From a sermon preached at Durham Cathedral, Sunday 14th April 2013.
It seems to me that since the death of Baroness Thatcher, the whole nation has been behaving rather like a bereaved family. Ordinary life has been suspended. The agenda of the media and of many personal conversations has been changed. Politicians of the 1980s have resurfaced and the issues of the Thatcher years have been reviewed and re-debated. People have had to make decisions about the funeral and others have entered into the question of whether they are right.
The domestic question of who should send what floral tribute has been replaced by just how many soldiers and heads of state to try to cram into St Paul’s, but underneath it is the same issue. How do we rightly remember this person who like everyone else had strengths and weaknesses, lovable and less lovable characteristics and who impacted on different people in different ways?
Memories live long here in the North East. The Bishop of Durham whom Margaret Thatcher appointed, David Jenkins is still a much loved and respected figure. There was no mistaking his solidarity with those who were losing out, no mistaking his advocacy for social justice.
And yet if you look at his notorious enthronement sermon, preached in 1984, you will read not the words of someone siding with Mr Arthur Scargill, but an advocate for reconciliation.
‘I suggest,’ he said, ‘that there must be no victory in the miners’ strike. There must be no victory, but a speedy settlement which is a compromise pointing to community and the future’.
‘The miners must not be defeated’, was his first point. ‘But there must be no victory for them on present terms’ was his second. Jenkins was seeking to open up space for reconciliation and hope. It got a strong ovation on the day but the central point of his message was not heard. The 1980s were not days of compromise or conciliation: it was a decade of conflict and ideology, victory and defeat.
There must be room at this time of national reflection on the eighties for a tear of lament that things weren’t conducted with a touch more humanity and humility. It is particularly tragic that the main protagonists took a very dualistic, zero-sum, view of the conflict: it was either, we win and you lose, or, if you win, we lose. The language of the enemy within did not help at all, nor did it help to sloganize the idea of there being no alternative.
A journalist went to a coalfield area earlier this week and tried to get people to talk about the miners’ strike. No one was very forthcoming. As he was about to leave someone said, ‘please don’t take this personally, but people don’t want to talk it is too painful. There was real suffering. People were hungry, became ill and there were suicides because of it all’.
The pain and heaviness of the memory of the mining industry is a reality today – as anyone in Durham Cathedral for the Gala service every July will testify. The mines may be closed, but the wounds are still open. And many of those wounds date back long before the 1980s
There is no case for forgetting – but there is manifest need for healing; for the healing of memories and the letting-go of hatred.
The past, however formative, however determinedly not forgotten, is precisely the past. It matters, but it is not is the last word. That’s the beauty of both time and resurrection. Tomorrow is another day and as we move towards it we must take with us not only the half of the Christian gospel which was so important to Mrs Thatcher – responsibility and freedom, but the parts on which, as Archbishop Robert Runcie put it, she was not so strong on – grace, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Mrs Thatcher was not often impressed by bishops – Jenkins was ‘a cuckoo’ and in her memoirs she said that she wished that Sir Richard O’Brien, who ran the Manpower Services Commission and was chair of the committee that would advise the Prime Minister on the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘had combined his two jobs and established a decent training scheme for bishops’.
We will all have our thoughts about what such a scheme should prioritise, but my own perspective is that anyone taking on genuine Christian leadership needs to be able to help others open themselves to the possibility that God might heal the past and reconcile communities. This involves honouring the past, the present and the future, but honouring even more the transcendent and transforming power of God’s grace.
It is this grace on which we all rely for forgiveness and healing; none of us is perfect, or even as good as we should be or could be. We are a community not of the righteous, but of sinners. No community is without fault. Nor was the past ever without pain.
But we will never do what we can or should for the future while we are dreaming of a better past. To be people of true hope that is the one thing that we always have to sacrifice – our vain hope that the past might have been better.
The Christian Gospel tells us that there is life beyond death; it also assures us that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God nursing grudges or holding fast to hatred. Bereavement brings the past to life in vivid ways, stirs old pains and opens old wounds. Resurrection, on the other hand, brings us to new life where the pain of the past is healed, the broken are made whole again and all are reconciled. This is God’s work, God’s politics, God’s future and the basis of all true hope.