah (31.29) prophesied that “in those days they shall say no more: the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. Collectivist identity and guilt down the generations was to be replaced by personal accountability before the living God. We don’t do generational guilt any more. It’s not part of our moral Christian code.
This is no small thing. It is one of the central defining differences between political utopian movements of the Left and Christianity. We abjure identity politics because they diminish and eradicate the value and the responsibility of the individual soul. We repudiate attributing guilt across the generations. To adopt a cultural movement that replaces the individual with the collective, capable of being applied inter-generationally, is a serious theological error, and will have dark political consequences.
Only by adopting this American ideology of victimhood steeped in collectivism do we find the rational to reconfigure not issues only personal guilt but re-formulate new economic liabilities that transcend the centuries without definition or limit.
There is a Christian response to historic slavery. It is one rooted in the spiritual experience of moving from the slavery of sin to the intimacy of adoption in the Godhead. It is one nurtured by individual forgiveness. It has no direct economic cash evaluation. It cannot be expressed in monetary terms.
But if the Archbishop of Canterbury has become so convinced that an American ideology of collectivism and victimhood should drive reparations the C of E has a moral imperative to put right, then we Catholics are next in the queue for a hand out from the Church Commissioners £10 billion pot.
The English state destroyed the Catholic monasteries and robbed them of their resources, while confiscating all their churches to turn them into centres of Protestantism. It profited to the tune of £1.3 million pounds in the mid-16th Century. This would have an equivalent today of about £500 million.
In the hope that Justin Welby’s conscience is not driven by racist criteria of victimhood only, but is willing to be even-handed in responding to the victimhood of whites as well as blacks, can Cardinal Nichols expect a cheque for £500 million? If we can’t have our monasteries back, we would like the ill-gotten proceeds of state robbery.
And while we are at it, the keys to our cathedrals too please.