Sermon given at Evensong on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity 2022
Whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message?
The Right Reverend Anthony Ball Canon in Residence
Sunday, 14th August 2022 at 3.00 PM
“Whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message?” (Is 28.9) asked Isaiah at the start of our Old Testament reading this evening. I wonder what sort of message some of these lines from that reading conjure up for you?
“in order that they may go, ..., and be broken, and snared, and taken” (v.13)
“As often as it passes through, it will take you;” (v.19)
'This is rest; give rest to the weary; ...’; yet they would not hear (v.12)
“the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it” (v.20)
“your bonds will be made stronger; for I have heard a decree of destruction” (v.22)
For me the answer is “slavery”, the physical sort that has some human beings treat others as merely goods and chattels. I use the present tense here deliberately as some agencies estimate that there are as many as 27 million people in some kind of involuntary servitude today. The texts calling to my mind slavery was, I think, probably conditioned by a powerful event hosted here in the Cloisters of the Abbey on Thursday evening. We welcomed many of the artists and supporters of a remarkable project called The World Reimagined. 42 giant painted globes lined up in Dean’s Yard for the launch of the UK’s largest public art trail. Those 42 globes are now distributed around London, and there are over 100 globes forming trails in different cities throughout Great Britain.
But if you look closer, and that’s the point—“looking closer” for what is often hidden in plain sight—it is, as our Dean described, an “important project to increase understanding about the transatlantic slave trade and its impact”. That’s why the reading spoke to me in the way I described.
We are fortunate to have one of those globes here at Westminster Abbey—on the Green here, just outside the North Door. It is right by St Margaret’s Church, where I am the Rector and, more significantly, where the artist, Nicola Green, was married. Her globe, which is called “The world in a water lily—Amazonica”, fortuitously combines the issues I was preaching on last week, the three-fold challenge of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, with the focus of this week “slavery”.
As Nicola herself says: “My globe represents the deep-rooted connection between racial justice and climate justice—two of the most urgent issues of the twenty-first century. It is widely accepted that there is an intrinsic connection between the historic oppression of people, and the exploitation and plunder of the world’s natural resources.
These are big issues and we might well be tempted to concur with another phrase from our Isaiah reading “it will be sheer terror to understand the message.” (Is28.19) But try we must.
Try to “look closer” and delve into the dark side of some of the history of the Christian faith. Their faith inspired giants of the movement to abolish slavery both black and white—such as Olaudah Equiano (baptised in St Margaret’s), Ignatius Sancho (worshipper and married at St Margaret’s) or William Wilberforce—buried in the Abbey’s North Transept and with a monument in the aisle behind the Quire. But Christianity has also been used to justify slavery (and apartheid for that matter) and to allow the dreadful treatment of enslaved people by those who saw themselves as faithful, observant Christians.
Recognising both sides of that story is part of what the World Reimagined project prompts. It’s all too easy to celebrate the work of the abolitionists—and claim the victory for the Church and Christianity, as many do—without looking closer and acknowledging that the battle for abolition came about precisely because of the horrors of the slave trade. Estimates go as high as 15 million Africans crossing the Atlantic Ocean to be enslaved in the Western Hemisphere.
Although slavery was not there in creation at the start of Genesis, it features pretty much throughout the Bible as an accepted social norm. By the time we get to Genesis 9 we have Noah saying "Cursed be Canaan, the lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." Abraham had male and female slaves—Hagar was one of them. Joseph was sold into slavery and you might have thought that after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt the practice would have been abolished by God’s chosen people. But, no, slavery was regulated rather than abolished in the Law of Moses. Compassion was enjoined. (cf Exodus 23:9).
In Jesus’ day it is probable that more than half of those living in the Roman Empire were slaves, without rights, so it is not surprising that we find texts referring to them and how they should be treated, or behave towards their owners. Within the Christian family, we have St Paul sending the slave Onesimus back to his master. All of which is to say, it was not hard to find scriptural passages to underpin a world-view that ‘normalised’ slavery. How much of what goes on around us today is an evil that is somehow ‘normalised’?
The New Testament and the Gospel subvert this “normalisation”, not only declaring our freedom but giving a whole new take on what ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom’ might mean. Paul says in Romans 6:18, "You've been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness." Jesus “"Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a slave."
Jesus spent much of his ministry in service of the marginalised, bringing those who were unseen on the edges into the centre of the picture. Or, St Paul said (with a bit of translator’s licence) “for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was free (rich), yet for your sakes he became (poor) a slave, so that ... you might become (rich) free.” Even as we look forward to the New Heaven and the New Earth we can expect to find Jesus waiting on us as we enjoy the heavenly banquet (cf Lk12.37).
That type of journey is picked up in these World Reimagined trails, where you taken from pre-slavery “Mother Africa” through various themes and stages of history exploring who did the enslaving, the reality of being enslaved, the struggle for freedom, the lived experience (both spiritual and practical) of supposed freedom, right through to a re-imagined future. In addition to the message of the art, each globe has the story of an individual person attached to it.
One of the things I find remarkable in this project is the good grace and generosity of spirit in which stories that have for too long remained hidden and unseen are being told to help, for the benefit of,
those who—wittingly or not—shared in keeping them unseen. How poignant the words in our second reading: “during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” (2Cor8.2)
In that reading St Paul offers the challenge that could just as easily apply to each of us here today: “I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” (2Cor8.8) Those who continue to suffer from the impact of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade have made a remarkable step and generous offer in this exhibition. It is up to us to respond.
Earlier this month the bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes in its fold those with a history of enslaving as well as being enslaved, endorsed the establishment of a Commission for Redemptive Action that will look at the forensic accounting being produced by the Church Commissioners for England into the church’s historic links to transatlantic chattel slavery and consider reparations.
Here at Westminster Abbey we are working on our own responses—as a small example, last month we created an Engagement Department that will help bring renewed focus to our work on social justice and community engagement.
And at an individual level? We rarely give a second thought when hunting for bargain-priced goods what kind of exploitation has enabled them to be available so cheaply. Or, if we are lucky enough to have some savings, do we allow the search for high investment returns to blind us to the exploitation of people or unsustainable use of resources by some companies? We each have to take responsibility and look closely at our lives and lifestyles.
“Whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message?” asked Isaiah (28.9). Something to reflect upon as I finish with Nicola Green’s words: ”I hope that as we work together to recognise our shared history of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans, my artwork will serve as a reminder that harnessing the possibilities of our future rely on us acknowledging how that history has shaped our present. My globe ultimately represents hope.”