The Archbishop of Canterbury says the country is in the midst of an “unhealthy” culture war.
Justin Welby told the BBC’s Political Thinking Podcast that historical context was everything in the debate over removing statues or monuments.
A report this week said the church should not “unconditionally celebrate” people involved in the slave trade.
All shortlists for senior Church of England posts must include at least one ethnic minority candidate, it added.
Archbishop Welby told Nick Robinson that as a historian, he was “deeply committed to contextualisation” and that “teaching and explanation” over controversial historical figures.
People should “reflect on whether this person was wholly bad, worth a statue or just a normal human being who lived in his or her time and got things really wrong” he added.
Asked whether the country was in the middle of a culture war, Archbishop Welby said: ‘In some ways we are – an unhealthy one, yes.
“It depends how you want to fight it. We are in a time where culture and historic inherited culture is questioned very, very deeply; where culture’s power and privilege are questioned very deeply.
“Let’s be suspicious, let’s ask the hard questions. But let’s do it in a way in which we learn to disagree well and let’s avoid saying that someone who disagrees with me is unfit to be called a human being and heard or published or whatever it happens to be.’
He said the label “woke” was “not helpful” but hoped he was “not asleep” when it came to an awareness of current issues.
Archbishop Welby was talking in response to the Church of England’s Anti-Racism taskforce which warned on Thursday the church had “an alarmingly retrograde trend” when it came to ethnic minority senior bishops.
While implementing change would not be a quick process he admitted, having six month progress reports would ensure the church would be held to account “painfully and properly” on racism.
“Is every Anglican racist? Absolutely not, but in the Macpherson sense, does the church have an institutional bias towards white people and against the global majority? Yes,” he added.
Political Thinking will be on Radio 4 at 1730 BST on Saturday