By Kirk Petersen
In January, the investment arm of the Church of England announced plans to earmark £100 million (about $120 million) for a program of “impact investment, research, and engagement” in atonement for the church’s historical involvement in the transatlantic chattel slave trade. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby voiced his strong support, saying, “it is now time to take action to address our shameful past.”
But the announcement by the Church Commissioners, who manage an investment fund of £10.1 billion, quickly drew opposition. “One of the most startling things was that I received at Lambeth Palace over 200 letters and emails in the next few days — 98 percent of which were saying no, you should not be doing this,” Welby said February 17, at a press conference at the 18th plenary session of the Anglican Consultative Council in Accra, Ghana. “We’re still going ahead with it. But I think we need to realize that we’ve got to do a better job and a bigger job of saying why this is right as Christians, and persuading people that this is the right thing to do.”
There was opposition expressed publicly as well. The Telegraph called the proposal “a shameful waste” in an editorial. “This money could fix church roofs, help house the homeless, or provide clergy for growing congregations.” On the other hand, a letter to The Guardian described the amount as “chickenfeed,” and proposed £1.3 billion as an alternative.
The £100 million dwarfs the $2 million per year that an Episcopal Church task force recommended earmarking for racial healing efforts — although that annual “tithe” is envisioned as open-ended. General Convention passed Resolution A125 with an adjusted formula that could cause the amount to fluctuate in the future.
The press conference was called to introduce the newly elected chair and vice chair of the ACC, both of whom faced no opposition. Canon Maggie Swinson, who will ascend from vice chair to chair at the end of the meeting, is a layperson from Liverpool, and only the second woman to chair the group. “I would hope that what the Church Commissioners have done will be an example not just to other countries, but to businesses and organizations, which have made money from the trade in chattel slaves,” she said. “I would hope that they would look at ways in reinvesting in communities to redress the imbalances and inequities which have resulted from that trade.”
The issue is personal, as there were enslaved people among her ancestors. She was strongly moved by the ACC visit to Cape Coast Castle, a former slave-trading prison housed under the first Anglican church in Ghana. “For me, the standout moment was in those dungeons, in the darkness of the dungeons, standing where it is quite conceivable my ancestors stood as they waited to be taken through the Door of No Return,” she said. “I felt so cut off from God in that place,” although it was under a church.
Also at the press conference was Hosam Naoum, the incoming vice chair. Naoum is Archbishop of Jerusalem, and when they both take office he will be outranked, for ACC purposes at least, by a woman who is not ordained. He said he feels good about it.
“We are all delighted to hear that we have elected the first woman to be chair of ACC,” he said. [Editor’s Note: Actually, she is the second. Marion Kelleran, an Episcopal professor retired from Virginia Theological Seminary, chaired the group beginning in 1973. Naoum, who was born that year, can be forgiven for not remembering.] “It is very important that we are in the room this year, we have more female representation, we have also lay representation, we have young people also represented in the room. And this means that we are becoming more and more aware of many levels of justice within the Anglican Communion.” He went on to give thanks that a Lutheran woman was ordained in January as the first female pastor in the Holy Land.
Swinson said women can model a different leadership style. “When we passed the legislation in England [permitting female bishops], the women who were likely to become bishops were supportive of one another, they talk to each other, they pray together,” she said. “Maybe women are slightly different in their approach to these things than men, in that they, they actually do look out for one another a lot. And I think that’s really positive.”
The Anglican Communion Office has been streaming crystal-clear videos on its YouTube channel, but unfortunately the press conference was marred by severe audio problems. A persistent buzzing noise rendered much of the hour-long discussion useless to journalists and others viewing over the internet. Perhaps the sound was clearer in the room. Questions from the audience were entirely inaudible, and were not repeated by the panelists, so the responses were largely meaningless. The final leader at the press conference was Secretary General Anthony Poggo, who spoke so softly that his voice defied transcription.
Welby’s voice cut through the clutter, as he spoke forcefully, with the microphone at his lips. “Churches are always messy, because human beings are messy. And if we want a very tidy church, with no disruption, and no difficulties, you’ll only find it in the graveyard. There’s no arguments in a graveyard,” he said, making reference to the disputes over same-sex relationships that have now dogged him at both the ACC and last year’s Lambeth Conference.
“And it’s very easy to look at the church and see the mess. But God looks at the church and sees people who he loves us enough to send his Son to die for them. So that the mess can be redeemed, healed, sanctified, and bring us to his eternal presence. And those things are what are really going on in the church. And the things that give me hope,” he said in closing.
Thanks to Bishop Ian Douglas for pointing out that ACC was first chaired by a woman half a century ago, as clarified in an Editor’s Note above.