The General Synod of the Church of England apologised in 2006 for its role in the slave trade. The church, through the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, once owned the Codrington Plantation in Barbados, where slaves had the word “society” branded on their backs with a red-hot iron. One teaching that was used by Christians to defend their support of slavery was the notion that blacks carried the curse of Ham.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said: “The body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time, it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the body of Christ, is pray for acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us not just of some distant ‘them’.”
After the apology, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York led a procession through London to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. They joined a group who walked 250 miles from Hull (where abolitionist MP William Wilberforce held his Parliamentary seat) in yokes and chains. They were then “freed” by the Archbishop of the West Indies.
All of this leads me to wonder if there us anything to learn here for Mormons.
Yes: In order to fully escape from racism, the whole sorry thing needs to be cauterized. It’s not enough to condemn racism today, nor to distance oneself from past theologies. Racist practices themselves, whenever they occurred, must be fully condemned and repented of in sackloth and ashes. Claimed ignorance as to why a Christian church ending up owning human chattel would be absurd.
No: Owning slaves and branding with irons is of a completely different kind to the priesthood ban. Also, the Church of England’s ecclesiology is not such that it feels a loyalty to its past leaders and thus it is very easy for them to condemn the Codrington Plantation. Easy, and possibly a tad sanctimonious.
I think Williams is right that present believers own the beliefs and practices of their forefathers, whether they like it or not. Quite how the Mormon Church will proceed on this issue will be interesting to see. It is clear to me that for any action to be influential it must take place in fora with much more normative power than the LDS Newsroom. I don’t envy those called to make these difficult decisions.
Here’s an interesting thought experiment: what if the LDS Church, with prophetic approval, had owned slaves? What would it do about that fact now? The answer to that question will help determine how easy or difficult the road ahead might be.