URC apologises for its role in the transatlantic slave trade

The United Reformed Church (URC) has made a confession and apology for the role of its antecedents in transatlantic slavery and its continuing complicity in the legacies of the trade today.

At its General Assembly, held from 8-11 July at The Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, the URC passed two resolutions pertaining to the topic.

In addition to the apology, the Church made a commitment to undertake practical actions to address “the continuing negative impacts of the legacies of transatlantic slavery on black communities in the UK, the Caribbean and Africa”.

As her first act as General Assembly Moderator 2022-2023, the Revd Fiona Bennett, with the Revd Adrian Bulley, Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship), gave the apology:

We, the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, mindful of our own history and that of our antecedent bodies, wish to confess and apologise for our role in transatlantic slavery, and the scars which continue to blight our society, our Church, and the lives of black people in our midst and around the globe today.

“This action is firmly rooted in the gospel call to repentance and gives life to the commitment in our Basis of Union to be ‘formed in obedience to the call to repent of what has been amiss in the past and to be reconciled.’

“As a conciliar Church, we have listened to one another as we received the report of Mission Committee on the ongoing legacies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We have heard the pain of sisters and brothers who have been hurt, and are still being hurt, by these legacies, including the continuing scourge of racism.

“We have heard God in Christ speaking to us at what we believe to be a Kairos moment. In a spirit of humility and vulnerability, we are urged on by a movement of God’s Spirit, calling us for a journey of words and actions towards a future built on equity, justice, and love.

“To this end, the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, gathered here in Swanwick, in the year 2022:

  • humbly acknowledges our share in and benefit from our nation’s participation, and that of some of our own antecedent bodies, in transatlantic slavery
  • recognises our failure to honour the efforts of our abolitionist forebears by permitting the legacies of transatlantic slavery to continue shaping our world
  • offers our apology to God and to our sisters and brothers in Africa, the Caribbean, and their descendants, for all that has created and still perpetuates such deep hurt, which originated from the horror of slavery
  • repents of the hurt we have caused, our reluctance to face up to the sins of the past and our silence in the face of racism and injustice today
  • admits that these sins are part of our continuing failure to see and hear God in all our neighbours, whoever they may be
  • commits, in a true spirit of repentance: to find constructive ways by which we can move from saying ‘I’m sorry’ into concrete actions of ‘repairing justice’ and so contribute to the prophetic work of God’s coming kingdom
  • to continue working to promote racial justice as part of our Christian commitment to justice for all
  • to encourage the whole United Reformed Church to be engaged in this journey.”

The resolutions (20 and 21) were brought to Assembly by Karen Campbell, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries, and Sarah Lane Cawte, Convenor of Mission Committee, together with Professor David Reynolds, Convenor of the Legacies of Slavery Task Group, following work by the Legacies of Slavery Task Group (LoS).

Karen Campbell said: “The hurt of slavery is still real for millions of people. You may not see the wounds bleeding, but they are still not healed. I was born in Britain, but I stand before you as someone who belongs nowhere. I’m cut off from my history, with no way of knowing something as basic as my true family name, and this is a legacy of transatlantic slavery.

“As Christians, we follow Jesus and where does Jesus lead if not to abundant life for all people equally? If one part of Christ’s body hurts, all parts hurt. There are parts of our body that have been hurting for centuries.”

General Assembly recognised that although the URC did not exist at the time of slavery, it was formed in a society that benefited from the profits of transatlantic slavery and still continues to do so, and the fact that some of its forebears were slave traders and apologists of the slave trade.

Sarah added: “This is a significant moment for the URC. Sometimes we have to do things that are difficult and that are hard for some to understand because these are the right and just things to do. We hope this marks a point in our history from which we can move forward together, committed to healing divisions in our church, in our communities, and in those countries most affected by the evils of the transatlantic slave trade.”

The group was formed in response to the Council for World Mission’s (CWM) series of hearings, launched in 2017, which identified racism and deprivation as key legacies of transatlantic slavery impacting African and African descent communities around the globe.

LoS Task Group presented its first report, ‘Healing: Hope in Action’, to Mission Council (now Assembly Executive) in 2019 and went onto carry out a wide consultation, including Synods and local churches, on the proposals for a URC Apology and reparations.

Some of the proposed reparations include:

  • strengthening our relationships with our CWM partner churches
  • an education programme to help us understand the legacies of transatlantic slavery, particularly as they impact our life together today
  • seeking to add the URC’s voice to campaigns encouraging the UK government to release LoS countries and communities from debt owed to the UK

More about the resolutions can be found here.

(Picture: From left to right: The Revd Adrian Bulley, Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship), and the Revd Fiona Bennett, Moderator of the URC General Assembly 2022-2023, giving the apology.)

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