Leading black figures in the Church of England including two prominent bishops are among more than 160 signatories to a letter objecting to a recent judgment that a memorial to the slave trader Tobias Rustat should remain in the chapel at Jesus College, Cambridge.
The letter to the Church Times, which is also signed by the former archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, warns the judgment could have far-reaching consequences for the Church of England, leading to a loss of respect and questions about the church’s authority and leadership.
“We write with disappointment at the recent decision to retain the Rustat memorial in the chapel at Jesus College, Cambridge, and grave concern for what this will mean for the Church of England,” it says.
“It is our firm hope that an appeal will be possible, and that the result of the appeal will be the relocation of the memorial from the chapel to a suitable site within Jesus College.”
Other signatories include: the Bishop of Willesden, Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy; the Bishop of Woolwich, Dr Karowei Dorgu; the church’s former race adviser Dr Elizabeth Henry; the Dean of Manchester, Rogers Govender; and the Archdeacon of Croydon, Rosemarie Mallett. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has already expressed his support for the memorial to be removed.
Jesus College applied to the Diocese of Ely to move the memorial to its 17th-century benefactor from its prominent position in the Grade I listed chapel to another site in the college because its presence was having a negative impact on the mission and ministry of the church.
Rustat, a former courtier to King Charles II and one of the college’s most significant benefactors, was involved with the Royal Adventurers and the Royal African Company that trafficked and traded enslaved Africans.
Last week a church court ruled that widespread opposition to the memorial was based on “a false narrative” about the scale of the financial rewards Rustat gained from slavery, and it ordered that the memorial should remain in the chapel.
The Church Times letter, which has been widely shared on Twitter, warned that the continued presence of the memorial would “lead people within and beyond Christianity, and within and beyond the college’s membership, to distrust, reject, and lose respect for the Church of England.
“This case raises real questions about authority and leadership in the Church of England, and this judgment may have far-reaching consequences.”
The letter said that a recent report, From Lament to Action, commissioned by the Church of England’s General Synod, stated that in order for the church to be a credible voice in calling for change across the world “we must now ensure that apologies and lament are accompanied by swift actions leading to real change”.
“If memorials to the likes of Rustat will not be removed or repositioned, will any?” it said. Jesus College has said it is considering whether to seek leave to appeal.