Today the Miners’ Gala has taken place in Durham.
The ‘Big Meeting’ has been an annual fixture in the Durham calendar since 1871. Once upon a time when coal was king here in north-east England, there were as many as 100 deep mines in the County. Now there are none. Yet up to a hundred thousand people throng the narrow city streets on the 2nd Saturday in July to watch the long procession of banners and colliery bands snake its way slowly towards the race course for a day of political speeches and partying. It’s a noisy and colourful affair, the sort of thing you don’t often see in sedate English streets. This year’s Gala will go down in history because it’s the first time for almost a quarter of a century that the Labour Party leader has spoken at it. Once it would have been death to a leader’s prospects not to have been seen in Durham on this day.
There’s a service in the Cathedral in the afternoon, one of the biggest of the year in terms of the crowd it pulls in. Many of these are not people you normally see in church. They come from all over County Durham from its colliery towns and pit villages (you must never say ‘former’ pit villages: these are still mining communities today and you will not be thanked for speaking of their identity in the past tense). For them, the Cathedral is where miners have come since the industry’s heyday to celebrate their achievements as working people and to mourn their losses in the pit disasters of that year. Before and after the service, people go quietly to the Miners’ Memorial in the south aisles where the names of those who have died in mining accidents are recorded. The sense of kinship and solidarity in mining communities runs very deep.
Half an hour before the service begins, the church is already full. A silence descends, and from outside the Cathedral, as if from a far-off place, you hear a colliery band begin to play. The solemn music, usually a hymn, grows in intensity as it enters the Cathedral. A crowd follows the band quietly, respectfully, bringing up their new colliery banner to be blessed and dedicated. This happens as many times as there are new banners that have been made during the past year. For yes, colliery banners are still being lovingly created and proudly presented. It always moves me to see Durham Cathedral depicted on these noble banners as it is on some of them, including one from Burnhope that was blessed today.
You might think that the Gala is an exercise in nostalgia for an industry that is gone. It is not this at all. What strikes you as you walk the streets or look round the Cathedral congregation is how many children and young people are in the throng, playing in the bands or walking with the banners. This year, a school in Gateshead had created a banner, and they were here in force to bring it up with pride. An increasing proportion of people who loyally come to the Gala year after year have never known working pits – just as most of those who fill churches on Remembrance Sunday have never lived through a war. But the power of memory is palpable, and one of the aims of the event is to keep it alive. Even incomers like me fall under its spell because it is such a genuine celebration of the life and traditions of working people in the north-east.
The Gala has a strong political agenda too, of course. It was always an occasion for the unions to demonstrate their muscle, and still is. The memories of the systematic and ruthless winding down of their proud industry by distant London administrations are fresh and still bitter. I was a parish priest in Northumberland during the 1980s, just beyond the northern tip of the Great North Coalfield. You could touch the anger and hostility of miners who felt betrayed not only by the government but, sometimes, by members of their own families. It is there in Billy Elliot (set in Easington, the site of one of Durham’s biggest, most modern and most successful pits). But the reality was harsher than that feel-good film suggests. Brassed Off perhaps came closer to the heart of it.
The preacher at today’s service was Leslie Griffiths, a well-respected Methodist minister who sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords. He is a son of a Welsh mining community and – no doubt because of this – judged the nature of the Gala perfectly. His sermon will appear on the Cathedral website in due course so I won’t summarise it here. But he is only the second preacher in my time to win a spontaneous round of applause at the end (the first was Tony Benn in 2003). The crowd recognised him as one of their own and loved what he had to say.
It all ends too soon, with Jerusalem and then another long procession out, this time to joyful marches played by the bands and much enthusiastic hand-clapping by the congregations. As people head for the doors, a surprising number are too moved to say much. For so many, the sense of what they have lost is mingled with fierce pride in what the working people of Durham stand for in their achievements past and present. I am moved by that too, because this warm-hearted, generous community includes me in its celebration, and make me feel I too am a little part of its long history.
When I first came to Durham, a senior priest said to me: ‘Michael, you will only understand what this Cathedral means when you have been to your first Miners’ Gala service’. He was right. There’s a powerful feeling that today the Cathedral is being claimed by the people it truly belongs to. Whatever bishops, deans and canons may say, they know. And of course, they are right.