• Alaric Mark Lewis

On - yes - a bell ringing once again


Yesterday evening I went over to St George Colegate Church to ring a bell at 8:00 pm for our NHS carers. I am aware that the remit is to "clap for carers," but I figure that since I've got a Medieval church and bells at my disposal, I might as well go the extra mile. As our dedicated bell ringers can tell you, even if the church is cool, the space where the bells are rung is quite stuffy. Bellringing, then, can be a rather hot and tiring business (unless you count the automated bells the some churches have where one simply pushes a button; let me go on record saying that I do not count the automated bells that some churches have where one simply pushes a button).

Now I didn't ring all that long - nothing like our bell ringers do - but I was dressed in a cassock and I'm not exactly sylphlike, so I worked up a slight sweat. And in that moment - with the sound of that bell and the perfume of that cool church and damp wool - I was taken back more than thirty years, when the same sounds and scents caressed me in another bell tower in another church on the other side of the Atlantic. I'm sure if someone would have told the twenty-something me ringing away in that monastery church in America that someday I'd be ringing a bell in a Medieval church in Norwich where I was serving as a priest for an Anglican congregation, I'd have thought that person had got into the hooch. But here I am.

I have joked during this pandemic that my life now is not too terribly different from my monastic days: I get up ridiculously early to sing prayers, I spend a great deal of time writing, and I never get to go anywhere except to church and on walks. But, all joking aside, I do have to say that my background and experience have made this period, if not easy, then at least not as debilitating as such an isolated period could be for someone like myself who leans more towards the extrovert side of the scale and loves being around people.

I am also aware of (and, yes, embarrassed by) my privilege, being able to ride this crisis out in a beautiful home shared with someone I love, with the freedom to walk about an absolute treasure of a city, with a ministry that, though it has changed drastically, still gives me enormous satisfaction, and with the further security of that cheque arriving from the Church Commissioners each month. So it certainly is easier for me to say "I've been prepared for all of this!" than it would be for many others, not just because of particular life experiences that I've had, but also due to the fact that my privilege gives me a particular viewpoint that not all share.

However (what I like to refer to as the Big Cosmic But), just because I can perhaps see this bolstering more readily than some others does not mean that it is not given to all. God's grace is pervasive, given freely, covers the world like the sound of an eternal bell whose pealing will not be muted. If I believe this - if I esteem this idea - (and I do) then it seems to me that I need to be about the business of making sure others can hear the bell; I must be untiring in my desire to make sure that others are aware that, as dear John Donne tells us, it tolls for them.

A couple of weeks ago I had the following ritornello in a sermon: Being prepared makes all the difference. You see, it always does. God's grace has, indeed, prepared us for this time, and for every time. And I'll grant that some of this preparation can be difficult to bear, and no amount of "gold being tested in fire" talk is going to make us feel better about it. And I'll further grant that because I have fewer material worries I can at times see and believe this more easily than others.

But you know what? That doesn't change the truth that God is bolstering us, preparing us to continue walking on a path that brings us closer to him. If we believe this - if we esteem this idea - then it seems to me that all of us need to be about the business of making sure others can hear the bell.

And a beautiful thing about this is that, being the Body of Christ. We know that when we just can't do it, when our loneliness and grief and sense of loss and anxiety are just too much, and would mute that grace pealing for us, there will be others who can hear it, others who are prepared - in the midst of lives also marked by loneliness and grief and a sense of loss and anxiety - to help us to hear it.

"I've got you", the bell sings. "We've got you," it sings. We've been prepared for this. And being prepared makes all the difference. You see, it always does.

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