Tony Macpherson: Flying the flag to remember coal mining heritage

The colliery at Grimethorpe closed 25 years ago.
The colliery at Grimethorpe closed 25 years ago.
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BANNERS hang in Wakefield Cathedral this week, their colours gaudy, bright and full of promise. We are pleased to be part of With Banners Held High, a collective spirit festival sponsored by the Trades Union Congress as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations. It lends something of the spirit
of a Miners’ Gala to our
Cathedral community, and is a worthy attempt to celebrate our heritage.

The names on some of the banners tell a story of our legacy – for some, the names – Denby Grange, Woolley Branch NUM, Kinsley Drift – will be meaningless. For others, they tell a story of a time here, a time when you could see 20 deep mines from Wakefield Cathedral tower – it’s a time that has powerful memories for me and is inextricably linked to my ministry in the Church of England.

Twenty five years ago, I had the sad privilege of leading the prayers at the pit head at Grimethorpe, where I was
vicar. These prayers marked the end of the struggle to save the colliery, and indeed most of the collieries in the region. That winter, 1992-93, is full of memories – moments of hope when we believed there could be a better solution for our communities, and then the despair when we realised the fight was lost.

Almost a decade earlier in 1984-85, I was a curate in Penistone and daily saw busloads of police coming over the Pennines to be deployed at Silkstone and other pit communities because of the bitter struggles. I remember visiting Castleford at that 
time too.

Even earlier, in the 1960s, I was taken by my miner grandfather, to see some of the last drams of coal raised from the Princess Royal Colliery in the Forest of Dean.

For Barnsley, Wakefield and the Five Towns, and this region, the 1990s was a time of great challenge. The heart seemed to have been torn out of so many places, and a way forward was hard to envisage. Decades had to pass before the hard work of politicians and community began to bring renewal and re-building.

As I watched the banners being brought into Wakefield Cathedral, it took me back to those times and my abiding memory of both 1984-85 and 1992-93 is of the church being and walking alongside working people and the trades unions as they sought to improve the conditions of life for their communities and save them from destruction. Many trades unions have Christian roots and were built upon the Christian principle of the value of every one.

In each generation, this principle of engagement with community, of walking alongside, and of speaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ, has to be worked out and embodied afresh. It is important when speaking into the public square, not only to have a message for the powerful and influential, but also for the poor, the marginalised, and the exploited. Why? Because this is the message of both the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures. Those who strive to separate the church from politics seem not to understand that God in Christ fully engages with humanity. It is the particular role of the Church of England to be in, and to contribute to the well-being of every community, and to work with those who strive to enrich the lives of every person.

In 2018 the challenges are different: Brexit and its repercussions, homelessness on our city streets, the way in which we welcome and integrate refugees and migrants from the far flung corners of our world, and how we respond to tragedy and atrocity in our communities as we were called to do after the Manchester bombing a year

In all of these new situations, the vocation is the same, to be alongside, to share in the experience, to walk with the people involved, to speak and
act in the name of Jesus Christ, and call people to a new way of living.

So this week – the anniversary of the closure of Grimethorpe Colliery – I will look at the banners with many visitors. There are some new ones this year. Ideas Unify Us 2018 is the proud motto for a new artists’ union and is shaped like the old Suffragette banner. I will share in the blessing of the march from Wakefield Cathedral on Pentecost Sunday (May 20). Above all, I will celebrate that our Cathedral, our Church, has been asked to be a focus for this project, to be alongside, to share, and to speak in God’s name to our communities.

In Grimethorpe church
there is a miners’ lamp, not unusual in a former mining community, but its origin is important. It was presented to the church in 1993 by the local miners to express thanks for
the support of the church over the years and the inscription reads “Your faith is our inspiration”.

Amen to that.

Canon Tony Macpherson is the Sub Dean of Wakefield Cathedral.