Sermon: Miners' Festival
Preached on 14th July 2007
(Miners' Festival Service)
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts, be now and
always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
When I was a child, my bedroom, in Simonside in South Shields, had a panoramic view over the playing fields of the North East Railway Company towards the coast. If I looked to the right, I could see the pit head of Harton Colliery and if I looked straight ahead, I could see in the distance the massive tower of Westoe Colliery. To my left were the cranes of the shipyards of the south bank of the Tyne. And in the foreground the steam trains that in the 1960s were still taking coal mined in this area to the Tyne for shipment both within the UK and abroad.
The mines, the shipyards, the railways - it is remarkable that in a single generation we have seen almost everything go. The industries which formed County Durham culture, that gave rise to so many of our communities, that provided stability and identity, that guaranteed work, are now a memory, even if a cherished memory.
And how cherished - just think of today's banners. The Springwell Banner: Springwell Colliery was opened in 1826 and closed in 1932 - that's 75 years ago, but it is remembered - a Colliery that in those dangerous days suffered 3 explosions in 1833, 1837, and 1869, losing over 80 men and boys. Washington F Colliery - opened in 1777 and continuing for almost 200 years until its closure in 1968 - when it employed 1,300 men. Deaf Hill Colliery, opened in 1877, and closing in 1967 - still employing 600 men when it closed. Greenside Colliery, opened in the 1880s and closed in 1966, at its height in the 1930s employing 1100 men and still some 500 when it closed. Thousands and thousands of people employed in this industry over many generations.
And I find, as I have talked to various people in preparing this sermon, that there are such a strange mixture of emotions in our villages and towns that have been formed by mining. It's a bit like when someone dies. Sometimes, it's a good death - when someone has lived a long life, has had a good life, and yes, there is the pain of parting, but we know that that person's life has run its course and we say ‘thank you'. But sometimes, it's a cruel death, a premature death - where there is tragedy, and hurt, and sometimes we feel betrayed and let down. So, for the collieries: some had run their course, and were exhausted, and we knew that their day had come, and new jobs were found, even if that meant moving to new areas. But others, well, they were simply closed, without any regard for what would happen to their communities, or where new jobs would come from, or how community life might be sustained. And some of our communities still feel that - the merciless dismantling of a whole way of life, and promises of regeneration that perhaps in places were only partly kept. And some communities still have their stories of loss - I began my ministry in Spennymoor, and every time I did a burial in York Hill Cemetery, I passed the memorial to the 36 men and youths - some of them only 16, who died in the Tudhoe Colliery explosion in April, 1882.
But, whatever the story of your community, whatever emotions we bring to this service, the reason why Durham Big Meeting has just refused to die, is because we also have a tremendous sense of pride; pride in our communities, pride in our culture, pride in our history. Because there is something in the bloodstream of County Durham people that shouts ‘never say die'; that fought the demolition of the category D villages in the 70s and 80s, that takes a pride in friendliness and neighbourliness, that wants the best for our children and young people, that wants to go on telling its stories and remembering the tradition of hard and dangerous work, of earning a decent living. And signs of that ‘never say die' spirit are seen in the procession of new banners dedicated by the Bishop year by year in this Cathedral, by the brass bands which are such an important part of every Big Meeting, and the fact that people still make their pilgrimage, not only for the Big Meeting but throughout the year, to this Cathedral, the Miners' Cathedral, to see the Miners' Memorial and the Book of Remembrance and Miner's Lamp, and the Haswell Lodge Banner, which dates from 1893, permanently displayed in the South Transept to my left.
And so we come in faith. Because faith - and by that I mean faith in God, has also formed our communities. I mentioned Tudhoe Colliery - if you look down the long, long row of Colliery houses in Front Street in Tudhoe, right bang in the middle of the terrace, joined to the terrace, is the Methodist Church - that's a real statement about faith in the heart of communities, whether Chapel or Church or Roman Catholic. I was very moved to read, in an account of the explosion at Seaham in 1880, when 27 men and youths died; among the messages that were left by the victims, was one which said:
The Lord has been with us and we are all ready for Glory, and
Bless the Lord; we have had a jolly prayer meeting: every man is ready for Glory. Praise the Lord.
Now that message was written full two days after the explosion, in the midst of raging fires. Staring death in the face -what tremendous courage; what tremendous faith.
In today's Bible reading, St Paul speaks movingly of his own experience. As an Apostle, he was called to great suffering - many times he was persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, abused, because of his testimony to the risen Christ. It was as though death constantly hung over him like a cloud - and yet, resurrection life and light shone from him. So he is able to say:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may
be made visible in our bodies.
So, Paul, says, we never lose heart. Even if, and he knew it more than most, we have weak, vulnerable and dying bodies, there is something eternal, something that inwardly transforms us, something that death itself can never take away.
Paul, the man of faith and the man of hope. Now Paul's day, and his experience, may be far remote from ours. But is it? Because, it was the same faith and the same hope that led to the building of our great Cathedral in the 11th century; it was the same faith and the same hope that sustained those men and boys in Seaham in 1880; it was the same faith and the same hope that established the great tradition of Christian socialism; it was the same faith and the same hope that insisted that our communities should have their churches and their chapels, their schools and their places of recreation. And I trust it is the same faith and the same hope that draws us like a magnet to this service, and sends us back into our communities to work to continue to be beacons of hope, because we are people of resurrection, we are the people who trust in Jesus Christ, who died and who was raised to life again.
I began with a view from the bedroom window of my childhood: the mines, the railways, the shipyards. All gone: certainly the mines, and almost all the shipyards, and now there's only a mere shadow of the industrial railways. Houses now stand on the old playing fields of the North East Railway Company and on the sites of Harton and Westoe Collieries. But I stand this afternoon with a more noble view than I had back then as a child: I see today the people of County Durham communities, formed by coal mining, standing in a holy place, as people of faith, people of hope, people of resurrection.
And so I close with a prayer of Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott, that great late Victorian Bishop of Durham, who so dedicated himself to the welfare of the miners and their families in this Diocese - a prayer that each community may be transformed, because Christ is risen:
Behold O God,
our strivings after a truer and more abiding order.
Grant us visions of the better things you have prepared for us.
Scatter every excuse of frailty and unworthiness.
Consecrate us with a heavenly mission;
open to us a clearer prospect of our work;
and give us strength gladly to welcome and gratefully to fulfil it;
in the power of and for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.