The Blessing of the Bells
Preacher: The Dean
‘High up in the steeple of an old church, far above the light and murmur of the town and far below the flying clouds that shadow it, is the wild and dreary place at night: and high up in the steeple of an old church, dwelt the Chimes I tell of.’
Charles Dickens was describing some church bells at the beginning of his Christmas story ‘The Chimes’ published back in 1844. A few years later, in January 1869, he wrote an account of joining the ringers of St Saviour’s in Southwark, in the Borough where he’d lived for a time as a child, for one of their practice nights.
As he came into this church the organist was trying to practice and I suppose was a bit grumpy as a noisy band of ringers, with their celebrity guest, made their way up the spiral staircase which is set in the pillar behind this pulpit and around the gallery, chatting as they went, until finally they got into the ringing chamber.
Against all modern Health and Safety rules Dickens was taken to see the bells themselves and he records how the Conductor led him amongst the bells busy ‘with his lantern, tightening a rope here, looking after a wheel there, sublimely indifferent to the clanging monster, [the tenor] so close to him’. After the practice they come down the stairs and, as he tells us, with
‘a good deal of dust and damp on our coats from the walls of the staircase, we find the organist still at work (we wonder how he likes the bells ringing overhead while he is practising), and …. emerge into the churchyard. Thence, pursued by a triumphant burst of sound from the organ as if the organist were glad to get rid of us, we troop off to the meeting place of the Society at the King’s Head.’
My friends, little has changed. The vast majority of the bells in the Cathedral today are the ones that Dickens saw and heard being rung, the Organists still practise but I don’t think that the ringers now go to the King’s Head – though they’ll no doubt correct me on that point if I’m wrong!
King Solomon stands in the wonderful Temple in Jerusalem and raises his hands in prayer ‘Hear the plea of your servant … hear in heaven your dwelling place.’ He was leading the people in the dedication of this house of God that he’d built and there he calls on God.
Since the bells were removed in July and taken off to Taylor’s Foundry in Loughborough, some for a brush up, two to be recast, all to be made fit for purpose for the next hundred years we’ve been voiceless. Yes, the organist has still played, the choir has still sung, the Bible has been read and we’ve occupied this pulpit but as far as out there’s concerned, beyond these ancient walls, we’ve been silent, voiceless. The clock hasn’t chimed to mark the passing of the hours, the bells haven’t rung to let people know that we’re about to worship.
And for so many generations the bells from this tower have rung out across this part of London, competing with the many towers and steeples across the river. We launched this project that reaches its climax today less than two years ago when, in 2015, we celebrated the anniversary of the marriage of King James I of Scots to Joan Beaufort in the Priory Church on 12 February 1424. The original mediaeval bells were augmented for that occasion and became the first ring of eight anywhere in the country at that time. Over the years the bells were replaced, the major work being done in the eighteenth century and the ring was increased to twelve bells and the great oak frame adapted to accommodate them.
Two of the bells were not quite right – the tenor too large for its place in the frame and so making the ring difficult and the seventh needing remedial work. It’s these that have been recast and will be baptised in a few minutes time.
One of the original bells in this tower, before the royal wedding, was called Nicholas and a bell of that name will again ring in the tower as the new 7th is given that name in memory of my renowned predecessor as Dean, Colin Slee. His voice rang through the church and we know that this bell will be a fitting tribute to that powerful and much missed voice.
The great tenor is to be named Andrew, not I hasten to add, after me, but after the apostle and the patron of Scotland. But as we heard in the Second Lesson there’s a reason more important than that.
Andrew is celebrated as the great missioner, he brought his brother to Jesus. The bells are missionary, bell ringing is a missionary act. The sound they make brings people to church and consequently to Jesus, that’s their primary purpose and so it’s exactly right that the greatest bell is given this missionary name.
I was talking to the artist, Angela Wright, as she was decorating the bells with the amazing river of wool that we see in the nave, the river on which the bells appear to float. She told me that it was the bells that first brought her into the Cathedral. She was working on an installation in the Borough Market and heard the bells ringing and was drawn by them. Out of that has grown the wonderful relationship with her that’s enabled her to create faith-enhancing installations in this Cathedral over the last few years.
After this service the bells will be raised into the tower, to the places where they’ll hang from the historic frame and once more they’ll ring, raise the voice of the church to heaven, call the churched and the unchurched into this place, bring us all to Jesus. This cathedral will be given back its ancient voice and will take its place once more in the soundscape of this city.
At the same time we’re reminded that the bells are only bells and that the voice of the church, the battering of the doors of heaven with prayer, the missionary call that brings our brother, our sister to Jesus, the sound of joy, the call of warning, the sombre call of lamentation, that is for the church, for us. We must never be silent, never be silenced, the voice is that of the church, the bells amplify and echo it and each of us, thrilled by their sound, must speak up for justice, mercy and peace, for inclusion and welcome and everything that this Cathedral stands for and has stood for for generations.
Thank you, each of you, for giving us your support so that this work could be done. Thank you to the major donors who so quickly assured us that the project would go ahead. Thank you to Taylors for these bells. Thank you to our wonderful, dedicated band of ringers. But most especially thanks be to God who has blessed us in this holy place, yesterday, today and, we pray, for ever.