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Abolitionists Remembered in Westminster Abbey Ceremony

Posted on: March 28, 2007 3:55 PM
Afro-American Spirituals
Photo Credit: ACNS
Related Categories: England

International congregation gathers to pray - "set all free"

By the editor

Historic Westminster Abbey hosted a service today to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act. The occasion spoke of the reality of how Britain was a “major beneficiary of slavery;" yet it was also the British who “led the struggle to abolish the system."

The opening words of the service were offered by the Very Revd John Hall in the “bidding” – he said, “We have come to remember the commitment and courage of a group of abolitionists, black and white, male and female, who gave much and risked much to end the cruelty of the transatlantic trade in slaves. We have come to reflect, in penitence, on the destructive power of a terrible evil, and on the ways in which its effects are still manifest in the world today. And we have come to respond, by committing ourselves to pray and work for a world in which no-one is enslaved.”

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were present, along with the Lord Mayor of Westminster, many notable political leaders and a large group of ecumenical clerics including the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop and Dr David Coffey of the Baptist Union.

Music included Afro-American spirituals as well as the Adventist Vocal Ensemble, Percussion and Mmenson Players of Efiba Arts and the Freedom 200 Chamber Orchestra who played music by abolitionst Le Chevalier de Saint-George.

Included at the beginning of the service was a quote from abolitionist leader William Wilberforce, on the horrors of the slave trade. The quote was read by the great great great granddaughter of Dr Wilberforce. Kate Davson read these words of Dr Wilberforce: “I mean not to accuse anyone but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty – we all ought to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others.

“…And, sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God? Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we can not evade it; it is now an object placed before us, we can not pass it; we may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we can not turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision.”

In his address the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Rowan Williams, said, “So have we good news to tell the world today, or only the grim recognition of just how deeply addicted human beings are to inhuman behaviour? Yes, we have good news; without it, we cannot hope for the transformation achieved through the witness of those like Equiano and Wilberforce who woke up the conscience of an entire civilisation. Yes, because the Spirit of which Jesus speaks in his ‘manifesto’ in the synagogue at Nazareth is of inexhaustible power and eternal energy, God’s own person and act. Slavery was taken for granted by Christians and non-Christians and irreligious people for centuries if not millennia; humanistic scholars and atheist liberals alike accepted it no less than the majority of religious believers in all faith. Yet the Spirit that spoke in Jesus was a Spirit contemporary and alive for those who, two hundred years ago and more, refused to take it for granted because they saw something of the truth about God and about humanity.”

Before the prayer of confession, Pastor Agu Irukwu, Senior Pastor, Redeemed Christian Church of God, declared: During the four centuries of the Transatlantic Slave Trade:
At least eleven million Africans were enslaved and transported. As many as two in ten perished on the ships which carried the Africans to the Americas. The life expectancy of an enslaved African on a plantation was seven years.

At this point, also, a lone protester made his way to the centre of the crossing, close to the Queen, Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Bishop of London, the Anglican Archbishop of the West Indies and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, shouting in protest to the event. He was forcibly removed by security and Abbey staff but not before making his comments to a shocked abbey congregation. His words were to the effect that as an African he was opposed the nature of the commemoration. The service was televised.

In the prayers during the 90 minute service, thanksgiving for those who fought to end the slave trade was offered. The petitions included: For those who led the abolition movement in this country: for Thomas Fowell Buxton, Thomas Clarkson, Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, and John Newton; for Mary Prince, Ignatius Sancho, Sam Sharpe, and John Wesley, For members of the Clapham Sect and all who used their influence in politics and in society: for Thomas Babington, Zachary Macaulay, Hannah More, and Granville Sharp; for James Stephen, Henry Thornton, and William Wilberforce, let us bless the Lord: the people responding, Thanks be to God.

Two extraordinary choral pieces were composed for the occasion, one “The Gift of Grace”, based on Psalm 130 and a text from Amazing Grace, sung by Roderick Williams with the Abbey choir of men and boys and “The Hand of God” music, by James O’Donnell of Westminster Abbey with words by abolitionist Olaudah Equiano.

In the preface of the order of service, Richard Reddie, project director of set all free, said, “Although slavery is largely illegal, it continues today, as human trafficking, bonded and forced labour, slavery by descent, and the unconditional worst forms of child labour. The Transatlantic Slave Trade set in places legacies which endure in racism, inequalities, under-development of nations, and poverty.

“set all free was established by Churches Together in England to commemorate the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. It works with churches, organisations, and individuals that accept its Christian ethos; it focuses on remembering, reflecting, and responding to slavery-related issues. In collaboration with a number of groups, including Anti-Slavery International and Rendezvous of Victory, set all free has produced resources and hosted activities to inform and raise awareness of slavery and freedom on a local, national, and global level.

“set all free is a project financed entirely by the churches, by donations, and by charities, among them The Jerusalem Trust, Congregational and General Insurance, and Christian Aid.”

The service concluded with The Prayer of Commitment, read by the Very Revd John Hall;

Gracious and liberating God:
Lift us beyond the burdens of pain and guilt,
Build our memories into life-giving resolutions,
Give us the vision of a new creation,
Strengthen us to act for justice and human dignity
And set all free. Amen.