Sometime in the late 1930s or early 40s, my father was very naughty. He used to tell me the tale with a chuckle, as he recounted the time he carved his initials into a church pew. What remained most notable in this memory was the rationale that accompanied his telling off. He was told, rather sternly I imagine, that he: ‘shouldn’t do that because people pay a lot of money to have their names inscribed in church’. As always in Lancashire, people cut to the chase.
On a recent visit to St Paul’s Cathedral I was reminded of this as I walked amongst the multitude of monuments. To amble down the aisles of this cathedral is to be surrounded by the ghosts of Empire – set out either in the commemoration of notable clergy who converted people around the world, or in the words written across the tombs of generals; admirals; and sea captains. I doubt there are many omissions from the references to far flung parts of Empire that once came under British rule. Across the acres of white marble I was left wondering what untold stories lie behind the eulogies of these historic leaders. In contrast to the praise of their actions, the voices of the acted upon are absent.
There is no doubt that these monuments signify both money and power. Set in the midst of the City of London, the figures can be seen as the immortalised heroes of a mercantile thirst that brooked little opposition. The inscriptions carry numerous references to the East India Company. There is something very disturbing about a spiritual place that glorifies colonial power and is silent about a legacy still blighting people around the world. This substantial void at the centre of Capitalism – Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ – is a fitting mausoleum for the sons of Empire.
In the current issue of Crucible, The Journal of Christian Social Ethics, Carlton Turner writes about the possibilities of decolonising theology. This is a challenging task as theology was recruited into the work of colonisation from the outset, or at least from the moment when a faith smelted in the experience of military occupation was integrated into government. The statue of the Emperor Constantine outside York Minster is an ever present reminder that Christianity, once on the margins of Empire, suddenly came to occupy a place at the centre.
… for people within the colonial situation, the very way theology has been done, and continues to be done, is problematic and perpetuates their own annihilation.Turner, C. ‘Give us Healing Balm: Decolonising Theology Through African Caribbean Eyes’, Crucible April 2022 pp. 16-23.
The theology of the privileged never fully absorbs the theology that germinates in ‘base communities’, but the struggle and cost of sustaining local and authentic theologies is far from easy. For some theologians, acquiescence to the status quo is tantamount to self-harm or accepting an unchosen and enforced sacrifice (in favour of the West). Trust in Theological Education, written by Eve Parker and just published by scm press, adds further consideration and challenge to the assumptions of a theology written mostly in places of privilege and power.
When we listen to a greater variety of voices we have the opportunity to understand the damage which our theology has created, and the risks arising from a ‘normative’ Christianity applied across a range of contexts. For observers from these contexts it must often seem that these fine statues glorify man and, at best, give a modest nod to the memory of a God who made the inconvenient choice to be born amongst the poor of our planet. Every day in St Paul’s the following words are said or sung. The incongruence feels too large to reconcile:
He hath shewed strength with his arm :The Magnificat, Book of Common Prayer (Luke 1)
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.