“This film is provocative. This is going to get us repenting. This is going to get us praying,” said the Chair of the Movement for Justice and Reconciliation, Rev Alton Bell at the start of the Manchester screening of this new documentary.
And it did!
The documentary aims to be educational and redemptive and addresses the historical neglect of slavery in British Christian history.
Academics and theologians take the viewer on a historical journey to show how Biblical passages and their interpretations were used to justify slavery. White, European Christians saw themselves as replacing Israel as the new chosen people of God; blackness became associated with sin. African Christianity was completely ignored.
Some seventeenth-century Christian missionaries wrote scathingly about the brutality of slavery but continued to reconcile it with their faith rather than calling for abolition. They believed the truth of Christianity was a gift to native peoples, making them more peaceful and pliant.
The documentary highlights how the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel owned slaves in Barbados, branding them with their organisation’s name. However, the Church of England was not the only denomination involved in these horrific practices.
The legacy of transatlantic slavery and racism in the church goes well beyond the nineteenth-century abolition of slavery. In fact, the black, British emancipators have been all but written out of history. White evangelical abolitionists often take the credit. Also unmentioned are the rebellions of the slaves, who fought for their freedom. Black leadership of white congregations is still relatively unusual. And only two black theologians teach in British universities.
For reconciliation to take place there is much work to do to correct the societal disadvantages of black Britons. The film calls upon the churches to recognise their legacy, acknowledge wrongdoing and make reparations.
In 2007, the Baptist Union of Great Britain unreservedly apologised for their part in slavery. In 2020 the Archbishop of Canterbury and CTE President, Justin Welby, said the Church of England is “deeply institutionally racist.” And more recently both the Quakers and the United Reformed Church have acknowledged their involvement in slavery and have committed to reparations and concrete actions of ‘repairing justice’. Changing the culture and ethos of churches is widely acknowledged to be a work in progress.
Professor Robert Beckford who had the idea for the film and is its narrator warns that the ‘theology of apology’ often obfuscates the need for reparations. “Where’s the cheque?” he asks church leaders today.
The General Secretary of Churches Together in England Bishop Mike Royal said “This film represents a watershed moment for the church. The case for the wrongs of the transatlantic slave trade to be addressed through restitution leading to true reconciliation has been made. I commend this film as a must-watch for every person.”