Canon David Isherwood
Canon David Isherwood is an open Evangelical Anglican Rector at Holy Trinity Church, Clapham. He moved to South London from New Zealand in 1953.
David is involved in The Bible Society, and The Church Mission Society.
Below is an abridged version of David's interview:
00:00 David and the interviewers introduce themselves.
00:44 William Wilberforce was a product of his own age. He was an evangelical anglican, the gospel was important to him. The Bicentenary in 2007 allowed me to question Wilberforce's life and ask: Does everything that drove him, drive me? He didn't box his life up into different compartments, he stood independently. His vision was of a country of justice, where people were connected in their communities. This big vision motivated him. Wilberforce inspired me to take my political responsibilities seriously. He would have longed for a nation that is better connected in terms of its social cohesion, more aspirational. For every member of the community to be participating fully in the life of the nation. He inspires me.
04:53 In Wilberforce's day there was an immense injustice. He was passionately concerned with issues of child labour and predominantly, slavery. Those issues are still very important today. I have a bee in my bonnet about how we buy and what we buy. Wilberforce wanted to create a new morality and framework for the nation. Slavery today is a different kind of slavery. The same principals are at work: Buying and selling people, for whatever purpose. There are 20 million people in some kind of slave bonding, according to Anti-Slavery International. Wilberforce's heart would have been broken by that. He would have wanted to fix it.
07:03 We care passionately about young people. We put money into working with children and young people. We have no historic income or vast resource of wealth. All we have is the living, giving of members of our congregation. We have a large team of volunteers who work with children and young people on activities through clubs, Sunday activities, and schools work.
08:10 We have visits from local schools, both private and state sector. Children that come here are overwhelmed by the size of the place and then they are subdued when they hear the story of the significance of this church and those who worshipped here and changed the history of the world. Children and young people have a sense of the awe of a place. They come on their own terms and in their own way. It’s important for us to connect that history with them and their curriculum. The history of slavery is now embedded in the National Curriculum. And that is largely because of concerted campaigning by groups of people who feel passionately that the story has to be told. We are pleased and delighted to be able to feed in to that. We have plans to make this place far more welcoming and historically connected with the range of people who come here. We also want to help people to reconnect with God. This building is a great tool to help us do that.
11:01 On a personal level it was a privilege to work with one of the advisory committees last year, on the Bicentenary, and to help steer in a modest way the importance of it to the nation. This church started off a debate that formed a resolution that went from here to the Diocese, to the Synod and then the General Synod of the Church of England. The whole Synod met together at the Churches Parliament to discuss these big issues. We have tried to make connections with both state and with the church and we hope locally with Clapham. There have been some interesting projects that have arisen in Clapham. This project itself must be part of that continuing sense of interest and concern.
12:19 We connect with other churches doing the same sort of work through networks that we have set up, particularly in the area of youth work. Churches Together in Clapham is a big representative forum of all the churches from a large conurbation like Clapham. We try to make the connections and keep the doors open.
13:13 Those who came over on the Windrush from the West Indies in the 40s and 50s found themselves housed in the deep shelter in Clapham South, which is a very deep structure. As soon as people came here the first message that we gave to them was that they could live in the worst parts of the country in terms of housing. The church still lives with it’s legacy of rejection, although it is a legacy that is being repaired. Being honest and facing up to it is really important.
14:31 In terms of specific issues, I have come across stories that would make your hair stand up on end, of discrimination against black people, still. As a Christian, I am outraged by the feeling of superiority in a culture that has no substance to it. It is important for people like this to have their identity marked by what they have. I am more interested in who people are, what they do, where they have come from.
15:53 My first friend, Rodney, was from West Africa. He was the first black person I had ever met in 7 or 8 years of life on earth. This was in 1953. I saw dreadful things happen to him at school by teachers who thought that they could play a race game with him, as one of the very few black people in our classroom. I remember witnessing a mock lynching. I remember being outraged at the time but not knowing how to articulate that. I have learnt now to be able to articulate and speak about these things and why I feel passionately about them. He remained a faithful friend throughout our school lives, and he is always the first person I think of. When we lived in Tooting Broadway on our way back from New Zealand it was his parents who invited us into their home, giving us that human-to-human contact. Whenever I see that kind of model violated today I get angry. How you change things in a politically sensitive world is really important. I think I do it by belonging to organisations that change things because I see them as pressure groups. I am a passionate supporter of Anti-Slavery International. The work it does today is very different to the work it did when Wilberforce founded it. But it is the same problem at work: The violation of the image of God in somebody else. I won’t tolerate that. I cannot bear the idea that somebody is less than me in terms of who they are, not just in relation to me but in relation to God as well. My Christian faith runs very deep in these conversations. The church also has it’s own messy history in relation to slavery. Who did we think we were to be able to treat people in such a cavalier fashion? I don’t think the black community wants me to single them out as the people I particularly try to work hard with. I try to work hard with anybody who wants to work hard with me. I try to live out the idea of a New Creation in my work. If it is not very comfortable for other people that is tough luck. Difficult questions were raised at the Bicentenary. You are sitting in a room with 70 people and the air is tense, absolutely electric. A lot of venom and anger comes out. As a Christian I think people are angry because something holy, inside them has been violated, through the whole process of slavery. It is work in progress at the moment. My fear about the Bicentenary is that a line will be drawn under it and a box will be ticked and somebody will say we have done that, lets move on to the next business. If that is the final result everyone will have been sold short.
22:20 I was in Streatham during The Brixton Riots. If I am honest I felt that Streatham was a safe place to be. I remember watching the television footage and seeing images of buildings on fire and an immense amount of violence. It was quite clear who were the antagonists and the protagonists; why people were fighting and why they were so angry, is something that history has taught me. At the time I wondered how this connected with me. The riots were the end of a long fuse. Suddenly it all blew up there and just came out. I don’t agree with violence but if there is no other way open to people to be represented and have their own dignity and place in society and community then people will find the next best way. If people will not listen and act, people get frustrated. If frustration is not properly channelled it boils over into the kind of violence we saw in the riots. I am not an expert on it. There were clergy who were much more deeply involved. I remember thinking: This is dangerous, and something has got to change in order for that not to happen again. It took me a long time to articulate what that was going to be. Until I got myself involved in the Bicentenary process about 3 or 4 years ago. Then I began to have an understanding of what the issues were and are.
25:58 My perception of Brixton before the riots was that it was a place that was dangerous. It felt like a ghetto. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. A ghetto is a place where people together feel safe. But it makes me think of social engineering. Putting people together in one place so that you can deal with them better. Actually what they need is freedom and opportunity. I felt safe in Streatham. They are joined at the hip now, but there was a border between Brixton and Streatham then that made me feel safer.
27:47 We have a European community where there are no borders anymore. You have to accept the fact that there will be issues. You have to build that into your long-term plans for society and government. We are not good at doing that. Polish people came here and did work that nobody else was going to do. Black people from the West Indies came over because there was a need for workers to be met after the war. But if you don’t offer people the opportunity for social, educational and spiritual growth and development then you won’t get the kind of cohesion that the government longs for now. The government now has to work very hard at restoring a vision of social cohesion.
29:40 Footage of Holy Trinity church: Interior
32:33 Footage of Holy Trinity church: Exterior.