The beginning of September marks four years since I was licensed to St
Martin’s as Priest-in-Charge. In the funny way that we experience time as human beings it seems in some ways both longer
than that, and also far shorter a time too! I still remember moving in to the Rectory; after a week of hard graft sorting
out the contents of hundreds of boxes, doing bits of painting and dealing with problems like a broken fridge-freezer, Dan
and I decided to have a day off from the house and head into Manchester city centre to do a day’s exploring.
we were wandering around we happened upon a plaque on the wall of a building in St Peter Street which had some flowers left
on the pavement below it. On closer inspection it was the plaque commemorating the Peterloo Massacre, and it was 195 years
to the day since the terrible events of 16th August 1819. I have to admit I wasn’t
really aware of this atrocious event in English history, when over 600 people were injured and 15 (or some say maybe one or
two more) killed during a peaceful rally calling for democratic reform and protesting about poverty. It turns out, though,
many other people don’t really know much about it either. In the last four years I’ve spoken to a number of friends
and family who also admitted their lack of knowledge.
Next year will mark the 200th anniversary
and as part of the effort to give the event a higher profile the film maker Mike Leigh has produced a movie about the events
of the day. In a few weeks’ time Manchester will host the UK premiere on 17th October.
Despite growing up in Salford, Mike Leigh says he never learned about the massacre at school – and it has never been
part of the national curriculum (although this does not mean it never appears in lessons in any school.)
Many of the people who worked on the film had not been aware of the events either.
Doing a little bit of research led me
to the Ashton and Sale History Society Journal, Number 32, where an article by Jill Groves states:
Richard Popplewell-Johnson, (1749-1835) rector of Ashton-upon-Mersey, was also a magistrate or Justice of the Peace. He was
the JP who read out the Riot Act at Peterloo to the people gathered on St Peter’s Field, Manchester in 1819. When they
didn’t disperse as ordered, he was the one who authorised the mounted Yeomanry charge into the crowd.
in church at the marble monument inscribed with the names of Rectors down the years, it seems a bit strange to think that
my predecessor-thirteen-removed was at the centre of that terrible day.
has changed in society since then, both in terms of those who can vote in national and local elections and also how poverty
is viewed. However, there are still many threads from 200 years ago which still echo in today’s world, even in our own
country, about inequality and where political (and other) power resides.
In the past few days the Old Testament
readings at Evening Prayer have come from the book of the prophet Micah. Writing in the 8th
Century BC, Micah is scathing in his attacks upon the money-grubbing exploitation of the helpless and dishonesty in business.
He denounces many in authority, both religious and political, for the way that they pervert the justice and love of God through
their actions and words. But he also sees a glorious future; one in which Bethlehem gives birth to a greater David who will
rule over all God’s people. This prophecy was later seen by some Jews as being fulfilled in Jesus and is the lens through
which Christians now view this element of Micah’s words. And Jesus himself raises his voice against those who oppress
the poor and needy and abuse their power and position in society.
As Christians in this generation, we need to be alert to the many injustices
that still abound and find our voice to protest and seek reform, at home and abroad. The peaceful demonstration of the Peterloo
protestors should be an encouragement to us not to be content whilst some of our brothers and sisters in Christ are living
in poverty and squalor, or are being exploited and used by others. Mike Leigh, speaking about the film and the story it tells,
said: “In the end, why is the film still relevant? Many reasons. One of them being the difference between those who
have power and those who don’t. Those who have wealth and those who are on the breadline.”
May we seek to not
be complicit in on-going oppression – and, unlike my predecessor, be those who press for, work for, and pray for justice
and hope. In the words of Micah the Prophet:
They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into
Nation will not lift up sword against
nation; nor will they train for war any more...
what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly
and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 4:3 & 6:8)