The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Saturday, 26th March 2011 at 3:00 PM
The Ringing World Centenary Evensong
It’s marvellous—and I mean that literally—to see so many bell-ringers in church, staying for the service. Clergy up and down the country wish they knew how it was done. Well. Of course, it was all done by the excellent people behind The Ringing World to whom I offer on everyone’s behalf congratulations on the centenary and thanks for the contribution they make to sustaining and encouraging the wonderful precious craft of change-ringing.
Fans of change-ringing as you know are not only to be found in the English-speaking world. I was at the Abbey of Montecassino earlier this week, half-way between Rome and Naples, where I was participating in the celebrations of the feast of the Passing of St Benedict. There an Italian monk, Don Francesco, told me that he was a fan of change-ringing and an avid reader of The Ringing World.
‘Ring out, wild bells’, said Alfred, Lord Tennyson. ‘No’, I want to say to Tennyson. He is buried in the Abbey, in Poets’ Corner, so I think I can speak to him in that familiar way. ‘No, Tennyson,’ I should say. ‘Not “Ring out, wild bells”. We do not want to hear the clang and clash of continental bells. What we want is modulated, civilised, precise, and glorious English church bells, change ringing, whose beautiful tones sound around English villages, towns, and cities and those places overseas that love the feel of England.’ He would perhaps say I mistook the metaphor: the wild bells were those of the old year; the happy bells those of the new. And I would rest my case.
English church bells. Bells for New Year; bells for Christmas. I can’t resist John Betjeman. You know the poem:
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
Not all bells are wild or glad. In The Shropshire Lad, A E Housman recalls a funeral at Bredon Hill
But when the snows at Christmas
On Bredon top were strewn,
My love rose up so early
And stole out unbeknown
And went to church alone.
They tolled the one bell only,
Groom there was none to see,
The mourners followed after,
And so to church went she,
And would not wait for me.
John Donne listened frequently to the tolling bell for a funeral, the experience leading to his famous reflection that, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ I might add that amongst the many admirable aspects of the life of bell-ringers is the spirit of camaraderie. Certainly no bell-ringer is an island.
The pealing bells, the tolling bell all have one message. Housman puts it this way:
The bells they sound on Bredon,
And still the steeples hum.
‘Come all to church, good people,’—
Oh, noisy bells, be dumb;
I hear you, I will come.
The bells bring people to the worship of almighty God. Perhaps the nostalgia often evoked in people when they hear the ringing of church bells reflects the yearning that is in us all for a strong, warm relationship with God, even if we fail to recognise it as such. Maybe even, when people object to the sound of church bells, as sometimes they do, their very anger reflects the struggle in them between their soul, their yearning for God, and their mind, with their intellectual problems about faith.
One of the psalms sung this afternoon speaks of that yearning for God which exists in each of us:
‘O God, thou art my God: early will I seek thee.
My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh also longeth after thee: in a barren and dry land where no water is.’ [Psalm 63]
How is this yearning satisfied? Some people search in a more or less half-hearted way for much of their lives, feeling gently let down by their experiences, never really achieving a sense of peaceful fulfilment or joy. Others search frenetically, looking everywhere and finding only the passing pleasure of earthly substitutes such as the pursuit of wealth or power or other addictions. Yet others make do with a vague sense of being spiritual or pursue new age fads and fashions. None of this in the end can satisfy. The great St Augustine, who lived at the end of the Roman Empire, eventually realised that his search for truth through worldly philosophies and the pursuit of pleasure was bound to fail. He came to see that he could only find peace and true happiness in God. ‘Thou hast made us O Lord for thyself and our hearts will find no rest until they rest in thee.’
There is a greater risk if we fail to find the way to worship God. We all must worship: it is hard-wired in us; if not God then something else; if not power or wealth or drugs—then ourselves. We worship ourselves. We come to think that I myself am the centre of the universe. Everything is for my satisfaction, for my pleasure. I can do what I like. All conventions are old-hat. All rules are to be broken. Life is for grabbing. If we find spirituality, or even if we find we like to go to church, we do it to perk ourselves up, to give us a lift, to make us feel better. This attitude, this worship of self, profoundly corrodes and corrupts the soul, the very core of our being. We worship God for God’s own sake—and, for our sake, that our relationship with him might be right.
So let the bells ring out. Let them call us to worship almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shows us how much he loves us by living amongst us and dying for us, a life and death costing not less than everything. Let the bells that call us to worship call those who ring them too. Let them call us, each one of us, to a life that offers worship to almighty God, to a life that puts the love of God above everything else, to a life that makes proper space for our relationship with God, proper space for prayer.
The final word is George Herbert’s.
‘Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days’-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.’
For more information about The Ringing World, please visit their website.