Rowan Williams: We can learn the lessons of slavery and help to save the planet

Image credit: Emily Vine, with kind permission of USPG archive.

By Rosie Dawson

The Church of England should learn and apply lessons from its historic engagement with slavery to address contemporary questions around ethical investments and the ecological crisis, according to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

He was speaking at an online event to commemorate the founding of the missionary society USPG (the United Society for Partnership in the Gospel) by the Rev Thomas Bray in 1701.

The event saw the launch of a new website and online exhibition  exploring the early archives of the society, a freely available online exhibition of sources and letters from the time of the society’s foundation. This is the result of work undertaken over the last year by USPG in collaboration with scholars at Leeds University.

Lord Williams welcomed the launch of the online archive as part of the society’s work in addressing its history.

“I don’t think we’re talking about reparation in terms of literal repayment but in the strict sense of repairing something,” he said.

“I think the study of the archive really is constructive — we don’t look at past errors or false starts simply to wring our hands with guilt. We turn to our own context and ask what areas of damage and toxicity we are now involved in and what do we do about those.”

The society’s main purpose was to offer spiritual and pastoral care to the clergy it had sent to North America and the Caribbean, and the congregations they formed.

But it soon became deeply entrenched in the slave trade, after a bequest in 1711 from Christopher Codrington, the Governor of Barbados, who left the society two plantations where 300 people were enslaved.

Lord Williams said: “When we look at any kind of history we’re looking to understand ourselves a bit better. Where did we come from, how did we get where we are and what do we have to learn?

“Because if we see how we got this wrong in our history we’re more inclined to be ready to learn — what was it like, what did they not see, what do we see that they didn’t?”

He observed that, just as the institution of slavery was embedded in the global economy, investment in fossil fuels is built into today’s economic systems, and history shows that could also change.

“How far do you go in refusing to accept donations from certain quarters? How do you manage investments?

“If we’re serious about the ecological crisis then investing in fossil fuels is morally and practically unacceptable. But it’s taken quite a while to get people to see that something that appears to be still built into the fabric of our economic systems could possibly change.”

Rowan Williams in conversation with Rosie Dawson here