New guidance will help churches and cathedrals to address questions of contested heritage


The Church of England has published guidance for parishes and cathedrals addressing concerns over memorials with links to slavery and other contested heritage.
Manchester cathedral window

The new guidance enables churches and cathedrals to consider the history of their buildings and congregations, and to engage with everyone in their community to understand how physical artefacts may impact their mission and worship. It offers a framework to approach such questions locally and, where necessary, to engage with the relevant bodies who oversee changes to cathedral and church buildings.

In June 2020, the Church of England announced a consultation on approaches to contested heritage following a series of cases around the country. The work forms part of ‘Open and Sustainable Churches’, a long-running programme seeking to identify issues affecting the ability of churches and cathedrals to provide worship and welcome, offering support and resources to tackle these.

The guidance published today has been informed by a wide-ranging consultation which has included every Church of England diocese and cathedral, as well as heritage bodies, specialists in church monuments, and those with an interest and specialism in UKME representation in the Church of England.

It notes that while churches and cathedrals are, above all, places dedicated to the worship of God, for a range of reasons, members of communities may not always feel welcome in these buildings. One such reason could be the presence of objects commemorating people responsible for the oppression and marginalisation of others.

The guidance specifically addresses the issue of heritage associated with racism and the slave trade – including plaques, statues, inscriptions and other monuments, but hopes that by doing so it will establish a methodology which can be used for other forms of contested heritage.

The guidance does not prescribe solutions, but presents a range of options and considerations, together with suggested models for local consultation and discussion. It encourages balanced, inclusive decision-making. 

It also states that while ‘no change’ may be the outcome of such a consultation, this is not the same as ‘no action’ and encourages research, consultation and reflection where concerns are raised, to assess how much objects may impact on missional, pastoral and liturgical activities.

On publication of the guidance, The Church of England’s Director of Churches and Cathedrals, Becky Clark, said:

“With this guidance, the Church of England is seeking to provide a framework for parishes and cathedrals to lead discussions about how the heritage in our buildings can best serve our commitment to be a welcoming and inclusive Church today. 

“Church buildings and their interiors have been adapted over centuries in response to practical needs, architectural styles, as well as to society itself. 

“The issues of contested heritage require us honestly and openly to discuss ways in which our buildings can demonstrate our commitment to social and racial justice as a reflection of our faith in Jesus Christ.”

Gloucester Cathedral Cloisters

The Guidance on Contested Heritage follows last month’s report from the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce, which suggested that the forthcoming Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission should “…take decisive action to address the history and legacy of the Church of England’s involvement in the historic transatlantic slave trade.”

It added: “Regarding monuments and the built environment, deciding what to do with contested heritage is not easy. While history should not be hidden, we also do not want to unconditionally celebrate or commemorate people who contributed to or benefitted from the tragedy that was the slave trade.”

Responding to the publication of the Guidance, The Dean of Manchester, Rogers Govender, who Chairs the Church of England’s Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC) said:

“The Black Lives Matter Protests which took the world by storm last summer have had a huge impact on how we view racism in church and society in general. Our history, faiths, attitudes, actions and heritage are all under scrutiny. 

“This guidance on Contested Heritage offers practical resources for places of worship to respond to concerns over church buildings, examining how we can offer a balanced message and interpretation, ensuring we are not perpetuating a biased historic message. This is not about destroying heritage or history, but providing a more balanced view.

“This is essential and appropriate in the light of the discrimination and injustice experienced by people of colour in all walks of life, not least in the life of the Church of England. I would encourage all parishes and Cathedrals to respond in a positive way to this challenge.”

Sheffield Cathedral

The guidance also mentions that a number of churches and cathedrals are already in the process of researching, consulting and considering the place of monuments, statues and memorials, and these experiences have helped to inform the guidance. The national Cathedral and Church Buildings Team will continue to work directly with these places to learn from their experiences and provide them with support where needed.

This includes consideration given in Bristol Cathedral to dedications to Edward Colston, whose statue became the focus of local Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol in 2020. The Cathedral subsequently obtained permission to remove elements of a stained glass window recording a dedication to Colston which have been retained for future educational or display use.

The Dean of Bristol, Mandy Ford, welcomed the publication of the guidance, saying:

“As a Cathedral and a city, in Bristol we know first-hand the strength of feeling surrounding issues of contested heritage. As we seek to find ways to honour those whose stories are untold and to give voice to communities that have suffered injustice, this guidance will be invaluable. 

“It recognises the complexities we experience as the beneficiaries of past exploitation and our need to understand the experience of those who continue to feel the pain of that exploitation. 

“In Bristol Cathedral we are committed to moving forward, not to obliterate history, but to restore and repair our relationships with those whose history is not yet expressed in our building.”

More information:

The Guidance is published by the Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England.

Images: please note that the photographs used in the report and on this page have not been chosen to illustrate buildings or objects believed to be 'contested', but as general images of the Church of England's cathedral and church buildings.