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On St Peter's Field

The Bishop of Manchester the Rt Rev Dr David Walker reflects on the spiritual legacy of the Peterloo Massacre 200 years ago, from nearby St Ann's Church, Manchester.

On 16 August 1819 a crowd of around 60,000 protesters gathered in Manchester's St Peter's Fields. They sought more adequate parliamentary representation as a means of improving living conditions and working life. Several hundred militia armed with sabers charged at an entirely peaceful crowd in order to disperse them. It's thought that around 18 were killed - including four women and a child - and that almost 700 were seriously injured. Two hundred years on, the Bishop of Manchester, the Right Revd Dr David Walker, reflects on the impact the Peterloo Massacre had at the time on a nation that considered itself Christian. Not only did it change public opinion about extending the right to vote - but it also contributed a spiritual foundation for our contemporary understanding of human freedom, the alleviation of poverty, freedom from oppression, and the need to protect the vulnerable.

The service comes from St Ann's Church in Manchester, close to where the massacre took place, and is led by Alex Robertson. The Daily Service Singers are conducted by Andrew Earis, and the organist is John Hosking. Producer: Ben Collingwood.

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38 minutes

Last on

Sun 11 Aug 2019 08:10


Please note:
This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.
It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.
RADIO 4 OPENING ANNOUNCEMENT:BBC Radio 4. The Bishop of Manchester Dr David Walker is the preacher now for Sunday Worship – reflecting on the spiritual legacy of the Peterloo massacre which took place nearly 200 years ago. The service is led by Pastor Alex Robertson.
ALEX: Good morning, and welcome to St Ann’s Church at the heart of Manchester City Centre. St Ann’s has been here since the beginning of the 18th century, witnessed the transformation of Manchester from a small rural town into a major industrial city, and has had a long association with the civic life of Manchester.
Historical accounts of British rule in overseas colonies during the 19th century make for uncomfortable reading. A number of shameful military atrocities darken that period of Empire. What sets apart the lamentable events of Monday 16th August 1819 is that they occurred not in some far-flung colonial outpost, but here at the very heart of Britain’s first industrial city, in fact less than 400 metres from where we’re gathered today. 
At the time Manchester was experiencing a huge expansion swept along by the Industrial Revolution, but like many burgeoning cities, it lacked proper representation in parliament. The right to vote was the prerogative of a small minority of men, and of no women at all. The meeting organized at St Peter’s Field was the culmination of a national campaign to push for a more representative parliament and a broader electorate. 
It was not a small gathering – some 50 to 60 thousand people had gathered to peacefully protest – but just 20 minutes into the meeting, 18 people were dead and 650 injured, after the authorities sent in yeomanry, Special Constables and armed cavalry in a recklessly violent attempt to disperse the crowd. Taking place just four years after the Battle of Waterloo, the tragedy was soon dubbed “Peterloo” in the press and has come to be known today as the Peterloo Massacre.
We begin our reflection on those events of 200 years ago with a hymn of Charles Wesley, one of the leaders of the Methodist movement which was so influential in encouraging literacy among working people and enabling them to express and disseminate their opinions more effectively: Jesu lover of my soul.

CHOIR/ORGAN/ALL: HYMN: Jesu, lover of my soul (Aberystwyth)
ALEX:Let us pray.
Father, as we meet to remember disturbing events and things which should not have been, and as we reflect on justice and equality, our prayer is that we would not commemorate what is shameful with regret, whilst being guilty of injustice, oppression or blindness in our own lives. Give us eyes to see ourselves, ears to hear your word, and a heart that pursues what is just and right. We ask for Jesus’ sake.ALL: Amen

ALEX:The Reverend Edward Stanley was the vicar of Alderley – a village to the south of Manchester – at the time of Peterloo, and he witnessed the massacre from a house on St. Peter’s Square. He went on to become Bishop of Norwich in 1837. He recalled the events he witnessed on that day:

CLIP 1:  Edward Stanley AccountIn: As the cavalry…Out: were sullenly peaceful.Dur:

CLIP 1: DROP IN (Greg): Edward Stanley AccountAs the cavalry approached the dense mass of people they used their utmost efforts to escape: but so closely were they pressed in opposite directions by the soldiers, the special constables, the position of the hustings, and their own immense numbers, that immediate escape was impossible… As the crowd of people dispersed the effects of the conflict became visible. Some were seen bleeding on the ground and unable to rise; others, less seriously injured but faint with the loss of blood, were retiring slowly or leaning upon others for support. I saw no symptoms of riot or disturbances before the meeting; the impression on my mind was that the people were sullenly peaceful.

CHOIR: ANTHEM: Give me justice (MacMillan)

ALEX:The prophet Amos burned with indignation against the injustice and oppression that prevailed in his day, and fearlessly confronted those responsible with the Lord’s word of judgement. Our first reading is from Amos chapter 8 and verses 1 to 6.
CLIP 2:  Reading: Amos 8:1-6In: This is what the Lord …Out: sweepings of the wheat.’Dur:CLIP 2: READER 1 (Scarlett): Amos 8:1-6This is what the Lord GOD showed me—a basket of summer fruit. 2 He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ Then the LORD said to me,‘The end has come upon my people Israel;    I will never again pass them by.3 The songs of the temple shall become wailings on that day,’says the Lord GOD;‘the dead bodies shall be many,    cast out in every place. Be silent!’4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,    and bring to ruin the poor of the land,5 saying, ‘When will the new moon be over    so that we may sell grain;and the sabbath,    so that we may offer wheat for sale?We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,    and practise deceit with false balances,6 buying the poor for silver    and the needy for a pair of sandals,    and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’


The Daily Service singers, directed by Andrew Earis with organist John Hosking lead us now in a setting of Psalm 10 by the contemporary hymn writer Timothy Dudley Smith.


ALEX: Jesus was following in the prophetic tradition of Amos when he boldly denounced the hypocrisy and corruption among the religious leaders of his day, and affirmed God’s burning commitment to the oppressed and to justice, as here, in Luke’s gospel, chapter 18 and verse 2 to 8.
CLIP 3:  Reading: Luke 18:2-8In: He said, ‘In a certain city …Out: will he find faith on earth?’Dur:
CLIP 3: READER 2 (Greg): Luke 18:2-82 He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”’ 6 And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
ALEX:Our next hymn speaks of God as the ultimate judge. It’s also a plea for justice and righteousness to rule on earth: Judge Eternal, throned in splendour.CHOIR/ORGAN/ALL: HYMN: Judge Eternal, throned in splendor (Rhuddlan)

ALEX:The business of the House of Commons on the 15th May 1821 included a petition of Elizabeth Gaunt, one of the spectators at Peterloo. She asserted that the meeting was peaceful and orderly until the sudden and unprovoked arrival of the cavalry, who recklessly charged in amongst the crowd, slashing indiscriminately at them with their sabres. Mrs Gaunt quickly retreated to the safety of a hackney coach, but was dragged out by Special Constables who beat her violently, after which she was trampled by the cavalry. Covered in blood, she was taken away, put in solitary confinement and charged with High Treason, then 12 days later released without charge and without apology. The petition describes the way in which she suffered while she was in custody:CLIP 4:  DROP IN 2 (Scarlett): Elizabeth Gaunt PetitionIn: From the ill treatment which she…Out: upon our national character.Dur:CLIP 4: DROP IN 2 (Scarlett): Elizabeth Gaunt PetitionFrom the ill treatment which she had received her health was suffering very severely, in consequence of which she requested medical aid, which request was refused, although she was at the time in a state of pregnancy, which subsequently terminated in miscarriage, nor was her request acceded to till the Clergyman of the prison interceded in her behalf, and on the last day of her imprisonment, a medical gentleman was sent to her; her husband had twice sent down his family surgeon to wait upon her, but he was refused admittance; that notwithstanding she was suffering so severely from ill health. She therefore humbly prays, that the House would be pleased to institute such an inquiry into the proceedings which took place on the afore-mentioned occasion as shall bring to justice the perpetrators of an outrage at which humanity recoils with horror, and which is a foul stain upon our national character.

CHOIR: ANTHEM: Give me justice (MacMillan)

SERMON (PART 1): + DAVIDThe Old Testament prophet Amos has a swift and chilling answer to those in power who believe God will be satisfied with them as long as they carry out the appointed sacrifices and rituals, and that their acts of piety matter more to him than the injustices they commit against the poor. They are as rotten as a basket of overripe fruit. Nor is he alone; he is echoing the words from today’s Psalm that those who persecute the poor face condemnation whilst the orphan and the oppressed will see justice.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, Britain’s social, economic and political order would have fitted Amos’s analogy of fruit going rotten very well. Systems that may have functioned adequately for an earlier, largely agricultural, peasant economy, were ill suited to the growing industrial towns and cities. And yet those who held the reins of authority, in state and in the Established Church, felt no pressing need for change. Indeed, many feared that were change to come, it would be of the sort witnessed in France only a generation earlier, threatening not only their livelihoods and institutions but their very lives. The mere fact of sixty thousand people gathering in central Manchester to hear a compelling and passionate speaker for reform would be seen as both provocation and threat.
It is not surprising that two of the most ardently conservative magistrates in Manchester that morning, were clergymen. Nor that, in defence of the status quo, both were also running networks of spies. Jesus’s story of a judge so corrupt that he neither feared God’s vengeance for his misdeeds, nor had any respect for those who cried out to him to hear their plight, was an apt description of the justice system of early nineteenth century England when it came to attending to the voices of the urban poor. It would take much persistence from many equivalents to the parable’s poor widow to change this deliberate deafness. And yet Manchester had such.
With the Church of England either resistant or, at best, desperately slow to react to the changes in society, the energy, passion and capacity needed to fashion ministries that met the needs of growing towns, lay more with the Methodists and other non-conformist gatherings. The Free Church Sunday Schools were teaching both children and adults to read and write. So equipped, they were able to access the words of justice contained in their bibles for themselves, as well as to follow the speeches of reforming politicians. Their hymns and songs, many of them sung by the marchers heading into Manchester that morning, sustained a sense of common effort and unity far more inspiring than anything in the provision of the parish church.
There is much in Peterloo that calls for repentance and lament. Religious and secular structures reacted to changes around them with self-protection. The voices of the poor were deliberately silenced. Fear and threat became the overarching motivators for responding to legitimate requests and demands. The mechanisms of justice were perverted to preserve the interests of the powerful. Would that these phenomena were specific to the early nineteenth century! But they endure, equally embedded in the political and social problems of our own age, from Brexit, to safeguarding, to our Climate Emergency. They are why churches are forever called to be places of reflection and repentance; communities where we look assiduously for the signs that self-interest has taken precedence over love of neighbour. And whilst Christians are properly invited not simply to follow the fashion of the age, rarely if ever would an appropriate counter cultural stance be one that sides with the powerful and privileged, and against the marginalised and excluded.

CHOIR: ANTHEM: There is a balm in Gilead (Spiritual arr. Dawson)

SERMON (PART 2): + DAVIDAugust 16th 1819 could have sparked bloody revolution, but it didn’t. Britain’s institutions were not torn down by the mob. Belated it may have been, but in Manchester and beyond, the ability to form structures and organisations, which the newer churches and chapels had shown, led to the creation of entities that embodied that same communality and mutuality which the protestors of Peterloo had possessed. New societies and dining clubs brought together those concerned with the health, education and wellbeing of the urban workers and their families. Trades Unions grew up to represent labourers’ interests to both employers and government. Co-operative movements were launched; women’s suffrage promoted. Reform Acts brought the parliamentary representation sought for, though voting rights remained restricted for decades to come. New parish churches were built in the growing towns and suburbs. In them, and in their schools, some of the best practices of the non-conformists were purloined and promoted. Before long Manchester became its own diocese. 
The Manchester I grew up in, and to which I returned as bishop in 2013, retains a rich mix of organisations existing not in separation and parallel but in proximity and relationship. Core cultural standards, such as working together for the good of the whole, remain. Manchester’s institutions cover and cross a far wider diversity of ethnic origin, religious difference and sexuality than our ancestors would have recognised. When tested, as most recently in the aftermath of the terror attack of 2017, they have remained firm.
When I was first ordained deacon, someone bought me a poster bearing, below a cartoon of a fractious meeting, the message, “God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee”. It kept me smiling through many a squabbling church council. But it presents a seductive oversimplification. God may not have sent us a committee, but his son Jesus embedded his work within a small community of women and men. He sent them out not singly but in pairs, inviting us, who follow in our own generation, to further his work. For his sake, we work in close harmony with other individuals in our various corporate entities. For his sake we constantly strive to bridge the gaps between our different institutions, applying the wealth of our networks of personal relationships and trust.
Christians, making their full contribution to the institutions that grew up in nineteenth century Manchester, played a key role in there being no second Peterloo. Christians, both working within existing bodies, and forming new ones to meet emerging gaps, can play an equally vital role today. With us lies the responsibility for enabling present day Britain to face its challenges not as causes for division but as spurs to a better unity.
CHOIR: ANTHEM: Let justice roll like a mighty stream (Hogan)
ALEX:‘Let Justice roll like a mighty stream’. 
Let us pray:
PRAYER 1:Heavenly Father, as we reflect on the events of 200 years ago, we recognize that we share our humanity with both oppressed and oppressor. We confess that yes, we have a propensity to misuse power over others; we confess that at times we lack the willingness to hear what we don’t want to hear. Grant that we would have your heart that cares for every human being, that burns against injustice and repression, that sides with the oppressed and the downtrodden, and enable us to be instruments of justice and reconciliation in our homes and in our workplaces, in our city and our nation.
CHOIR: The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom (Taize)
PRAYER 2:Lord, you have called us to live in peace with each other, to love you with all our soul, mind and strength, to love our neighbour as ourselves. You call those blessed who hunger and thirst for righteousness. You call us to help in healing the wounds in society and in reconciling people to you and to each other. Help each one of us to not be weary in well doing but to labour in love and not lose heart.
CHOIR: The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom (Taize)
PRAYER 3:Forgive us, Lord, when we have allowed fear to rule us and to override the considerations of others in favour of our personal preferences, when we turn a blind eye or choose to passively maintain the status quo because it is in our interests to do nothing. Give us eyes to see where change is needed and to help to bring it about.
CHOIR: The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom (Taize)
PRAYER 4:We thank you Lord for all that has happened since Peterloo to improve society – for proper democratic representation, for advocacy groups which enable people’s voices to be heard, for an outlook that has increasingly embraced understanding, tolerance and progress, working together for the common good. May we in our generation do all within our power to pursue peace and find favour with you, Lord, and with our fellow citizens.
CHOIR: The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom (Taize)

ALEX:God of justice, forgive us the injustices and the sins of the past, and grant that we might be a city of justice, where no-one oppresses another; a city of plenty, where poverty ceases and prosperity is shared; a city in community, committed to service of the common good above personal gain; a city of peace, where order is based on mutual respect, not on force. We ask in the name of your son Jesus Christ.ALL: Amen.

ALEX:As we bring before God the sick and the suffering in body mind or spirit, the lonely, bereaved or oppressed, we pray together in the words Jesus taught us:
ALL:Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.Amen.

ALEX: So as we conclude our service, what is our response to what we have heard? Will we allow God to search our hearts and see what is within us that might need to be rooted out? Will we have ears to listen to his call, the call to fight on behalf of the oppressed and the needy, to be a voice for those who have no voice, to refuse to turn a blind eye to injustice and strive for what is fair and right? Our final hymn is one response: Here I am, Lord.  
CHOIR/ORGAN/ALL: HYMN: Here I am, Lord (Here I am, Lord)

BLESSING: +DAVIDGod give you grace to stand firm in the face of evil,To resist the siren voices of self interest,To protest the powers that pursue their own preservationAnd to build a future where all may flourish.And the blessing of God Almighty,The Father, the SonAnd the Holy Spirit,Be among you and remain with you always. ALL: Amen.
ORGAN: VOLUNTARY:  Fugue (Samuel Wesley)


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