Primates worship at former slave market

Published April 1, 2007

Archbishop of York John Sentamu, the Primate of England, quietly takes in a monument of the slave trade in Zanzibar. The chains shown are said to be the actual chains used to bind slaves in the 19th century.

Primates of the Anglican Communion gathered on Feb. 18 for a eucharist at a cathedral built atop a former slave market in Zanzibar, with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams praying for “forgiveness for the past, mercy for the present, and humility for the future.”

More than 600 people attended the service at the 127-year-old Christ Church Cathedral. “Some, seeking shade from the equator-hot sun, filled a tented area on the cathedral close, grounds that were until the 19th century a nexus of the Arabian-European-American slave trade,” noted Episcopal News Service (ENS). At the high altar, where a slave market whipping post once stood, Archbishop Williams asked God “to help us find hope at times of bondage and fear.”

The primates traveled by boat from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where they had gathered for a five-day meeting .

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said he was changed by his visit to the cathedral. “My lasting memory of my visit to Zanzibar and its cathedral will always be singing Amazing Grace,” he said in his blog, or Internet diary, at, a site for young Anglicans.

“This cathedral is built above what was a slave market,” wrote the primate. “People were captured and brought to this spot and sold to the highest bidder. In the basement I saw the slave dungeons where people were herded in like cattle. I saw the font, which is the same place that the slaves’ children were killed.” He said the slave trade showed that “no value was placed on human lives because of skin colour.”

In his homily, the Archbishop of Canterbury reflected on the Scripture lessons from Genesis’ account of the rainbow after Noah’s flood and Luke’s story of how Jesus restored the sight of the blind man on the road to Jericho. “Today, it is very appropriate to think how God makes us see. One thing we might reflect upon today is what thing we are blind to – who is it now whose sufferings we cannot see, we cannot understand,” he said. “In some societies, it may be women, the elderly, or children … It may be minorities of one kind or another.”

The primate of the Church of Tanzania, Archbishop Donald Mtetemela celebrated the eucharist in Swahili and English.

The primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola,  absented himself from the service. Earlier in the meeting, he and six other primates boycotted another eucharist, to symbolize the “brokenness” of the Communion.

The service concluded with the installation by the Archbishop of Canterbury of Ugandan-born Hellen Wangusa as Anglican Observer to the United Nations.


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