British Baptists have adopted a statement apologizing for transatlantic slave trade and expressing “true repentance” for failure to listen to the pain of black brothers and sisters resulting from that legacy.
The Baptist Union Council of Great Britain adopted the historic statement unanimously after focusing on the issue in meetings Nov. 12-14.
“As a Council we have listened to one another, we have heard the pain of hurting sisters and brothers, and we have heard God speaking to us,” the statement said.
The statement acknowledged British Baptists’ “share in and benefit from our nation’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade.”
“We acknowledge that we speak as those who have shared in and suffered from the legacy of slavery, and its appalling consequences for God’s world,” the statement continued. “We offer our apology to God and to our brothers and sisters for all that has created and still perpetuates the hurt which originated from the horror of slavery.”
British Baptists had been discussing an apology for slavery for more than a year, but were divided over the issue. Some said apologizing for slavery would be meaningful for fellow Baptists whose people suffered as a result of the slave trade, like the Jamaica Baptist Union. Others said modern Baptists can’t apologize for someone else’s sins, mirroring a similar debate in British society that also includes the controversial idea of reparations for descendants of slaves.
Following a moving Baptist World Alliance service of remembrance and reconciliation at a former slave castle in Ghana in July, Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation and a Brit, publicly urged British Baptists to follow an example of Dutch Baptists at the meeting with a “direct word of regret and apology.”
While disappointed to learn that British Baptists had been invited but declined to make a similar statement, Peck said it wasn’t too late for leaders of the 2,000-church Baptist Union of Great Britain to reconsider the issue in time for their general council meeting in November.
The statement adopted “in a spirit of weakness, humility and vulnerability” by British Baptist leaders acknowledged “that we are only at the start of a journey, but we are agreed that this must not prevent us speaking and acting at a kairos moment.”
In the statement, British Baptists repented of “the hurt we have caused, the divisions we have created, our reluctance to face up to the sin of the past, our unwillingness to listen to the pain of our black sisters and brothers, and our silence in the face of racism and injustice today.”
“We commit ourselves, in a true spirit of repentance, to take what we have learned from God in the Council and to share it widely in our Baptist community and beyond, looking for gospel ways by which we can turn the words and feelings we have expressed today into concrete actions and contribute to the prophetic work of God’s coming Kingdom,” the statement said.
Jonathan Edwards, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, called it “an extraordinary privilege” to be part of the discussion.
“I am absolutely delighted that Council felt able to agree this resolution, and I believe this takes us a significant way forward,” Edwards said. He described the statement as “essentially a word of testimony.”
“It’s an account of how God led us not to a simple conclusion about an agonizing part of our history but to a new way of relating to one another as a Gospel people within which we take full account of the people that we are today and the histories that have shaped us,” Edwards said.
David Kerrigan of BMS World Mission called it “a special moment in strengthening our relationships with our brothers and sisters who live in or have roots in Africa and the Caribbean.”
Representing BMS at the meeting, Kerrigan seconded the motion in order to “align BMS World Mission completely with the statement approved by the Council.”
Alistair Brown, general director of BMS World Mission, was attending BWA meetings in the United States, but he also affirmed the apology.
“In recent days we have had the opportunity again to listen and respond to our sisters and brothers,” Brown said. “We hurt because they hurt, and we recognize that some of our forebears were the perpetrators of the wicked evil of slavery. So we must express our deepest sorrow, sadness and shame.”
But Brown added that being sorry isn’t enough. “This apology comes from the depths of our hearts and is offered not just for the sin of years ago but for every act of prejudice or discrimination that still happens today,” he said. “At BMS, we are pledged to work to end injustice in today’s world, and we will never give up on that.”
The Baptist Union Council of Great Britain consists of 200 members from 13 regional associations in England and Wales, a national resource center in Didcot and five Baptist colleges. The council meets each March and November to discuss the work of and issues facing the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.