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Church of England considers ‘why Rustat court process failed’





The Church of England has published a report which concludes that the consistory court system used to judge the Tobias Rustat slavery memorial case failed to stop “continuing racial injustice which the Church of England must put a stop to”.

Tobias Rustat wrote the praise-laden memorial on Jesus College chapel wall himself
Tobias Rustat wrote the praise-laden memorial on Jesus College chapel wall himself

The first biannual report of the Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice of the Church of England looked into the issue of contested heritage as memorably illustrated by the case this year which saw Jesus College request permission to remove the memorial on the west wall of Jesus College chapel.

A consistory court presided over by David Hodge QC heard evidence from the college, and the alumni’s opposition to the move, in February. In March he ruled that the memorial to Tobias Rustat, a 17th century Jesus College benefactor who made significant investments in the Royal African Company – the approved English slavery company of the time – should stay on the west wall. The ruling provoked considerable soul-searching about why a group of Jesus College alumni would want to pay significant fees – as did Jesus College – to a legal firm to defend a slaver’s prominent role in a place of worship.

The request was refused. The ruling ignored the concerns of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who expressed a view that the statue should be moved to a non-Christian location and then, in April, shared his view that “memorials to slave-traders do not belong in places of worship”. The Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, said “the consistory court process was not fit for purpose” and declined to appeal, thereby eroding the integrity of the court to pass judgement on the case.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Picture: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Picture: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Church of England report goes on: “Regarding monuments and the built environment, deciding what to do with contested heritage is not easy. While history should not be hidden, we also do not want to unconditionally celebrate or commemorate people who contributed to or benefitted from the tragedy that was the slave trade.”

But in addition to this, the authors point out that “the Rustat judgement involved findings of fact” – an implicit critiscism of the 66 Jesus College alumni who wanted the memorial to stay, who attempted to say that the University of Cambridge had got its history wrong because Rustat was not “a significant investor” in the Royal African Company.

The authors add that it is wrong that “those most affected by virtue of their ancestry [are] being asked to continue to carry the burden of the grievous wrong done by slavery to those from whom they are descended”.

It concluded: “We still fail to acknowledge the full legacy and ongoing impact that the transatlantic slave trade and the British Empire have had in shaping the identity and destiny of the Church of England.” The authors note that calls for Christian forgiveness for slave traders are “frankly deeply offensive”. When the Master, Sonia Alleyne, said: “How many lynchings, beatings... sin has to be committed before you come off the wall?”, here remarks were “in our view entirely justified”, the report says.

An artist’s impression of the proposed new exhibition site for the Rustat memorial on Jesus College premises. Graphic: Jesus College
An artist’s impression of the proposed new exhibition site for the Rustat memorial on Jesus College premises. Graphic: Jesus College

The church study identified the Rustat case presents “a systemic challenge which requires a response”. Part of the challenge is to accept that “racism has influenced the process by which we remember and retell our history in our shared Church”. Ethnic diversity in legal representation would help ensure justice in future cases, it adds, noting: “There was, it must be said, a noticeable lack of ethnic diversity among the participants in this case, apart from the Master and one witness for the College.”

The authors also remark: “The Consistory Court process is an adversarial, time consuming and lengthy one, involving a highly specialised and complex area of ecclesiastical and planning law. It is as a result expensive.”

A spokesperson for Jesus College said: “We’re pleased that the report of the Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice recognises the many shortcomings of the Consistory Court process and judgment. If the Church is serious about tackling racial injustice, it must look at how it deals with matters of contested heritage.

“The Consistory Court process urgently needs reform as it stands in the way of a constructive and inclusive discussion on issues within the Church’s mission.”



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