Monday 23 November 2020

New Iconoclasts

 As England's go-to monument man – this solely on the basis of my book (you know – this book) – I am quite often contacted by hacks writing stories that have some bearing on church monuments. This usually comes to nothing, but with luck might get a mention of my book (you know – this book), so that's fine by me. Lately I'm being asked to comment on the growing threat to church monuments that memorialise historical figures with  connections to the (triangular) slave trade. Justin Welby, the soggy Archbishop of Canterbury, seems to have encouraged this with his statement that 'some [monuments] will have to come down'. Naturally, when asked my views on this, I fulminate, burble incoherently, and follow through with an email that makes slightly more sense.
  I had always thought, or hoped, that church monuments had a different legal status and were more strongly protected than memorials in the public arena – so I was happy to learn, from Charles Moore's column in this week's Spectator, that this is indeed the case. Writing about Jesus College, Cambridge's plan to remove the memorial to its slave-trading benefactor, Tobias Rustat, from its chapel, Moore notes that, to achieve this dubious end, the college will have to get a 'faculty' from the Church of England. This involves enlisting the opinions of a diocesan advisory committee which includes historical, architectural and artistic experts, and works on the presumption that the C of E is against the removal of monuments and that only a rigorous 'statement of need' can justify such a removal. If the diocesan decision is disputed, the case may be heard by a consistory court, and that court's decision can be appealed to a yet higher court, the Court of Arches. All of which suggests that, in practice, the removal of offending monuments, however much desired by the ecclesiastical 'woke', is going to be so difficult as to be all but impossible. Worryingly, however, Welby's Church Buildings Council is pondering the issue and drafting diocesan guidelines, so who knows how safe our church monuments are – especially memorials to saracen-slaying crusaders, anyone who invested in the Royal Africa Company, heroes of empire, or indeed thoroughly evil men such as Richard Rich, whose extraordinary monument in Felsted church happens be to be one of the finest of its time? 

The same could be said of the monument to Sir Richard Clayton in Bletchingley church. This wealthy merchant and philanthropist, who rebuilt St Thomas's hospital, made money from the Royal Africa Company and is therefore, to modern eyes, morally tainted. His statue has already been removed from view at St Thomas's hospital (as has Thomas Guy's at Guy's Hospital). Will Clayton's great monument in Bletchingley church be next? At the very least, I daresay we can look forward to a suitably woke 'interpretation' panel conspicuously placed in front of it, and in front of many another offending monument. Madness...


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