Tim Beaumont examines the Churches' prophetic role in the miners' strike.
Isuspect that when Jeremiah first appeared at the court of Judah, he received a small papyrus from the Master of the King's Scourge, reminding him that Court Prophets were expected, on the occasion of their first public prophecy, to observe certain conventions.
'Ten minutes is quite long enough for a first prophecy and, in any case, His Majesty's attention span is not much longer. It would be nice, were you to say something about relying on His Majesty's well-known forbearance and above ail, my dear Prophet, stay uncontroversial.
"We all know that Jerusalem is a sink of iniquity and some of us feel that it is quite likely that Jahwell will send vengence from the North and the South, from East and from the West, but His Majesty prefers not to dwell on these depressing possibilities. Remember that it is your maiden prophecy and that if you want it to be followed by others, it would be wise to conform. It is true that it is our custom to listen to maiden prophets without interruption but there is no convention, as far as I have been able to ascertain, about what happens immediately afterwards and my expenditure on scourges has already exceeded the norm for this finanical year and has been the subject of a stiff memorandum from the Treasury I "
II indeed that happened, history, does not record
Jeremiah's response, but I imagine that there were very few thinking Christians who in any way blamed the Bishop of Durham for his peaceful and cehstreetive maiden speech in the House of Lords last week.
To start with, the subject of the debate, 'That this House takes note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee on Education and Training for the New Technologies seemed hardly the occasion for the invocation of Sodom and Gomorrah on their Lordships House and, to continue. there is a time and a place for the observance of conventions, even ill a den of iniquity. It is not as if the Bishop was in any danger of being taken for a pusillanimous conformist. Whether or not one agrees with hint on all matters, he is likely to speak out on matters which seem to him to offend the Christian conscience.
In this he is to a certain extent merely falling into line with the prevailing climate in the Church of England, which has not in the past always led the way in outspokencss. I mentioned to one of the Church's senior civil servants the other day the name of a bishop who is a byword for his conventionality and his
obsequiousness to the powers that be. `Ah yes' replied the man with a straight face — at least it sounded straight over the telephone — 'I am afraid he is one of our mavericks'. I expect it was the first time that particular bishop had ever been called a maverick but it seemed to me a healthy sign.
So, if all the churches are moving into a more prophetic phase than, say, a hundred years ago, it is an exciting and interesting development, not only in the church, but also in the field of politics. Where will sse expect the lightning to strike (apart from York Minster)?
There are obvious fields for the exercise of prophecy. Where men pursue the paths of war rather than of peace, where they seek profit rather than justice, where they stir up hate rather than bringing love. All these are areas where we might expect and indeed hope for, prophecy. la some ways, prophecy will always concentrate on the more obvious fields. It is 'accepted' iniquity which demands exposure.
But there is also scope for the detection of rather more subtle forms of evil and we are not always quite as good at that. The Industrial and Economic Affairs Committee of the Church of England's Board of Social Responsibility has just published a paper which is an account of Christian responses and initiatives to the Mining Dispute (50p from Room 463, Church House, Dean's Yard, London SWIP 3NZ) and a very useful and fascinating paper it is. It records what Cardinal Hume, the Archbishop of Canterbury and others, including of course the Bishop of Durham, said at various times and the initiatives that they took.
Some of what they said was brave; some, I regret to say, sounded like bleating. I doubt whether there was much future in asking people to meet Arthur Scargill halfway. His idea of halfway was toeto-toe where he happened to be. But I regret to say that one strand in the dispute, about which it seems to me that the Churches have something prophetic to say, was almost completely ignored.
The dispute, you will not yet have had time to forget, was about the closing down of' uneconomic pits. Now it is true that the case against this was argued mainly on the grounds that mining communities must not be broken up. It is, in the long run, an unarguable case. Sooner or later the pits will be exhausted arid then the community is bound to be broken up.
The most that can be expected is lots of notice and thorough measures to bring alternative work to the community and/or move the community to alternative work — both rather unlikely prospects today. But there was another approach to the question which was implicit in the miners' case although it was not an obvious one for the union to pursue.
It was, however, a matter for the community as a whole and you can say that it was a matter for the Churches. For while the church must preach love, it has in its prophetic capacity a concern for justice, as Jeremiah would have been the first to tell us. And the closing down of pits is an injustice done to future generations. Once you have closed a pit it is extremely difficult and ruinously expensive to open it again. ln other words, some of that irreplaceable coal is lost forever and the action is a fraud on future generations.
To point thi.s out is not necessarily to take sides in the dispute. The Coal Board may have been right in its stand, as far as it went. But there could have been other solutions to those proposed. For instance, in the States the problem would not have arisen for some mines. The owners would have sublet the. remaining working to gangs of workers who could afford to mine the remaining seams because they had no overheads to carry.
Of course, there are snags to that solution — I know some of them myself — but different solutions should have been mooted and it may be that if the Cardinal and the Bishops had spoken out loudly enough, about the injustice, the parties concerned would have had to take other factors aboard. As it was I think the churches missed a trick. Even prophets must be professional.