All Blog articles

Saints and Sinners: A Vicar's Reflection Half-Way Through Facing the Past

As a Christian I see myself as part of a great cloud of witnesses: those who throughout the ages have believed in and witnessed to God in their lives. Celebrating those people of faith who went before us is an important part of the church year, as we mark different saint’s days. At the Priory we’re also surrounded by commemorative plaques on the wall reminding us of those who worshipped in the church before us.

A key part of this project for us has been facing up to the realisation that some of those people who worshipped in this church before us were far from saintly. Some of them were involved in slavery explicitly and others very active in the abolition of slavery. Our forebears in the faith contain both saints and sinners. Some of those who in their day were viewed as saints that we would now not hesitate to call sinners, and others who in their day were looked down on as sinners that we might now look up to as saints. Probably most of them, like us, were a mixture of the two.

The reality is that it was impossible to live in Lancaster and not benefit from the proceeds of slavery, no matter whether you were a slave-owner or an abolitionist. All benefitted from the wealth pouring into the town, from the civic pride that comes from walking streets lined with grand stone buildings. All of them were complicit. To the extent that we live in a city built on their legacy, so are all of us. Sinners and saints. Sinners, despite our pretensions to sanctity. Saintly, despite our complicity in sin.

As we have learnt more about the families and individuals who lived and worked and worshipped in this town, especially those named in the memorials in the church, it would be easy to respond by trying to get rid of them. To remove the names and memorials of those we find too problematic. The people we would feel too uncomfortable to be associated with. But I wonder if that quick, easy, solution is a bit too quick and easy. It’s an attempt to make ourselves feel better rather than seriously engaging with the issues. The names we *do* remember are in many ways far less problematic than the names we *don’t*. None of the black people who were baptised and worshipped here are memorialised in the church. Yet we now know many more of their names than we do of the slave owners who worshipped here.

Removing or avoiding the obviously difficult names and stories from our past and thinking that resolved everything would simply continue the practice they began of erasing the black lives impacted by their actions, and would mean that the generations yet to come who worship in this building would continue to see this as a white people’s church. The reality is more complex. This was a church for slave owners *and* their slaves. Both worshipped here. Both were baptised here. This is the church of those black people who heard this church proclaim that they were citizens of the kingdom of heaven long before they were allowed to be free citizens of this country. The story of our church is their story too.

The difficult story of this church is not that different from the difficult story of our city. We need to hear the diversity of that story to understand the richness and diversity we live in today. This project has for me, and will I hope for you, changes our perceptions about what we believe about ourselves, and help us to be more honest that we are all sinners and we are all saints. Most importantly, we are all God's beloved children.

Leah Vasey-Saunders is Vicar of St Mary-the-Priory in Lancaster.