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Dear Friends,

As Bi-Centenaries go, this has got to be more important than most.  I refer, of course, to this year being the `two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery`.  It marks a huge landmark in human relations, and another one in terms of Christianity.

First, let's be clear about the legal and historical angles.  In 1807, after eighteen years of campaigning and eleven unsuccessful Bills in Parliament, William Wilberforce and others achieved the abolition of the British slave
trade.  They had fought with a religious passion (one that was not readily acceptable to most people at that time), but largely with political and economic arguments.  Slavery itself was not abolished in the Empire until 1833, with the US only freeing its four million slaves in 1863, and the final end of the Atlantic slave trade (by Cuba) in 1866.  Britain spent 40m over 50 years in order to free slaves - we bought other countries' acquiescence and the Navy seized 1,600 ships !

Today, there are still slaves in the world.  According to modern definitions, there are still 12.3 million people in some form of slavery - 0.2% of the world's population.  In 1789, when Wilberforce began campaigning, the figure was
75%.  No, it didn't happen overnight, and the job is not quite complete, but the effects of the abolition of slavery were (and are) world-wide and immense.  Slavery is, of course, as old as civilisation (probably older) and would have been considered universal and normative by most people up until two hundred years ago.  That is the mountain that Wilberforce climbed.  [Although it is worth observing, in passing, that it was the slave trade, to the Caribbean and the Americas, that we fostered - slavery itself had been illegal in Britain for hundreds of years before then !]

Then there is the Christian angle.  Wilberforce campaigned as a Christian - not using texts (for the Bible is full of references to slaves, and none to abolition - slavery was simply a `given`, a fact of life, in the ancient world), but taking a distillation of Christian essentials (like the law of love for all, the equality of all before God) rather than a slavish textbound adherence to particular and literal regulations.  Plenty of Christians disagreed, but ultimately were either won round or silenced.  No Christian (I hope!) would argue for the re-introduction of the slave trade today.

We have come a long way in two hundred years.  Other evils, like apartheid, have been overcome by similar means; but there are always more challenges.  The challenge for Christians is often - as with women's rights from the Suffragettes onwards - that the Bible does not furnish texts to support these challenges (indeed, often it is rather the opposite) but that the whole thrust of the Gospel
does.  It should no longer be acceptable for Christians to support any form of discrimination against people by nationality, colour, creed, gender, disability, sexual orientation or age; yet too many still seek to do so.  In some ways, the secular world has overtaken us.  It is also true that, sadly, many have forgotten why they are against discrimination.  I hope that this Bi-Centeenary stirs all of us to reconsider the basis of our common humanity, and to commit ourselves anew to preserve all our equalities before God.

William Lang.

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