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The Most Difficult Question

About 10 years ago I visited Ghana with a group of teachers as part of a British Council educational exchange. At the end of the trip we were taken to Cape Coast to visit a slave fort. We saw the lodge where the fort commander lived. We saw the dungeon where the male slaves were kept before transportation. We saw the area where the female slaves were held. At first sight this area was a bit better than the men’s dungeon as it had an open courtyard. In the centre of this courtyard was a large stone with a manacle fixed to it. A balcony on the commander’s lodge overlooked the courtyard. The commander would observe the naked female prisoners from his balcony and regularly choose one to take for his pleasure. If she refused, or did not satisfy him, she would be manacled in the centre of the courtyard, flogged, and left to die as a warning to others…

We left this area of the fort and entered the garrison. At the centre of the garrison was a church. The Commander and garrisoned soldiers would regularly attend mass there. And so to the difficult question: I was asked by one of the teachers, ‘How did I, as a priest, make sense of the presence of a church in this fort… where was God in the midst of this inhuman abuse?’

I struggled to answer. I said something about culturally conditioned outward acts of religion (it was what they were expected to do). But I thought that shouldn’t apply to the priest… had he closed his eyes and ears to what went on in the rest of the fort? I said something about the Christian reformers like Wilberforce who fought for the abolition of the Slave Trade. I may have satisfied my questioner, but not myself… I have grappled with that question for years.

My thoughts have returned to Ghana as we have seen statues of slave traders torn down. I have never been one for token gestures (let’s take a knee to show our support… or keen on the ubiquitous apologies companies and organisations make about past errors whenever the news prompts it, not least because we never seem to get much beyond the gesture or apology…

I wonder how many realise just how complicit the Church of England was with the Slave Trade. Codrington College, Barbados, e.g., is an Anglican Theological College. Christopher Codrington owned sugar plantations in the West indies, two of which he left in his will to a missionary society (that society still exists as USPG) for the formation of a college.

The world today is very different from 200 years ago. Racial inequality still exists (although the historic slave trade is not solely the cause). Our history is far from pleasant, but we must face it and wrestle with it. Token gestures and apologies might assuage some sense of historic guilt, but they are no substitute for wrestling with the difficult past. It is only when we learn from our past that we will truly understand what it means to live in the present and to live for tomorrow. I have grappled with my ‘most difficult question’ for ten years. I have read much and still have questions e.g. about the trade in Africa. But it is so easy to say ‘sorry’ for a slave-trading past we do not fully understand whilst simultaneously ignoring the plight of many modern days slaves trafficked to this country to work in the sex industry, to give but one example of many.

Fr Philip

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