Wednesday, 18 April 2018

This was an after dinner speech that I gave to the Guildford Cathedral bellringers in January 2017

Summonsed by bells: an appreciation of bell, bell ringing and bell ringers

First, on behalf of the Cathedral Chapter may I thank you all for your ringing at the cathedral this past year, and for all the ways you help the cathedral make its mark in, and connect with, the local community, and beyond.

May I thank you personally too for your kind invitation to join you for this splendid dinner.

I want to make a few remarks reflecting on being ‘summonsed by bells’ to borrow John Betjeman’s evocative phrase.

Bells have been in the news since your last annual dinner. As ringers around the country know, the bells of York Minster have been silenced. The reasons for this go beyond the practice of ringing bells, but the story caught the popular imagination and reminded us of something of the significance of bells.

As the Canon charged with the Cathedral’s relationship with our own band of ringers I am acutely aware of that significance. Ironically perhaps, I was asked by the Dean to take on this role the day before the York story broke: would it be a poisoned chalice for me? Thankfully not! We enjoy good, fruitful and, I trust, mutually beneficial relationships, for which the cathedral is deeply grateful.

Change ringing, the pattern of ringing bells in sequences, is quintessentially English: nowhere else in the world is there that tradition.

That said, I also love something of the chaotic bells of the continent. A single insistent bell ringing all the way through, and then the frenzy builds up as all the bells join in one by one, dying down to the single, patient bell.

Change ringing, which I love too, is widely acknowledged to be a feature of both the English landscape and cityscape (think Oranges and Lemons).

To my regret my last parish only had one bell. The local lore had it that the bells were melted down by Cromwell to make cannon balls to besiege the local big house. As always the truth is rather less glamorous. The bells were sold to a neighbouring church in the late nineteenth century because of a weak tower.

Astonishingly there are those who object to the sound of bells.

Tales abound of new residents moving in next to medieval churches and finding to their horror that the custom of centuries endures, and the bells sound, and are loud.

Periodically a story hits the press, such as the irate neighbour who took an axe to a medieval church door in a vain attempt to silence the bells.

From time to time the Cathedral also gets intemperate emails from my flock, students at the University of Surrey, complaining about being woken early by bells; well, early for them perhaps.

Aside from the politics of the issue what caught media attention was that in York the bells would be silent for important times such as Christmas and ringing in the New Year. The first verse of Tennyson’s In Memoriam captures this:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

The final verse articulates the wider point that I want to make, that bells convey something more than just a nice sound wash over a nostalgic English scene.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

We ring bells on all sorts of occasions: to celebrate coronations, royal births and jubilees; to mark anniversaries and celebrations like weddings; to announce the beginning and end wars; we half muffle the bells to remember the dead. Above all bells call us to worship.

Buts bells are not just significant in England.

When the church bells in Bartella, Iraq started ringing again after two years of silence it was hugely significant. The bells were silenced by ISIL during their occupation of the town. The bells mark a presence, the presence of a community that seeks to witness both to its own presence and to its proclamation of something beyond itself.

Above all this is why I value bells. Bells have a deep seated place in Christian worship and society. After all, like people they are dedicated for use through ceremony akin to baptism. They are sacramental.

As the people of Bartella know they are not just a jolly sound that emanates from churches that like that sort of thing, as part of the heritage industry. Rather, they are alive, and calling people to prayer, alerting them to danger and rejoicing.

And those who ring them have a special place in the churches life usually hidden and unseen but saying to our society and congregations, ‘the church is here, visible and audible; come and see’.

Thank you for all you do in that missionary proclamation. And happy ringing for this coming year.

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