Image of College Chapel from outside

Church must drive change on racial injustice and contested heritage

Jesus College is calling on the Church of England to change how it deals with matters of racial injustice and contested heritage – while announcing it will not appeal the Consistory Court judgment which prevents a celebratory memorial to Tobias Rustat being moved from its Chapel.

The College says the current process urgently needs reform as it stands in the way of a constructive and inclusive discussion on sensitive and important issues.

Sonita Alleyne OBE, Master of Jesus College, said: “Many students and members of the College community put their trust in the Church process, and understandably feel let down by the judgment and its misrepresentation of their views.

“The Consistory Court’s decision shows a lack of understanding of the lived experience of people of colour in modern Britain.”

Rustat supported and enabled the slave trade by investing in two important slave trading companies over a period of 30 years. In addition, he also lent funds and took on roles in the running of the companies.

The Consistory Court placed much emphasis on the argument that Rustat did not make any money from slavery until he sold his shares. The College insists this is irrelevant – it contends that what matters is Rustat’s active participation in the slave trade.

Ms Alleyne added: “In short, the College is up against a Church ruling which believes involvement in the slave trade over 30 years isn’t sufficient to warrant the removal of this celebratory memorial.

“The facts about Rustat and his involvement in the slave trade were very clearly proven by the excellent and meticulous research undertaken by the Legacy of Slavery Working Party chaired by Dr Véronique Mottier. Its findings, as well as the position taken by the College, were misrepresented by others in court, and we stand by the work of our world-class academics.

“Having taken advice, and after much thought, the College Council has decided not to appeal the disappointing judgment. While we believe the judgment is fundamentally wrong, the time and costs involved in appealing the decision are significant, and the grounds on which we are allowed to appeal are restrictive.

“We will take our time and consider what to do next. The presence of the memorial in our Chapel continues to be a serious issue for our increasingly diverse community. We strongly believe that our stance will place us on the right side of history.”

The College’s application has drawn widespread support. Last week 160 clergy, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury and two Bishops, signed a letter to the Church Times opposing the decision which prevents the College from moving the memorial to an appropriate exhibition space, where it could be properly contextualised.

Ms Alleyne said: “Last Spring, the Church committed to taking action. This judgment demonstrates the inadequacies of the Church process for addressing issues of racial injustice and contested memorialisation. It is not fit for purpose.

“There is a much overdue debate happening within the Church about how best to face up to the legacy of racial injustice. We will continue to keep up the pressure, because this matters to our students.”

The Rev’d James Crockford, Dean of Chapel at Jesus College, said: “This was a test case for the Church. While the College considers its next steps, it is clear that, if the Church of England wishes to take diversity and inclusion seriously, it cannot ignore the implications of this decision for the wider mission of the Church to be a place where all are welcome.”