by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
In the church where I preached on the first Sunday after Epiphany there’s a stained glass window dedicated in memory of a former member of the congregation from the nineteenth century. Nothing unusual there, except that this particular notable individual was the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. The church has a number of other memorials too, and a further stained glass window, which honours Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President at the height of the American Civil War.
The city of Richmond, Virginia has changed much over 150 years, and the church now has a congregation that seeks to unite people across the diversity, including ethnic diversity, of a busy modern city. Some small modifications, to respond to some of the emblems of the Confederacy that have become particularly controversial in recent times, have already taken place. But the church is now engaging on a major programme of looking into its history and deciding how its story can appropriately be told, in glass and metal as well as words and song, for the present era. The determination to do the work deeply impressed me.
I’m not going to wade into the battles over how organisations in the USA should handle the legacy of both slavery and the war waged to eradicate it. But I am going to try to let the courage and commitment of my American friends inspire me to think about where there may be visible reminders of the life and beliefs of my own church and society in previous generations, which may give the impression, or even support the fact, that we have not properly repented of our sins.
So, in a diocese where many of our churches, especially our older ones, have walls festooned with memorials to the wealthy and successful of former times, lauding both their virtues and their financial generosity, what changes can we effect to make more, or even equally, visible the lives and contributions of the poor?
And when I look at the many depictions in our stained glass windows of Jesus with blond hair, blue eyes and mildly aristocratic features, I want to ask what we can do to depict our Lord as one of us, with our range of ethnic characteristics, our shapes and sizes, abilities and disabilities. If we can accept the sight of a blond Jesus, we can surely accept a dark skinned Jesus or one in a wheelchair.
And while I’m on about it, how can we show women differently in our church artwork, furniture and fittings? Not simply as mother or martyr but in strength. Exercising leadership independent of their relationships to their men, and engaged in ministries many of which do not depend on a particular view about ordination but could unite us from liberal to conservative.
I’m not pretending to there being a moral equivalence between imagery showing Jesus as Anglo-Saxon, and monuments praising those who fought for the right to keep slaves. But issues raised by the one have made me more acutely aware of the other.
My hunch is that the answer does not lie in obliterating our history. I won’t be casting the first stone at any church window in Virginia or Manchester. We need many of our old images, appropriately interpreted, alongside the others that more fully reflect the people God is calling us to be. And the images we use must reflect the reality of our work and witness. Diverse bodies and faces on windows, walls and church notice boards are not an alternative to our having those faces and bodies in the sanctuary or pulpit, and at the altar, but they can be an encouragement for it and complementary to it.