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The Long & Winding Road

Canon Adrian is on his annual leave; this week's reflection is from Revd Devin:

Today the church remembers William Wilberforce (1759-1833), Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797), and Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846). Wilberforce studied (so to speak — by his own admission he spent far more time cavorting than studying) at Cambridge, where he met Thomas Clarkson. It was at a University sermon at Great St Mary's, preached by Peter Peckard, that inspired Clarkson to become an abolitionist; Clarkson in turn convinced Wilberforce to join the abolitionist movement, a movement which included Equiano, a writer and abolitionist who was kidnapped and sold as a child from present-day Nigeria, and who immigrated to Britain after purchasing his freedom, settling in Soham just north of Cambridge, where he wrote his compelling autobiography of his life as a slave.

Their work to bring about the end of the British slave trade took decades to enact. Horrifying as it may be to consider now, abolition of slavery was a controversial issue, and many Britons argued that the kidnapping and selling of human beings was a perfectly moral practice which they believed to be supported by holy scripture even as Christians such as Wilberforce, Clarkson, and Equiano were driven by the Christian faith to work to end slavery. And while Parliament ended the slave trade in 1807, it wasn't 1834, a year after Wilberforce died, before slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire — compensating slave owners to the tune of £2.5 billion in present day currency, and requiring slaves to continue to work for their former owners for six more years as 'apprentices'.

Abolition was a long and complex journey, and one which offers very little scope for national self-congratulation. And it is in that complexity that Wilberforce, Clarkson, and Equiano's faith may have been most important — for our Christian faith does more than teach us a moral code (both St Paul and many thoughtful atheists both agree that moral law is not the sole province of the Divine). Our faith gives us the persistent courage and hope which enables us to strive for justice over long years wandering through in the wilderness. We don't expect easy victories and quick journeys; we know we will get things terribly wrong, that we will be tempted to worship our own privileges and safety, that we will compromise where we should insist, dig in when we should compromise, and whitter that division is worse than injustice even as we turn against one another. But we persist, we repent, and again and again when we are lost we seek out the Good Shepherd whose love is perfect freedom.

God our deliverer, who sent your Son Jesus Christ to set your people free from the slavery of sin: grant that, as your servant William Wilberforce toiled against the sin of slavery, so we may bring compassion to all and work for the freedom of all the children of God; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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