In the week when would-be Tory successors to Boris Johnson speak of the urgent need for integrity and truth telling, the Dean of Durham used his Cathedral platform at Saturday’s Miners’ Festival Service to put those qualities in powerful historical perspective.
The ground for the sermon to the packed congregation by the Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett had been well prepared by the vibrant playing of the Mangrove Steel Band from Notting Hill and the brass bands of the Durham Miners’ Association and North Skelton.
Its questioning text – “where is the place of understanding?” – was drawn from a reading from the Book of Job by Yvette Williams MBE of the Justice 4 Grenfell campaign.
Its context was set by the playing of Gresford, the Miners’ Hymn, after the new Durham community banners were dedicated.
One of them was Myrtle, the magnificent silk standard produced by the Women’s Banner Group “as a symbol of support of the women of our local communities for Durham’s mining community and legacy”.
Tremlett, shortly to become Dean of St Paul’s, London, told the story of the 1934 Gresford colliery explosion in which 366 miners died. Most of them are still entombed deep in the North Wales pit 88 years later. He spoke of the cost-cutting owners, of the inadequate inquiry into the disaster and the pitiful fine subsequently imposed on those responsible for what happened.
The parallels with Grenfell Tower in 2017 could not have been made more plain – and much of what has happened in the past 40 years, including at Orgreave in 1984 during the miners’ strike and at Hillsborough five years later.
The congregation was told about Robert Saint, the unemployed miner who composed Gresford, and which was first heard at the Durham Miners’ Gala in 1938. They were brought up to date in the first full Durham Gala since lockdown in a Tribute to Key Workers. Prayers “for all who face danger and adversity” were led by young union activists urging a future for their contemporaries “strong in health, wisdom and compassion” with futures “rich with abundant hope and opportunity”.
Down on the Racecourse beside the River Wear union leaders Mick Lynch of the RMT and Sharon Graham of Unite argued the case for making it happen before thousands of austerity-hit families enjoying fun in the sun.
This was not the first time for me that Durham Cathedral had been the place where moral understanding had been brought to the problems of the time.
As a young reporter in 1970 I had heard the Bishop Durham, Dr Ian Ramsey, address there the annual gathering of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association). He and the congregation had made their way across Palace Green through a crowd campaigning against the Vietnam War.
Ian Ramsey, from a modest Lancashire background, had become an Oxford professor and was well able to hold his own in the company of science’s brightest minds. He was also much loved in the mining communities of Durham.
Abused by a local Tory as “the diddy bishop”, Ramsey had a personal warmth and concern that embodied his beliefs. As he came down the pulpit steps after urging scientists to take moral responsibility for their work, he paused as I struggled to make sense of my shorthand notes. He passed me the hand-written sheets of his sermon, quietly asking “Will these help?”
The women whose lives are receiving belated recognition in the wider world through the Myrtle banner also helped. Yvette Williams is doing the same for the survivors of Grenfell and is helping the rest of us by trying to prevent another tragedy hitting those in poor and dangerous homes.
Andrew Tremlett helped on Saturday by using plain language to link the past to the present. He rejected the tired and empty hyperbole of the Johnson era where everything is “fantastic”, “brilliant” and “world-class”, and where every issue requires “laser-like focus”. Shorn of hype and boosterism, he spoke instead in praise of those “who have committed their lives to the service of their fellow human beings”.
As the millionaire MPs seek the keys of No 10 through the bogus promise of painless tax cuts, Durham on Saturday reminded us of the need for serious change and the fierce urgency of now. In celebrating the lives of those who modestly and with dignity made a difference, we are encouraged to do the same.
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