Home Christian News Archbishop, Mandela’s Widow Differ on the Statue Debate

Archbishop, Mandela’s Widow Differ on the Statue Debate


As statues are toppled in the wake of race-related protests, the Archbishop of Canterbury says monuments on Church of England property will undergo careful scrutiny. Though he’s not the decision-maker, the Most Rev. Justin Welby says officials will “very carefully” review artwork at worship sites, including Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral.

Noting that “some will have to come down, some names will have to change,” Welby emphasizes that the actions of people depicted in statues can be absolved “only if there’s justice.” Forgiveness is possible, he says, only “if we change the way we behave now and say, ‘This was then’ and we learn from that and change how we are going to be in the future.”

The Importance of Dialogue and Context

Becky Clark, the Church of England’s director of churches and cathedrals, acknowledges that some monuments memorialize people whose “destructive impact” is still being experienced. “Meaningful dialogue” is essential, she says, because impacted “voices have often not been listened to in the past.” Decisions about monuments, Clark adds, must “allow these unjust experiences to form a recognized part of both the history and future of our churches.”

At Bristol Cathedral last week, windows honoring 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston were removed. That came days after a statue of Colston was knocked down in the city center and thrown into the harbor.

A spokesperson for Canterbury Cathedral says all items “are being reviewed to ensure that any connected with slavery, colonialism, or contentious figures…are displayed with clear objective interpretations and contextual information, and are presented in a way that avoids any sense of aggrandizement. We hope that by providing this context—and acknowledging any associated oppression, exploitation, injustice, and suffering connected with these objects—all visitors can leave with a greater understanding of our shared history and be inspired to undertake further learning and discussion.”

Statues Teach History, Says Mandela’s Widow 

Activist Graça Machel, widow of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, takes a different stance on the debate. Speaking to BBC Today, she emphasizes the importance of history and remembering “who are the architects of the past.”

Machel says, “I believe even it might be much more positive to keep [the statues] because you are going to tell generations to come, ‘This is how it started and this is how it should never be.’” Toppling monuments won’t “resolve the ills of the past,” she says, adding, “I know this is controversial but… we need to have the memory and some of those symbols remind us, and they make the memory still valid.”

Reconsidering How Jesus Is Portrayed

Archbishop Welby, also speaking to BBC Today, was asked about Jesus’ portrayal in the western Church and said that needs reconsideration too. At churches throughout the world, he says, “You don’t see a white Jesus. You see a black Jesus, a Chinese Jesus, a Middle Eastern Jesus—which is, of course, the most accurate—you see a Fijian Jesus. You see Jesus portrayed as many as there are cultures, languages, and understandings.”

In April, Welby said the pandemic was leading to faith renewal and innovative evangelism. This week he said, “We have seen in some of the other crises we have been facing over the last few months, not just Covid, but also Black Lives Matter and the economic downturn, that there is great injustice and we need a collective turning away from that.”

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Stephanie Martin, a freelance writer and editor in Denver, has spent her entire 30-year journalism career in Christian publishing. She loves the Word and words, is a binge reader and grammar nut, and is fanatic (as her family can attest) about Jeopardy! and pro football.