Daniel French

Welby’s bid to placate statue topplers could backfire

Welby's bid to placate statue topplers could backfire
(Getty images)
Text settings

I’m a Church of England vicar and I’m worried about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s planned review of statues and monuments. The church, we have been told, hopes to ‘play a leading role’ in facilitating ‘meaningful dialogue’ and apply ‘justice’ with ‘real outcomes’ in assessing statues. But what does this mean for churches like mine?

Anglicanism prides itself on being a highbrow form of Christianity. It operates in subtleties and niceties. In Anglican-speak, the expectation is that a ‘review’ is a modest bureaucratic exercise where a few monuments are quietly mothballed into vestries and some ethnically diverse depictions of Christ commissioned. If so, there is little to worry about. But will that be enough for the statue topplers?

I’m not convinced. Instead, I fear that unguarded comments from the church’s senior figures could give those who don’t care about Anglican congeniality and ecclesiastical procedures the green light to take matters into their own hands. Angry iconoclasts rushing into your local church at the end of a demo might not locate an offensive statue but they will probably find plenty white versions of Jesus. In one of my churches I found eighteen! Who’s to say that some won’t be offended by such depictions? If this kicks off then vicars and vergers are on their own as current news footage points to a slow police response.

I don’t much care for secular statues and worldly monuments within churches. Westminster Abbey, for instance, has become a mausoleum for various grandees who distract from the canonical saints. My concern is over where the lines are drawn when it comes to tearing down things. Saint Paul is documented as saying ‘Slaves be obedient to your masters’ (Ephesians 6.5). Cancelling him would satisfy those who assert he is also a woman-hating homophobe and those who point out his persecution of Christians before he became a Christian himself. But what about his importance in preaching the gospel? His awareness after his conversion of the wrongs he had done?

And what about depictions of Jesus? The blonde Swedish-styled Christ in my church windows originated in a nineteenth century romantic movement which itself is a reaction to the mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution. Whatever some might say, it has nothing to do with white supremacy, a viewpoint that Jesus would be the first to condemn.

If we travelled further back in time and presented the identity politics ideologues with the icon of Christ Pantocrator from Mount Sinai, the oldest of Orthodox images, would they want to know why early Byzantine works often displayed Christ and the saints with white-silvery faces? These hermitical artists applied white tones because they aspired to capture the transforming luminosity of Heaven rather any penchant for northern Europeans.

It would be a hopeless cause to persuade statue topplers about such nuance. However, within the ranks of the faithful it is critical that if the looters do get past the porch we must know what to hide, protect and save, and importantly why. My apprehension is that many voices within the church are so desperate to be seen as sympathetic to the new cultural revolution that almost everything will end up trashed in a futile attempt to placate the mob.

Written byDaniel French

Daniel French is an Anglican priest in Salcombe

Topics in this articleSociety