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Bicentenary of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade - Speech to General Synod

Wednesday 8th February 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, made the following contribution during the General Synod debate on commemorations for the bicentenary of the 1807 Act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. He sets out the reasons why an apology from the Church of England is necessary.

As you've already heard, a great deal has already been said about apology. And there are those commentators who will claim that apology is either unnecessary or, because it is cost-free, means nothing. They claim that it's unnecessary because, to use that most maddening and tired of clichés, it's just an example of political correctness, it's cost-free because it's words only. I want to speak in support of Simon Bessant's amendment because I believe that what we're talking about is both necessary and costly.

I have two points to make. The first is something that Rose Hudson Wilkin has already alluded to: we're talking about the Body of Christ. Over the weekend I spent a couple of days taking part in the celebrations for Bonhoeffer's centenary and one of the texts I was given to speak about was from a letter of Bonhoeffer to Bishop Bell of Chichester, in which he spoke of how in the Body of Christ, the shame of different parts of the body was shared, as well as the joy. The Body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time; it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the Body of Christ, is prayerful acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us not just of some distant 'them'.

Some years back, when we were first discussing issues in the church about HIV and AIDS, the potent slogan was coined 'The Body of Christ has AIDS'. Similarly, we have to say 'The Body of Christ has been and is in slavery', but also that 'The Body of Christ has been involved in slave-owning'. Apology is about that; it is not about trying to gratify some sense of wanting to wipe the record clean. On the contrary, it's part of what we are as a Christian community; corporate acknowledgement of repentance, which like every such acknowledgement, ought to stimulate us to action, which is why it's costly.

The second point I want to make, briefly, is that in the world around us we see countless examples of how an unacknowledged and unhealed past imprisons us in the present and for the future. We see it in international, inter-ethnic and inter-faith tensions and if there is one thing that the Gospel of Christ says to us is that it is possible, in acknowledging the past, to open it to the healing power of Christ. The freedom, and I'd underline that word with all of its ironies in this context, the freedom to repent and acknowledge and open ourselves up to the grace of God is part of the Good News.

To speak here of repentance and apology is not words alone; it is part of our witness to the Gospel to a world which needs to hear that the past must be faced and healed and cannot be ignored. So if we accept, as I hope we shall, this amendment, I trust we'll do so in a spirit and conviction that by so doing we are actually discharging our responsibility to preach Good News, not simply to look backwards in awkwardness and embarrassment, but to speak of the freedom we are given to face ourselves, including the unacceptable regions of ourselves and our history.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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