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Britannia's unfinished business: (Bishop of Liverpool's discussion on history and repetance).

On 11 September 2000 the Bishop of Liverpool took up the theme of history and repentance in his `Thought for the Day' on BBC Radio 4's `Today' programme. He has given us permission to reprint it.

Beneath the dome of the Royal Albert Hall, the Last Night of the Proms(*) played to a capacity audience and, through giant screens, to thousands in Hyde Park, Birmingham and Liverpool. Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem and Rule Britannia ruled the airwaves echoing with the raucous voices of the crowds. The sight of so many young people brings the hope that the Proms will last for another generation at least.

It's a great musical tradition:

Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves: Britons never will be slaves

Penned by James Thomson in the early 18th century, these words became the battle cry of our sea-faring Empire.

It was fitting that the cameras cut to Liverpool because this was the premier city of Britain, the Heathrow of the 19th century, from which so many great ships sailed and traded and ruled the waves.

But it was--like life itself--an ambivalent trade, in both virtue and vice. For through this wealthy port travelled a black cargo of slaves, most of whom never survived the journey.

In May of this year I was in America, invited by the Bishop of Virginia to lecture at his clergy conference. A black woman priest showed me around the city of Richmond and down the verdant banks of the James River along which the slave ships sailed. Five hundred thousand slaves were traded through Richmond alone.

We stopped at Lumpkins Jail where black women and men were herded, hoarded and sold.

We saw the site of the gallows where they were hanged for the slightest misdemeanour. I found myself weeping under the oppression of the memory.

And then in July I was in West Africa with 20 young people from Liverpool at the invitation of the Bishop of Akure in Nigeria, where black leaders had once colluded with white traders to export their own people into slavery. In an interview on the State Radio I repeated the Lord Mayor of Liverpool's remorse at our city's involvement in the slave trade.

I know it's now fashionable for leaders to say sorry for the sins of the past. I know it's debatable as to whether they have the right or the responsibility to do so. Public confession, however, begs this question--how do you find absolution if you leave God out of the repentance? Who can forgive you when the victims are dead and gone?

The repentance that God requires is a change in attitude followed by action. That is why, whenever I hear:

Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves

I feel I ought to add, with an eye to those made slaves through debt here and overseas, `Nor will we ever allow others to be taken into slavery'.

For only then would we have all the bricks and mortar to finish building `Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land'.

(*) International readers may like to know that the Last Night of the Proms is the culmination of an annual season of concerts in London, dating from 1895. Traditionally, the Last Night ends with patriotic songs, in which the audience join enthusiastically.
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Publication:For A Change
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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