The Rt Rev John Packer, Anglican Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, has made a public apology for the way in which Christians misused their scripture 200 years ago to justify, defend and perpetuate human slavery.
The comments, which also raise questions about the dogmatic use of the Bible in current arguments about issues like sexuality, came in a debate on the legacy of the slave trade in the House of Lords on Thursday 10 May 2007.
Bishop Packer has been active in his support for social justice, fair treatment for migrants and asylum seekers, and the development of a positive vision for Christian mission in a plural society.
The parliamentary session on Britain's role and responsibility in relation to slavery was introduced by Baroness Howells. She expressed her own regret over the slavery, racism and colonial domination, together with and its “modern debris” of inequality.
The examples of human degradation cited included sub-standard housing for black people, their over-representation in the prison population and the mental health service, underachievement in education and disproportionate exclusions from schools.
Meanwhile, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds urged people not to consider slavery a "past matter", as someothing that had been removed and resolved by the abolition of the nineteenth century trade.
He said that an expression of gratitude for the abolitionist measures taken 200 years ago needed to be matched by actions today to reverse consequent cycles of injustice and oppression.
Christians, in particular, had much to repent of, including the use of the Bible to legitimate actions and structures which contrdaicted the message of the Gospel and of Jesus.
Bishop Packer declared: “It is important that apologies are expressed for the involvement, and indeed leadership, of our country in that trade and of the institutions of our country, including the Church of England, in perpetuating slavery 200 years ago.”
The General Synod of the Church of England issued a formal apology in 2006 for its ownership of plantations and slaves. “I repeat that apology to your Lordships' House today,” said the bishop.
“I also apologise for the ways in which, 200 years ago, Christians misused Scripture so tragically in defence of the slave trade", he added. "That may have something to teach us Christians or members of other religious traditions within our country and our society today.”
The bishop said that reviewing what had gone wrong was vital, but that in many ways it was even more important to address the current legacies of slavery.
He highlighted the the plight of street children in Brazil, where the Pope has been visiting, and across the world generally. In Brazil, he commented, six times as many Africans ended up enslaved as in the USA - where its history is well known.
Bishop Packer called on the UK and the international community to tackle the “tragedy”, of street boys and girls forced into drug gangs or underage prostitution.
According to United Nations statistics, one street child in three worldwide ends up dying before the age of 18 years.