The Slave Trade and the Church

St Wulstan of Worcester (died 1095) is one of those saints who seem at once remote yet very close. A well-connected cleric of the late Anglo-Saxon period whose ecclesiastical career suffered barely a hiccup at the Norman Conquest, he was nevertheless a conventionally devout man who insisted on praying the monastic office as he travelled round his diocese, often annoying his staff by repeating lines he found especially attractive. William of Malmesbury turned Colman’s original account of him into Latin and so gave it widespread currency. His pages show us a man of singular sweetness of character whose involvement in all the usual activities of a churchman of his day and neat navigation of some of the more choppy political waters was accompanied by a deeply personal love of Christ. Although not a scholarly man himself, Wulstan was a friend of Robert of Losinga, bishop of Hereford, who was well-known as a mathematician and astronomer. For us today Wulstan’s life has a further element worth pondering. He worked tirelessly to end the slave trade and was credited, along with Lanfranc, with putting a stop to the transport of slaves from Bristol.

That sounds a very modern note, doesn’t it? Pope Francis reminded us recently that the Church is committed to ending the evil of trafficking and modern varieties of slavery, calling it ‘an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ’. No one can be ignorant of the many forms of slavery that exist in society today, although we do not always see how we ourselves may be involved in them. From the young people trafficked as prostitutes the world over to the bonded labourers of overseas factories and the illegal immigrants working long hours for next to nothing in Britain, slavery is a terrible reality. On this second day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian unity, let us ask ourselves how we can work together to put an end to this evil in our midst. The Anglo-Saxon Wulstan and the Italo-Norman Lanfranc overcame their differences to put an end to the Bristol slave trade in the eleventh century. Oughtn’t we, in the twenty-first, to be able to do the same?


12 thoughts on “The Slave Trade and the Church”

  1. ‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.’

    The Church is, always has been, and always will be one.
    Unity is not the same thing as theological conformity, we know the way, and that isn’t open to interpretation.

    When this Kingdom went to war against a growing darkness it employed three services in the fight. The senior service, the navy, the army and the relatively newly created air force. They had different abilities, but they worked together to achieve a specific goal, and it was the quality of sacrificial service within each that eventually won the war. If we can speak thus of an earthly Kingdom , why not of the heavenly one, although our struggle is not against flesh and blood?
    It is only in being servants and slaves to one another,
    can we assist in bringing the light of Christ to the world.

    • I’m not clear which part of my blog post about Wulstan and the Slave Trade your comment refers to, but I must take issue with your remark about ‘theological conformity’. The Catholic Church maintains that unity of faith and belief is one of the marks of the unity of the Church. So, for example, it simply isn’t possible for the Church to maintain two different theologies of Eucharist or Order. Of course I understand that you have a different view, and I am happy for you to express it here, but I write as a Catholic, and must maintain what I believe to be true.

    • Of course you do sister, I respect that absolutely and you are a glowing tribute to your faith. I also thank you for your courtesy in allowing me to comment.
      What I meant was that the starting point for us all is Christ, the way and the truth and the life.
      As regards slaves, it occurred to me that through our faith, which has ensured freedom from slavery for so many people, we are made spiritually free ourselves to choose to become servants and slaves to one another. I was musing upon what you have written.

  2. Sister Catherine, you are a scholar and someone who is down to earth. You communicate well often with a sense of humor . This is a great combination of qualities. I always appreciate reading your blog and acknowledge that I often learn a great deal from the experience.
    Thank you.

  3. So, your idea of a good example of an abolitionist was somebody who fought the enslavement of Europeans. Why nothing about the African slave trade–and your church’s role in it? Congratulations(?) on a blog post about the slave trade that never once mentions Africans.

    • I was writing about a saint who lived before Europeans (probably) set foot in the Americas, i.e. before the slave trade in Africans was developed. He was my subject. I was not writing about the slave trade of later centuries, and in the case of Wulstan himself only about the slave trade of the eleventh century. It is sad to see someone descending to sarcasm with so little historical understanding or concept of argument. If you read my second paragraph, you’ll see I am quite clear about the evils of contemporary forms of slavery.

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