Case Study: Reconciliation Reredos – St Stephen’s Church, Bristol
St Stephen’s Church in Bristol is a harbour church that, since the 13th century, is known to have blessed ships which departed from the city. This included merchant slaving vessels travelling to Africa, during the time when Bristol was Britain’s largest port for the transatlantic trade of enslaved people. In 2011, the church unveiled the 'Reconciliation Reredos', a contemporary piece of artwork commissioned to recognise the Church’s links with transatlantic slavery.
- Site and type of structure: Reredos (ornamental screen), St Stephen’s Church
- Location: Bristol
- Country: England
- Legal protection: Situated in a Grade I listed church
St Stephen’s is one of the oldest churches in Bristol. Its location by the harbour ties the building with the city’s historic involvement in transatlantic slavery. The church received donations from merchants whose wealth was derived from the slave trade, including enslavement in the 18th century. During this time the church also blessed slaving ships departing the city for Africa. Between 1698 and 1807, at least 2,108 ships left Bristol for Africa to exchange goods for enslaved Africans and take them to the Caribbean.
In 2007, the bicentenary of the UK’s abolition of transatlantic slavery, St Stephen’s commissioned a major public artwork to address its complex history. Funded by a £50,000 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the grant was used to replace a damaged Victorian reredos fixed behind the main altar in the church since 1875. In 2011, the church unveiled a new installation, comprising four colourful relief panels.
The artwork acknowledges Bristol’s ties with transatlantic slavery, but its imagery also represents the diverse voices of the city today, and the potential for future reconciliation between people across racial and cultural divides.
The context for reinterpretation
Preparations for the 'Reconciliation Reredos' began in 2007, as part of plans to recognise the 200th anniversary of the Abolition Act 1807. However, while ideas for the artwork were being discussed, tensions became apparent over the way that the bicentenary was being marked in Bristol.
The City Council agreed a programme of events, establishing the organisation Abolition 200, but these attracted a mixed reception from some Caribbean community groups who felt they had not been consulted about the plans and who considered that it was not the church’s or the council’s story to tell. A high-profile ceremony in Bristol Cathedral, marking the anniversary of the Abolition Act, became the site of a protest from British African campaign group Operation 2007, using the slogan ‘Not in our name’.
Other heritage sites in Bristol with links to transatlantic slavery have also faced contestation since as early as the 1920s.
Notably, St Stephen’s was located near to the Grade II listed statue of Edward Colston – a trader of enslaved people, who later bequeathed his wealth to a number of charities in Bristol. The statue had been the site of protests from the 1990s, before it was toppled in 2020.
Assessment of options
In 2007, discussions were then prompted by a newly appointed Priest-in-Charge, to focus on how a new permanent art feature could acknowledge the links of the building with transatlantic slavery.
The stone relief work from the original reredos was deemed to be of considerable merit and was restored and kept in place. However, four enamel painted tin panels, placed within the stone, were severely corroded. The inspecting architect at the church sought consultation from Bristol City Art Gallery who determined the Victorian panels to not be of artistic significance [see footnote 2]. Faculty permission from the Diocese of Bristol was consequently agreed to remove these and replace them with the new MDF panels within the conserved stonework.
What was done and who was involved?
Following the protests outside Bristol Cathedral, St Stephen’s took steps to ensure that a diverse range of voices and communities were engaged in the process of designing the replacement reredos. Later that year, it was decided that the church would commission a British-Jamaican artist in residence, Graeme Mortimer Evelyn. Evelyn was, at the time, based in Bristol and had familiarity with the ongoing tensions over how the City acknowledged its links with transatlantic. The artist moreover had prior experience designing artwork themed around heritage that is contested, having conducted public consultations for a project which aimed to reinterpret the Edward Colston statue.
In his role as artist-in-residence, Evelyn embarked on an extended period of research, consulting a broad array of civic groups across the city to guide his creative process – from church parishioners to Caribbean Diaspora activist groups, members of Bristol’s alternative music scene and local City councillors. This informed the eventual design of the reredos. The semi-abstract, contemporary imagery departs from traditional Christian thematics and is intended to draw new audiences to the church, encouraging dialogue between people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures.
The 'Reconciliation Reredos' was also accompanied by a four-year Community Learning Events Programme – open to all members of the community – which stimulated conversation around the church’s complex heritage. These included stone carving workshops, an exhibition telling the story of the project, a graphic drawing exchange, and the founding of a new choir ‘The Voice of Hope’, which continues to run, bringing local community members from diverse backgrounds together through music. A community dialogue project named the 'Reconciliation Laboratory' was then held in the church in a space near to the reredos, which brought together residents of Bristol from all walks of life to discuss contentious political issues, such as the causes of the 2011 riots.
Evelyn heard a variety of views during his consultations with members of the community which helped shape the final design of the reredos. Several residents from ethnic minority communities were initially wary of how he, and also the Church, would portray themes of enslavement in a way that sensitively acknowledged the suffering endured by African enslaved people. Some stakeholders within the Church were also concerned about how the reredos would address the Church of England’s ties with transatlantic slavery.
Local public responses to the artwork have not been formally monitored since the reredos was unveiled. However, the community engagement activities were felt to have been well attended by a diverse audience. The unveiling of the reredos in particular was marked by the coming together of 300 city-wide community representatives in a high-profile public event, which was anchored by London Young Vic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah who delivered a keynote address. In 2019 Evelyn, as Artist in Residence, was also invited back to St Stephen’s for an extensive 'question and answer' panel discussion, recounting the process of how the Reredos came to be and what that story can continue to teach. The work has also been written about by international observers, and was selected for an innovative academic research project based at King’s College London called the Visual Commentary on Scripture (VCS).
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the reredos has been positively received, both by local parishioners and visitors interested in the history of the building. St. Stephen’s Church has not since encountered any protests or received complaints based around its links with transatlantic slavery.
Lessons and insights
The Reconciliation Reredos case highlights the importance of ensuring that a diverse array of voices are heard and represented when designing responses to contentious historical legacies. While the Abolition 200 programme in Bristol had faced criticism for its lack of consultation with residents from ethnic minorities, the reredos project placed dialogue around Bristol’s complex past at the heart of its plans, engaging local residents throughout the design stage and during the project’s launch events.
It should be noted that community engagement does not necessarily end controversy around sites where heritage is contested. Nevertheless, the St Stephen’s case demonstrates good practice on how to anticipate and confidently handle difficult debates over heritage in a way that respectfully acknowledges a wide spectrum of views. Tensions in Bristol over contested history have been particularly fraught in recent years, most recently with the toppling of the Colston statue a short walk from St Stephen’s in 2020, as well as the vandalism of an enslaved African man’s headstone. Yet although Evelyn’s consultations encountered a mix of views on how to approach and recognise St Stephens’ links with transatlantic slavery, all involved in the project accepted the final design and felt their views had been considered within a fair and impartial process.
Stakeholders involved in the delivery of the project stressed the importance of choosing a trusted artist to undertake reinterpretation work and the additional value of working with a Black artist, given the Church’s links to transatlantic slavery. Evelyn was also felt to be an effective bridge builder – who could negotiate the sensitivities of designing artwork for a place of worship, while creating a reredos that attracted a broader, more diverse audience to engage with the Church’s legacy.
The artist also felt that the permanence of the commission added to the importance that the reredos should focus on bringing different audiences together. Indeed, Evelyn’s design exemplifies a useful approach for other projects designing a long-term response to sites of contested history. The reredos explores the City’s past, present and future through abstract imagery – deliberately intended to prompt discussion both for contemporary visitors to St Stephen’s and residents in Bristol two hundred years from now. Through basing the work in philosophies of reconciliation, inspired by multiple faiths, the artist took caution to avoid rooting the reredos in a specific political moment, ensuring the artwork would be powerful and provocative for decades to come.
- It is crucial to recognise that different groups/individuals will feel that they own particular stories and they may not agree that the asset’s owners have the right to interpret the narrative. There is strength in ensuring that a diverse array of voices are heard and represented when designing responses to heritage that is contested.
- If an artist, poet or other collaborative creative approach is to be involved in developing a response to a specific site or situation, the brief must be developed with great care, ideally with engagement with the local community.
- This significant stone relief, soon after its installation 1875, had itself been a contested public artwork due to its presentation of the Agnus Dei [Lamb of God] and a Reredos curtain was installed to conceal the ‘offensive’ depiction. ↩
- Stakeholders involved in the project stressed the crucial importance of collaborating with an expert inspecting architect, to ensure the effective integration of the new artwork within the Grade I listed building, and the appropriate conservation of the Victorian stone relief of the nineteenth century reredos.↩