Church of England Diocese of Winchester Barton Stacey and Bullington

The meaning of statues

14 Jun 2020, 12:30 p.m.

The meaning of statues

St Paul writes in his letter to the Romans (5:1-2), “…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through who we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…” In other words, it is by the grace of God through the redeeming work of Christ that we are delivered from our failing selves and enabled to stand up straight and tall before God. To put that more succinctly, it is by God’s grace that we are made to feel okay. In doctrinal terms, we all fall short in various ways because we are only human – we are not perfect like God – and yet God still finds a way for us to become acceptable – this is the relationship between humanity and God. Humanity is dependent upon God to affirm anything that is good and redeemable.

Our own experience of one another, however, is slightly different. Though we are able to affirm those character traits within each other that is positive, for example a good teacher will enable a student to become more confident at a particular skill or talent and give them the necessary boost to translate that skill into say, a future career, yet that same teacher might have to recognise that the student is never going to be good at foreign languages. This is negative and might be disappointing. And the teacher might have to accept this fact over time – that no matter how hard you try, no matter what resources are poured in, this particular student is never going to be able to learn to speak French or German to an acceptable standard. The student is always going to fall short. Or the example where a child comes from an emotionally starving childhood goes on to become a persistent shoplifter becoming a nuisance to the wider community to the extent that they end up in youth custody and no amount of support given replaces the neglect of earlier years, and results in later years turning to more serious crime, ends up in prison, banished from society for years.

Whereas we believe that God transforms the disappointment and failure - wiping the slate clean - so that we become something good and acceptable, we human beings find ourselves often having to learn to live with the good and the bad that often live alongside each other in who we are. So, I might like the fact that you have a really good sense of humour but I don’t like the fact that you can be very controlling when it comes to what we watch on telly etc. Here on planet earth, we find we must live with these contradictions in each other, unlike the transformed state, instigated by God, in the heavenly place. By divine intervention, God transforms our failure and disappointed selves into that which is made good and acceptable in a way that we struggle to do with one another.

The question of living with contradiction is an important part of the current debate, born out of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and which asks us to consider which statues of famous people do we keep on public display as reference points for good role models in current society? Admittedly society today is not the same as it was one hundred or even fifty years ago. What might have been acceptable then in terms of how much good and bad was tolerated in someone whose life had been remarkable, and whose contribution to the common good pointed in the direction of them being publicly honoured by having a statue of them unveiled, might well not be the same today.

So, it is right that we reflect on who is now, and who is not now, deemed to have manifested sufficient good over bad in their lives that they should be publicly honoured. Some statues may well need to be taken down and others brought into being. The question that we have yet to answer is, what criteria should we use in assessing the weight of good over bad – when we know that we are all good and bad – and fall short of the glory of God in our human existence? By faith, we know that we are all dependent upon the grace of God. But by what grace do we determine which statues of our historical forebears should stand… and which should fall?

Revd Mark Bailey