Will the Anglican church come clean and pay its debt over slavery? Not from what we have seen so far | Robert Beckford

As part of the increasingly urgent debate about slavery and its legacy, a troubling question arises: how much can we trust the church?

Because the recent revelation that Thomas Secker, the 18th-century archbishop of Canterbury, approved payments for the purchase of enslaved Africans on two Barbadian sugar plantations raises serious issues about the integrity and capability of the reparative justice initiatives of the Church of England and the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG), the Anglican mission agency that supports churches around the world.

In 1758, Secker agreed to a reimbursement of £1,093 to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), which operated the Codrington estate in Barbados as an ongoing concern from 1710 to 1834, after accepting the two plantations (Upper and Lower) as a gift from the violent settler colonialist Christopher Codrington (1668-1710).

And there was no piety there. In discussing the plantations in his 2012 book, Mastering Christianity: Missionary Anglicanism and Slavery in the Atlantic World, the historian Travis Glasson argued that Christian ownership made little difference to the life of the enslaved. For years, the word “Society” was branded on to the chests of newly arrived captive Africans as a mark of ownership.

The revelation that Secker – serving as the archbishop of Canterbury and the president of the SPG – had direct involvement in the atrocity that was chattel slavery calls into question the notion that the Church of England and the SPG were separate financial entities, and underlines the church’s material and spiritual interest in running the Codrington estate. The omission of this historical fact from last year’s exhibition on the church’s links with slavery at Lambeth Palace library, Enslavement: Voices from the Archives, is significant. Especially as the exhibition presented artefacts from other missionary organisations, such as the abominable Select Parts of the Holy Bible, for the Use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Island, or “Slave Bible”, which omitted any passages related to rebellion or liberation.

The USPG (the successor organisation to the SPG) says it has taken “full responsibility” for its role in the Codrington plantations, and has established a renewal and reconciliation project in Barbados in partnership with the Codrington Trust, which runs the estate today. But what does “full responsibility” mean here? It has pledged to spend £7m in the country in reparations. But why £7m?

Calculations using the same method from the Brattle report for transatlantic chattel slavery, the most comprehensive analysis (thus far) of reparations, suggests the actual debt is approximately £6bn: £7m is a bargain basement reparations deal for the USPG.

Thomas Secker (1693-1768), former archbishop of Canterbury. Photograph: Alamy

Indeed, “bargain basement” seems to be the church’s chosen approach. Earlier this year, an oversight group assigned to assess the church commissioners’ offer of £100m challenged that settlement. No one knows how the commissioners reached the £100m figure, and the group demanded a tenfold increase for the commissioners to arrive nearer the estimated worth of its unholy investment in chattel slavery, reckoned to be £1.3bn.

The British church’s behaviour seems odd here and in the Caribbean. In Barbados, Trevor Prescod, chair of the national taskforce on reparations, declared himself disappointed and disrespected at learning of the USPG/Codrington Trust compensation deal, which was made in 2023 without consultation with his taskforce. For the Anglican mission to cut an individual deal with the Codrington Trust, without fully involving the people appointed by the Barbados government to represent the citizenry on all reparations matters, speaks to the unequal power relationship in these negotiations – and the lack of genuine public scrutiny.

Other denominations have also struggled to convince. In April, when the United Reformed Church sent a delegation to Jamaica to apologise for its historical role in chattel slavery, Jamaicans were perturbed by the existential absurdity of seeing Dr Tessa Henry-Robinson, a Black British woman and the current leader of the denomination – herself a descendant of the Caribbean’s enslaved – delivering its apology to Black Jamaicans.

Are these mishaps part of the learning experience, or do they represent a fundamental problem with church-based reparations? The answer, I suggest, is the latter. It seems apparent that these church groups are commandeering the reparations discourse, controlling the financial settlements and, ultimately, letting down the descendants of enslaved peoples.

One wonders what else there is about their past activities that we don’t yet know. And why are these churches offering so-called reparations settlements when it appears they haven’t done enough research into the full extent of the historical crimes against Black humanity, including their own entanglement with racism in Britain? It’s an insult to the memory of the enslaved and, according to respected analysis, a fraction of what is owed.

The scale of the crime is beyond debate. The Codrington estate was described by the Anglican archbishop of the West Indies, Howard Gregory (ironically, on the opening of the very 2023 slavery exhibition that excluded the Codrington estate story), as “a symbol of the worst of slavery”.

The church’s failure to act – to do the right thing – is generative: it implies that the descendants of the enslaved have been (re)missionised. This can be avoided, and it should be. The church seems bound by a terrible past, but as Jesus himself said: “The truth will set you free.”

The Guardian