Readings: Galatians 3.26–end; 4.6, 7 and Luke 4.16–21
Today, (30 July) the Church of England remembers William Wilberforce. He was born in 1759 in Hull. Having been converted to an Evangelical piety within the Church of England, Wilberforce decided to serve the faith in Parliament instead of being ordained. He became a Member of Parliament at the age of twenty-one. He was a supporter of various missionary initiatives and he helped to found The Bible Society.
He eventually settled in Clapham in London – which we used to call ‘Cla’am’ when I lived there! Wilberforce became a leader of the reforming group of Evangelicals known as the ‘Clapham Sect’. Of all the causes for which he fought, he is remembered best for his crusade against slavery. After years of effort, the trade in slaves was made illegal in the British Empire in 1807 and Wilberforce lived to see the complete abolition of slavery by Britain, just before his death on this day in 1833.
Some of you may not know that one of the Canonries I hold is for the Cathedral of Cape Coast, in Ghana. The Cathedral is an old garrison church for the English soldiers who once protected slave merchants at the next-door castle. On the day I was made a Canon there, I had the strange experience of preaching to a congregation of entirely African faces, in the building which would once have had only English faces looking back at me. I was struck, really forcibly, by the irony of that moment. One of the most disturbing things I learned in Cape Coast was that the first Anglican church in Ghana was actually built over the entrance to the pits in which slaves were kept before being shipped off.
But largely thanks to Anglican William Wilberforce, Britain was the first major economy to abolish slavery, at a time when the rest of the world still considered it a normal practice. Led by an Anglican Christian. For me, there is hope in that statement.
There is no doubt that the Anglican Church, like many British institutions of the time, benefitted from the slave trade. Around these walls there are memorials to men who undoubtedly had stocks and shares in the slave trade – at the very least. I very much expect that some of the stones from which this ancient church was built were purchased with slave trader’s profits.
But it was also an Anglican, William Wilberforce, who caused the church, and the Nation, to wake up from its collective evil and folly. It was an Anglican, inspired by Christ, who proclaimed release to the captives, and who knew in his bones that in Christ there is no longer slave or free. That we are all, black and white, one in Jesus Christ.
Now, I doubt very much that such an intelligent audience (as I know you all to be) would need me to outline the horrors of slavery. But I do want you to ponder, just for a moment, some of lasting effects of that abhorrent practice.
Some of those effects include the fact that slavery is still very much alive and well in our world today. It is no longer state sponsored, in any significant sense. But it carries on, all around the world, largely underground. Wealthy people in wealthy nations are able to acquire other people to carry out the menial tasks they don’t want to do, giving them nothing in return save basic food and shelter. Such people are supplied by people traffickers, and modern-day slave owners. Children are taken from their families, and sold to wealthy families, or car washing gangs, or prostitution networks, all over the world. And unless someone steps in, there is no escape for such people. And more people are said to be in slavery today than at the height of the Atlantic slave trade by the great economic powers.
Another lasting effect of slavery has been the way that we still, as a society, instinctively treat non-white citizens as somehow different, or less important. Why is it, for example, that the awful case of Madeleine McCann still grabs newspaper headlines, while tens of thousands of abducted non-white children around the world rarely get a mention?
It is said that people from non-white backgrounds are statistically more likely to be infected with COVID-19. Could that be because statistically, non-white people are more likely to be working on the frontline of our communities, in our hospitals, driving our trains and buses, and living in over-crowded housing?
All lives matter. But the events of recent weeks have reminded us that Black Lives Matter at least as much as white lives. Until we have created a society in which all slavery is vanquished, and where non-white people have all the same economic, educational and healthcare opportunities as white people, we need to keep on reminding ourselves that Black Lives matter too.
Perhaps we Anglicans, drawing from the heritage of William Wilberforce, still have a role to play. Perhaps we need to raise our voices, as he raised his, to challenge our society, and speak the truth, that Jesus commanded us to ‘let the oppressed go free’, and to proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favour.
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