Actually I think he was referring to my speech when he turned to me and said “beautiful”, but I was touched nonetheless.
I was at the annual Tolpuddle Festival, organised by the union movement in memory of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six men who were transported to Australia for starting a union in 19th century Dorset. Five of the six men were members and preachers at the local Methodist church. As a result, the Methodist Church is accorded an extraordinary place within the celebrations.
Wreaths were laid at the grave of James Hammett, the sole martyr who is buried in Tolpuddle (the others returned to England after they were reprieved but eventually emigrated to Canada). I was invited, as the representative of the Methodist Church, to lay the first wreath and talk about the role of the martyrs’ faith in their struggle for justice (this was the speech that the Labour leader liked).
I was also asked to bless the parade of banners from the main stage of the festival. This was a parade of thousands down the main road through Tolpuddle, carrying elaborate banners from every imaginable trade union. I spoke about the current commitment of the Church to challenge injustice as well as our shared roots. The crowd applauded the mention of our campaign against the profound injustices of benefit sanction.
In amongst the parade, I'm pleased to say, was a banner for the Methodist Church, with the motto “God is our guide”, part of a hymn quoted by one of the martyrs after their sentencing. Walking through the streets, it was encouraging to see the number of people who greeted us warmly as we passed.
The original chapel in which the martyrs worshipped was until recently being used as an agricultural building. A new trust, with Methodist participation, has recently bought it, shored it up, and has plans to restore it as a community building.
|With Revd Steph Jenner and Dudley Coates|
The festival was certainly very earnest - someone described it to me as like Greenbelt, but without God...or fun. These are people who are seriously committed to the Labour movement and are often secular. But the Methodist Church is invited to be part of it, and shares many of the same commitments to justice as well as historical roots through the faith of the martyrs. Not everyone will agree with everything that is said (or everyone they meet) or some of the bedfellows we end up alongside...but isn't that true of most of the places we’re called to do mission?
So thanks to the Friends of Tooluddle, Steph Jenner, David Wrighton and others for all the work they are doing to nurture new growth from the roots of Methodism and trade unionism.
And as a postscript, isn't it interesting, in this age of Prevent and counter-extremism, we take such pride in our own "martyrs"?