Forsaking the formalities of officialdom in their attempt to reach a new audience, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have gone online to talk about the nature of the slave trade in readiness for the Walk of Witness to take place in London on Saturday 24 March 2007.
They highlight those elements of slavery that have not yet been ended - including the debt burden on the poorest and sex trafficking.
The joint reflection has been posted on YouTube and is also accessible through the Archbishop of Canterbury's web site. It was filmed at the site of the Slave Market in Zanzibar, now the island’s Anglican Cathedral, during the recent Anglican Primates Meeting - where the media focus had been more on the church's row over sexuality.
The Archbishops were shown two small preserved slave pits, where up to 175 men, women and children were held in appalling conditions, chained and in darkness, often without food and water. Dr Sentamu spent some time at a memorial to the slaves which features some of the original chains used when the market was operating.
In the film, Dr Williams says that the experience brought home the reality of the trade: “You see there the fetters that were used for slaves, the fetters used to bring slaves in convoy, so that they could barely stand and walk, they were so closely shackled together; and to see some of the real, the actual shackles that were used until really very recently in this part of the world as part of the paraphernalia of the slave trade, it’s a reminder that it really happened, it really happened not very long ago.”
He says that the instinct to enslave is still very much present in the modern world: “It’s as if slavery is a kind of compulsion for human societies, people go back again and again to treating people as objects, as possessions, and I don’t think we can simply sit back and say ‘it’s a thing of the past and no more’. All those modern forms of slavery, economic slavery, debt slavery in effect, the slavery of sex trafficking; these things are still with us.”
Dr Sentamu says that holding the original chains was a harrowing experience: “I found the whole experience heart-rending … When I went outside and actually saw those figures – how slaves were tied together – and touched the actual chains that were used, I was rendered absolutely speechless. I felt I was going back in history, but I was also in the present where still slavery in some parts of the world still happens.
He declares: “Every person is made in the image and likeness of God, of great worth and of great value and to be treated with great dignity. In that place was almost I felt, almost like an altar where you couldn’t but take off your shoes … you were on holy ground – holy ground.”
The Archbishops' YouTube talk has been issued in the run up to the Church's Walk of Witness, to be held in London on 24 March. The walk will be led by both Archbishops and will culminate in an act of public worship in Kennington Park, where the two Anglican leaders will offer further reflections on the nature of the slave trade and its modern legacies.
More details of the walk can be found at www.makingourmark.org.uk. The event has been organised by the Church of England's Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC).
Other church and civic leaders will join in, though there has been some criticism that the Established church is putting itself to the fore - just as there have been concerns that the focus on William Wilberforce has overlooked others who played a key role in ending the transtlantic slave trade - from which the Church of England itself profited at the highest levels.
Black historians and activists are furious that slave rebellions in the Caribbean are being marginalised in the way the story of abolition is being told. Indeed, black people are virtually invisible in the film Amazing Grace - even though there were 20,000 of them in London at the time, many taking an active interest in ending the iniquitous trade.