Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Advent 2020
Putting right what was wrong.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 13th December 2020 at 11.15 AM
Ten years ago, I was appointed Dean of Bristol. A friend sent me a postcard, ‘My Dear’ it said, ‘If you can’t live in London, Bristol is the only place’.
Some cities – Manchester, Liverpool, have a kind of cocksure confidence – they know who they are; Bristol does not. Someone (Betjeman perhaps), suggested Bristol lacks definition - made out of cigarette smoke and chocolate. That’s because the Wills Cigarette company and Frys chocolate made their money there. But that is not the problem. Until it was supplanted by Liverpool, Bristol was the English port for the vile triangular trade of transatlantic slavery. Half a million enslaved Africans were carried on Bristol ships. You cannot build a story of civic pride on that foundation.
So, there is a legacy problem in Bristol. This summer we watched Bristol struggle with that legacy. On 7th June, in the midst of demonstrations, after the killing of George Floyd, a crowd on the Watershed pulled down a statue of Edward Colston. Colston was what they used to call a ‘sea merchant’ and he was successful. He moved to Mortlake and he made a fortune trading in wine and textiles. He was a philanthropist, he never married and poured his money back in to Bristol, alms houses, education, the church. Bristol has a Colston Street and a Colston Avenue, Colston Almshouses, two Colston schools and until very recently a major concert venue called Colston Hall. When he died, in 1721, huge crowds formed they thought him a saint, they kept locks of his hair. He became the benchmark for Bristol philanthropy with Colston Societies and Colston Dinners. There was a Colston service, I preached at it, men (they were nearly all men) in morning dress went to stand by his grave. There was also a very large window in my cathedral bearing his motto – Go and do thou like-wise - from the parable of the Good Samaritan.
And Edward Colston was involved in the slave trade. No ifs, no buts, he was Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company. He traded slaves. I spent some of my time in Bristol thinking about how we handled that legacy, the window in the cathedral, monuments, services at which Colston’s generosity was named but his links to slavery were not mentioned. We made changes and all the changes were contested - too much, not enough, the wrong response, or the wrong issue. It was the most complex debate I have ever encountered. We are having those same conversation here - about Abbey history and Abbey monuments. Opinion will be just as divided, action is just as urgent.
As we tried to say a bit less about Edward Colston and a bit more about the victims of slavery, I came across the work of Frederick Douglass. Now, I do know this is a sermon, not a history lesson. I am trying to explain something about the prophet Isaiah and a reading we heard this morning, but we are creeping up on him rather slowly. So, bear with me, please, as I say a little bit about Frederick Douglass, who once visited Bristol.
Douglass was born into slavery on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in 1818. After a bewildering, and sometimes very brutal experience of slavery, he escaped in 1838 and became a campaigner for abolition. A truly formidable public speaker he was invited to speak to the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society on 5th July 1852. This was Rochester, New York, and 5th July is the day after Independence Day. Douglass told his audience that the glorious legacy of independence
… is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.[i]
Douglass was speaking of out of terrible experience. He had been savagely flogged again and again. This is before the Civil War, before abolition. He was speaking of evil and it was very hard to express. Looking for words that would serve he reached for the Old Testament. He denounced the American church for condoning slavery and said,
Bring no more vain [o]blations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies... They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them... Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD
Douglass was quoting Isaiah. When he looked for the words that would serve those issues of legacy, that injustice, that horror, he needed Isaiah.
And it was Isaiah that we heard this morning. We have got there.
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed
Isaiah is a challenging book. The scholars are pretty well all agreed that there is not one man whom we can call Isaiah and think of as the author of all 66 chapters. Better to think of something like painters – the Venetian School, the workshop of Veronese. Isaiah is a single voice, but comes out of different mouths, three of them probably. Our passage, Isaiah 61 came from a time when Jewish captives were allowed to leave Babylon to go home to rebuild Jerusalem. This is hope and restoration
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations
We must read Isaiah against that moment, exiles coming home rebuilding the shattered walls of their city, hoping for better, wondering what it means to be free. Do you remember the prologue to Henry V? Shakespeare is willing us to put ourselves in that moment
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
That the way to read Isaiah. Picture it. This is historical reality, not vague aspiration. A shattered community dragged off in chains, beginning again. And what a vision they have,
because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour, and the day of vengeance of our God;
Putting right what was wrong. This text has memory, it knows the legacy of exile, knows deep injustice, knows what pain is carried back from Babylon. That memory determines what comes next. Isaiah imagines a new economy where the rich do not abuse the poor; where ambition is not mine, or hers, but ours. Isaiah imagines human dignity, sympathy, generosity because Isaiah know the alternative. it is a day of vengeance remember. Reparation.
This is the point about the prophets. We all know that they can use extravagant language. We know that they can sound alarming on a Sunday morning. This unfamiliar passion does not surface into the Church of England. I have not heard even one of my colleagues suggest that the wicked will stumble through the breakfast buffet at the Park Plaza on a day of wrath and a day of distress. Yet these prophets write out of history and into experience - real despair, real hope. Isaiah is not a vague aspiration; not ‘wouldn’t it be nice if…’. This is a prophet who can measure despair and still hope. Remember Frederick Douglass, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD.
The prophets only have credibility in offering us a future because they can be honest about the past. They know injustice and describe a real alternative. Of course, Douglass used this language and so too did Christ. It is this passage of Isaiah that announces the beginning of his ministry and the hope he proclaimed. A social hope of a renewed community, a real hope in hard times. It is perhaps the abiding weakness of the church that it has lost the prophetic imagination to speak out of this mess and muddle of that hope and that promise. Emerging form Brexit and Covid we need to fashion language that knows where we have been and where we might get. If we are ever to tackle legacy issues, or overcome isolation and division we have to hear the voices of the dispossessed and express a deeper honesty about injustice, cruelty and greed, we have to examine the possibility that our hands might be full of blood. We must acknowledge the sheer improbability of the idea that we might be different and better than we are. To hope we must know how far we have to go. To hope we must acknowledge that we need to be rescued. That is why Advent, looking to our coming King is so important. We will not do this ourselves, in our own power.
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn
[i] The speech is published in The Frederick Douglass Papers, but is widely available inline, see for example https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july/