Reparations, the Churches and LGBT communities

For one reason or another, I’ve been thinking about the idea of reparations for some time over the last year.

I’m one of the chaplains at the University of Glasgow and it made me think a bit when the University started to implement concrete policies in recent times by way of trying to make reparations for actions that were taken long ago in the past. 

Like many institutions in Glasgow, including many of the churches, the University benefited from the slave trade and has embarked on a programme of reparations to acknowledge that its current existence was built on something that was evil. There’s various partnerships with University institutions in the West Indies and attempts to research the history of the local involvement in the trade alongside innovative ways of telling the stories that for so long have gone untold. This means that money is changing hands – the University is aiming to use £20 million of its resources in connection with this. It is about money but it isn’t just about money – it is about relationships too. And it is fundamentally about facing the fact that something very wrong was done.

More recently, whilst I’ve been on sabbatical, I’ve been spending time in the American South. In particular, I’ve been a guest of the Virginia Theological Seminary and again, a reparations programme is underway.

It does focus the mind to be a guest in a place where enslaved people actually built some of the buildings.

Part of the telling of these stories in Virginia has meant researching as much as can be known about these people.

Although this might seem a very long way from Scotland, the stories uncovered by researching the history bring us together. There are personal stories of people who are long dead being owned and exploited by Scots traders. And there are people around who are the descendants of liaisons between such traders and the people whom they owned. Indeed, one such is a seminarian in the place that I’ve been staying and I was much moved to learn that his ancestor came from Port Glasgow.

All of which means that I’ve been thinking about slavery and reparations rather a lot.

For the question of reparations is one that churches ought to have something to say about. If the story of Zacchaeus in the bible means anything, it means that taking steps to make reparations, is part of who we are.

I think that Scotland is very far from coming to terms with its past in this area. Glasgow in particular still has much work to do.

When I was a child I was taught that Glasgow’s fortune was built on tobacco and we were taught as 10 year olds about the riches and wealth of the Tobacco Lords.

And no-one mentioned the S word at all.

I’ve no doubt that my experience in the USA recently is going to keep needling away at me when I return to Scotland for a long time.

But it has me thinking about other injustices too and asking whether we should be talking about reparations for other crimes.

And I find myself asking in particular, should we be talking about the church making reparations for its actions against LGBT people?

One of the tragedies of reparations in connection to the slave trade is that they are being made so long after the events that no-one who was actually enslaved themselves is around to hear the apologies and to learn of attempts to face this horror. What can be done to those who are descended from those people should be done. But the fact that it has taken so long to try to face such things is part of the crime.

Most people that I know in the church could point towards people who were victims of the church’s disordered attitudes towards LGBT people. I can easily think of people whose relationships have been spoiled, who have lost their homes and livings and who have suffered mental health breakdown. And that is to say nothing of those whose personal faith in all that is holy, has been ruined. 

I can think of particular dioceses where particular bishops had policies that were particularly cruel. One such diocese in the C of E comes particularly to mind but I’m aware that the stories that I know will just be part of a much bigger picture.

I am pleased that there are churches like my own which now offer to marry same-sex couples and who ordain clergy in such relationships. However, we underestimate our capacity to put right that which is wrong if we think this is enough.

I could name people who are still alive to whom terrible things have happened. Some of them are my friends and they are still in the church. Some are not and many have left the faith that once nourished them far behind them.

Most will not have descendants to whom apologies will ever be able to be made.

Shall we wait until all are dead before facing up to what has been done?

And what other injustices should the churches turn and face?


  1. Peggy Brewer says

    Some are attempting to erase history, declare it never happened! Don’t teach our children about such atrocities! Even though we see history repeating itself by words and deeds, we must continue to try to right wrongs—past and present. Thank you for your writings!

  2. Susannah Clark says

    I grew up at a time when gay sex was still illegal, and when the British Empire was only taught to kids like me through a British lens, as something glorious and mainly benevolent. 60 years on, we have far fewer excuses to hold on to that indoctrination. I now know I have an ancestor who made a fortune through the East India Company; and another who ran slave ships and owned a slave plantation on St Croix. I have a harrowing account of most slaves on one ship arriving dead. Vast wealth was funneled back to Scotland on the backs of cruel labour and enslavement. Trying to be honest, it is hard to know how to start processing these facts. A first, but scarcely adequate, step must be re-education. And making sure young people today do not have the realities of the past erased, as they were by my teachers. But that hardly touches the surface of the consequences that persist 200+ years later.

  3. George Ziffo says

    I came to your website having seen the link on the St Mary’s order of service. I was curious. After many years of agnosticism, I have tentatively returned to the church in recent months. You write very forcefully about the need to make amends for terrible wrongs from the past, in which the church it would appear was complicit. In this time of terrible polarisation, it seems to me incumbent on all of us, Christian or otherwise to find means to heal conflict and seek that which unites rather than divides us. There are many discussions to be had about our history, and how to make sense of it in the present. One of my concerns is that it is all to easy to judge those who came before us by the standards of the present and to find them lacking. I do wonder about the concept of reparations, and what form they might take? When you talk of reparations to victims of historic discrimination, you make a forceful appeal to emotion. Who doesn’t want justice for the wrongs done to them by others? Would any financial compensation, either to living victims, or more remotely their desendents, compensate for their pain and loss? I wonder if that is the same as the appeal to give our wealth to the needy that Christ asks of us? For are we to determine the needy by dint of their identity group? I ask this, because it seems to me a very recent phenomenon to frame justice in terms of people’s identity groups. It would appear to have arisen in direct correlation to the demise of the Christian church as the dominant moral force in western societies. How will we know when justice has been achieved and by what measure? For it seems to me that the identity politics that has swept the western world in recent years, has been co-opted as a form of secular religion, but one without the redemption offered by Christianity. It seems more aligned with the conflict theory of Marxism, which when put into practice by the utopians of the twentieth century led to nigh on ten million deaths. This may seem provocative, but to my mind, ideas which pit victim against oppressor as history shows, rarely end well. To return to your two points about our history of slavery, and also the oppression of LGBT people. Our history is indeed one of extremes – terrible injustices, but also incredible achievements. I will be happy to teach my son that in the past our society benefited from the exploitation and enslavement of others, as have all advanced civilisations in human history. Is is morally inconvenient that much that we value as good in our society arose as a result of our gains from the exploitation of others. That is a salient an unavoidable fact. I will also teach him that our ancestors did much to overcome those injustices and that the people who came before us were morally no better or worse than those now living, as evil continues to be very much in our midst. I read this, rather long and deep article recently, about the idea of the sacrificial victim and how Christianity steadily eroded it over the centuries, and I thought it may be of interest.

  4. John Davies says

    Church history can be rather embarrassing, to say the least! When the churches were wanting to celebrate William Wilberforce’s bicentenary, some denominations (no names, no pack drill) were rather embarrassed to find their forebears in Bristol, in particular, and other places had been among his most vicious opponents. Why? Because they owned the slave ships, and profited from the ‘Golden Triangle.’
    Part of the problem, as my wife reminds me when we discuss this, is that nowhere does the Bible explicitly denounce or condemn slavery – it accepts it, with certain conditions intended to ‘humanise’ the practice. Naturally it did, to do otherwise would bring about the total collapse of the Roman economy and society. And in consequence has been, and in some circles still possibly is, used to justify or condone customs of the past.
    Interestingly the NIV lists ‘slave traders’ as being among those who will not enter the kingdom of heaven in one of Paul’s lists, but that may be translated in tune with modern sensitivities – I’ve got a vague feeling earlier translations used ‘kidnappers’ or some other word which doesn’t carry quite the same stigma.
    The problem I’ve come across, in all manner of issues, is that many of the ‘modern’ sensitivities which the wider, more academic church accept as normative have to be read back into the NT from our present day perspective. ‘Pure’ pacifism is another example – Jesus said certain things about it, but nowhere is it made explicit. And that leaves an awful lot of wriggle room for the more literally minded within the church to disagree, and say they’re being faithful to the Bible. And we’re being torn apart over the LGBT and women’s rights issues for precisely similar reasons.

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