A cash crisis, bishop’s earnings and palaces, racism, non-disclosure agreements and contested heritage. These are just some of the issues the Church of England is grappling with.
It seems that some artefacts will have to be removed from churches under new guidance issued by the C of E on “contested heritage”, notably if they have links to slavery.
Much soul-searching will need to take place within parishes to decide whether people coming into their churches might feel unwelcome due to objects that commemorate people responsible for the oppression and marginalisation of others.
Then there’s the question of returning objects that belong elsewhere. Two Benin bronzes are apparently to be returned to Nigeria although the focus has been mostly on the British Museum with its vast collection of more than 900 items.
What about artefacts that have been taken from other countries without permission? The Suffolk ‘Pevsner’ guide describes how the church at Great Waldingfield, for example has tiles and mosaic panels made up from pieces of marble ‘collected in the ruins of the heathen temples in old Rome’ by Emily and Louisa Baily, sisters of the rector.
And in Mortlock’s ‘Guide to Suffolk Churches’ , he writes: “The walls have a rather bold pattern of tiles and the sanctuary is lined with panels of marble fragments collected by two maiden ladies in an excess of zeal from the temples of Rome and Egypt (with a portion of Mount Sinai for good measure).”
The C of E guidance states that Historic England has defined contested heritage as objects or places that can be seen as “symbols of injustice and a source of great pain for many people.”
The Baily sisters probably thought they were doing the best in 1867-69 for their church by bringing back pieces of marble from their travels. It’s doubtful whether those fragments would be of use if they were returned.
Putting the ‘heathen temples’ quote into context might be the best way forward, otherwise this particular piece of history and those Victorian attitudes – unacceptable today – will be forgotten and we shall never learn from them.