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?

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