Kent County Association of Change Ringers
Saturday 5 October 2019
Readings: Psalm 100 & Luke 17:5-10
May I speak this afternoon in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Welcome, once again, it is a real honour and a pleasure for St Mary’s to host you here today. As you know St Mary’s has an excellent band of ringers, including some brilliant youngsters who have made great progress in their ringing careers already, and I treasure and value the connections not only between this church and our own ringers but between the wider church and the wider community of ringers, many of whom are represented here today. You are welcome!
I should probably confess that I had a short and undistinguished career as a ringer.
Before I was ordained I spent a number of years as a server and one of my jobs was to ring the Sanctus bell during communion. Here we use a small hand-bell but there it was a proper bell with a rope and everything.
During the communion service when the bread and the wine are sanctified by the priest the sanctus bell is rung three times at the moment of consecration.
Now, I probably don’t need to tell you, but making a bell at the end of a rope make three distinct rings, but no more and no fewer, is harder than it first appears. When I was standing behind my pillar, holding onto that rope and waiting for the priest to say: “Do this in remembrance of me” I would be saying my own distinct prayer that this time I would get three clear rings and not manage to go onto my own quarter peal.
After a while, and some practice, my prayers were answered.
But those three rings were important. It wasn’t done for my edification or enjoyment or even for that of the congregation inside the church. The whole point of the sanctus bell was to send a message to the wider world that something holy was taking place inside the church.
We may picture farm workers out in the fields who had to work on the Sabbath during the harvest hearing a distant bell and crossing themselves. In the real world, in the 21st century, that bell may only be another piece of background noise but, nonetheless, it is an important piece of background noise. It is a herald, a signal, a messenger, an angel that somewhere something holy is happening, that there is more to life than the everyday hustle and bustle. Perhaps a bold claim for a simple bell, but it is a claim of faith, and I shall come back to that in a moment.
When I was ordained my family and I moved to Woodchurch, near Tenterden. If any of you are familiar with either that church, or the pub opposite, you will know that it has 6 bells and a band of enthusiastic ringers.
As an eager curate I decided that I would like to learn to ring and so commenced a year of evenings in the tower of All Saints.
I note from your own website that there are two distinct stages to learning how to ring. There is learning how to control the bell and then there is learning how to ring with others.
The first bit, for me, went reasonably well. I had some experience of ringing a bell, and had a sense of balance with the bells – I can’t regale you with stories of being pulled up into the ceiling or anything like that.
But then came the second part of learning which, to my absolute horror, suddenly involved lots of numbers and keeping count in my head. I see from your website that change ringing is often attractive to mathematicians. I had to re-sit my maths O level.
Let’s just say that it became increasingly clear that I was never going to be a great change ringer and that I was never going to make a career out of being a soloist.
But my brief experience does give me both insight into and admiration for what you do.
And what do you do? Well, I mentioned a few moments ago about the sanctus bell acting as a messenger to the world of what is taking place in church and, of course, that is also true of the bells in the tower.
Ringing on a Sunday morning is not just a hobby for the mathematically minded, and something which can be completely divorced from the world of faith. When the bells ring out on a Sunday morning they are both calling the faithful to prayer but they are also reminding the wider world that, despite all rumours to the contrary, that the church is alive, that it is in the midst of their community and that something important is about to happen. To be an angel is to be a messenger of God’s kingdom and, regardless of your personal faith position, a peal of bells on a Sunday morning is like a choir of angels announcing the Kingdom of Heaven.
Similarly, the joyful bells on a wedding day tell the world that something new has been created, a newly minted married couple and even the single tolling bell for a funeral signal to the world that they should pause in their rushing to acknowledge the passing of a fellow human being.
I appreciate that these are claims of faith and I was struck by today’s reading:
“The Apostles said to Jesus, increase our faith.”
The mathematically minded may be tempted to think in binary terms, that faith is either something you have or you don’t. A switch which goes between full on faith and full on atheism, with no room for anything in between.
Yet here we have the apostles, those people chosen by Jesus to learn from him and to take his message out into the world, who are asking him to increase their faith.
Faith is not binary, but it is a spectrum or, perhaps more appropriately, it is something organic which can grow and change shape and bear fruit over time. And Jesus himself says that faith can be as tiny as a mustard seed and yet accomplish great things.
And Jesus also goes onto make the rather counter-cultural point that when we do what we are called to do that we should not do so in the hope or expectation of thanks. I saw a meme on Facebook the other day which said something like: If you get angry when you are not thanked for something then consider your motives for doing it.
Jesus suggests that we should be a bit more humble that that and play our part in the Kingdom of God not for thanks and plaudits, but as servants doing our duty. Not an easy or a popular message in today’s world, but perhaps a reminder that each of us is only a part of something much greater and that we don’t do what we do for our glory but for the glory of the one who calls us. Bell ringing in a cold tower or getting up at 6.30 on a dark Sunday morning to serve in church can feel like thankless tasks, but we don’t do it for thanks, but to play our part and fulfil our callings.
Having said that, and without wishing to contradict Jesus, you do have my thanks for doing what you do. Bells are an important part not only of the sound landscape of this country but of reminding the world that the church is here and is open. And I pray, like the apostles, that Jesus can increase our faith and plant within each of us just that mustard seed to believe that when those bells are tolled each of you is acting as an angel, announcing the kingdom of heaven wherever he has planted you.