A Reflection on Legacy

Friday, 5th June 2020

A Reflection on Legacy

This week, the Downing Street website announced that Her Majesty the Queen has given her approval to the appointment of a new Dean of Bristol. The Reverend Canon Doctor Amanda Ford (who is currently working at Southwark Cathedral) will be installed in the autumn. She will arrive in Bristol, and in the Cathedral, a year after I left. I am delighted for her. I am delighted for a building and a community I love, and for the Diocese.

I lived in Bristol for nine years, made friends, laughed, wept (both my parents died whilst I was there), learnt something about how to be a Dean, negotiated with an Occupy protest, welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury, had a sixtieth birthday and so much more besides. Bristol changed me and has a hold on me. I grew to love the Downs and the Mendips, the floating harbour, and the suspension bridge, I learnt about what was gert lush. I had an account at Averys. One day, perhaps, I will live in Bristol again. For now, I have stepped away, handed on the life of the cathedral, first to a very gifted Acting Dean and soon to Mandy Ford. That was not difficult. Coming to Westminster was exciting. Bristol was in hands at least as safe as mine had ever been. I could move on.

I could move on, but, of course, I carry the past with me. You can take the Dean out of Bristol… It is a lesson about history. Although I have been a historian all my working life, it is a lesson I learnt in Bristol. For over two hundred years, Bristol was not only a significant port, it was the British port at the heart of the ‘Triangular Trade’. The slave trade that carried men women and children from West Africa, to the Caribbean and to the plantations of Virginia, and brought the profits of their enslaved labour back to Britain. It made Bristol rich. The city which I love so much, was built on those profits. Significant figures in the city’s history, not least one of Bristol’s greatest benefactors, Edward Colston, made money from the appalling traffic in human suffering. The debate about the impact of slavery and the way the city chose to remember (and forget) was a very significant part of my working life as Dean. A window commemorating Colston dominated the transepts. I knew about the north atlantic slave trade. I came to know a lot more about who was involved, and about the ways they were still being celebrated without reference to their complicity in slavery. Far too late in the day, I and others began to address some of those issues. There was, though, something that I had still not understood. Determined to address the evils of slavery, I was too quick, to move on and become interested in modern slavery. Modern slavery is a great evil and I was right to be concerned. You must not however, turn so quickly from the past. The issues of legacy from the north atlantic slave trade go deep. You do not address one evil by campaigning about another. A historian should have known this, but some stories last a long time and consequences can be subtle, whispered, implicit and terrible. A legacy of racism, some of it all too visible, but some of it unconscious, plus a profound inequality of opportunity still grips Bristol and other cities. As I sat in Evening Prayer, in the Abbey, this week I could hear the crowd, the helicopters and the occasional siren from the London protest at the death of George Floyd. A generation that thinks it has addressed these issues does not move on as easily as it thinks.

So much of the rhetoric of our times is about ‘taking control’. It is the language of heroes; words for people who think they can shape the story and shake off the past. All of us need some humility. We do not own the story. We are not heroes. We are creations of our own past. History is an exercise in humility, it demands that we face difficulty, dig deep and confront our limited understanding. History reminds us of the strangeness all around us, it requires us to acknowledge that understanding and relationship with one another take patience, sensitivity and an open mind. Good history, like faith, knows to take a knee.