31st May 2021

The divisive debate about ‘cancel culture’ continues, not least over whether statues of people who were involved in murky dealings like slavery and the slave trade should be allowed to remain. In Bristol, by now, we know all about Edward Colston. But the debate will continue, and will not only be about statues. Hymnwriter John Newton, before his conversion and ordination as an Anglican priest, was captain of a slave ship. How far did he actually repudiate that involvement? Should we stop singing “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds”?

A plea to keep statues and memorials of people with dubious associations has recently come from an unexpected quarter, the actress and Marxist campaigner Vanessa Redgrave. She says, “No, I don’t think they should pull down the statues. We need more statues, different ones, not just commemorating men who made money out of slavery . . . we’ve got to take on board the fact that we are a country that has done terrible, cruel things.” That’s a pertinent viewpoint which has resonances with Christian faith. Christians take with utter seriousness human sinfulness. But no less we recognise the possibility and need of repentance in the face of the holy and merciful God. Attempts to sweep wrongs under the carpet, and equally to damn the wrongdoer to all eternity – at any rate without examining ourselves – dishonour God and diminish our own humanity.

Much depends on just what we say about the dead. The only epitaph really suitable for any Christian memorial, of even the most illustrious person, would be: “A sinner, saved by grace”. Shades of John Newton.

Keith Clements