Balance in bell-ringing and the Christian life – Romans 12:1-11

I had the joy last weekend of leading Basingstoke District Bellringers Service, that partly came about because they were having their annual gathering at St. Mary’s Eversley, and partly because I’ve returned to bell-ringing a bit with the encouragement of the local team, having not rung more than a couple of times since I turned twenty! That story, and my reflections on it in connection with Romans 12:1-11, formed a part of my short talk at the service. I also used Malcolm Guite’s sonnet ‘New Year’s Day: Church Bells’, which many at the service hadn’t heard of. My thanks to Malcolm’s poetic skills, and hopefully he will find new bell-minded fans of his poetry!

 

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My 1970/80s Guild Certificate caused a certain amount of interest, and proved I really had rung as a kid (at All Saints Minstead, New Forest, where my parents were heavily involved in the re-hanging of the bells and extending of the peel)

Returning sporadically to bell-ringing in the few months I’ve been here in Eversley, I have been reminded of two things in particular.

Firstly, yes, bell-ringing really is like riding a bike; you never completely forget how to do it. My first evening last autumn I was astounded to discover (after a little tail and sally work) that I could still ring rounds without a minder. The second evening, towards Christmas I was back change ringing, and to my utter surprise this week, I managed Plain Hunt… the technical limit of my teenage endeavours in the New Forest, over 30 years ago!

Secondly, like riding a bike, one of the significant skills bell-ringing requires is balance. OK, so it’s not quite the same as balancing on two wheels at speed round obstacles with cars coming past, but balance none the less.

There’s the balance of the bell, read through the feel of the rope, something that’s slightly different for each bell because of its weight and the way it’s been hung.

There’s also the balance of the way you stand in relation to the fall of the rope, its position in relation to the rest of the peal, and the way you change your stance depending on whether you hunting down to the back, or up to lead at the front… or at least that’s how it felt on Wednesday!

Then there’s a sense of balance in what happens in the methods that are being rung. Every bell and its ringer has an equal part to play, moving to front and back, sharing the load of leading and following, functioning together as the body of the peal.

And there’s the balance between the activity of the mind, and the activity of the body, and the levels of concentration needed to function in both areas in response to what is required, and going on around you. There is a big commitment of mental and physical energy in ringing – it really is a full workout!

Which, is why I chose the reading from Romans for this afternoon. Hopefully you don’t think this novice is too technically in-accurate or being inappropriate with her analogies.

The Christian life is as much a full work out of body and mind as bell-ringing is. If we only help with a food bank or night shelter, visit the elderly and housebound, teach children, and do our everyday employment with our body and part of our mind, without engaging our understanding to bring that together with our understanding of God and our faith in Jesus, then we’re not being a Christian to the best of our ability.

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St. Mary’s bells feature on the kneeler used at every wedding held at St. Mary’s, Eversley, and it was also used this weekend on our church ‘stall’ at the Warbrook House Hotel Wedding Open Day!

Being a Christian should be a balanced whole life activity, just as bell-ringing is, especially for the many of you who ring in multiple towers each week. Practice is one thing, we need it to become proficient, but if we practice in isolation from ringing for services, including weddings, funerals, Remembrance and other occasions, then we’re not making that spiritual connection between ringing and what God is ministering to others through us: ministries of welcome, of joy and celebration, of mourning, of commemoration and creating history. Bells help people with all those things, ringing the story of our faith and drawing us into community with others, and mustn’t operate in isolation from the worship and mission of the church.

God wants his church to draw people into worship, to understand what it means to know Jesus, and at its best bells and bell-ringing is part of that. If we as bell-ringers are fulfilling our calling to the Christian life effectively, making it part of our spiritual act of worship, then we are enabling the whole body of the church to have more impact, and to be more visible as the body of Christ. If we have such a balanced understanding of and approach to our bell-ringing and to the rest of our lives, then both our faith and our bell-ringing will have integrity, and play their full part in the sincerity with which we love God, love our communities, and love of each other.

 

Refiners Fire – burning away the ‘slag’ (Zeph 3:14-end, Phil 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18)

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All Saints, Minstead (viewed from the south near the final resting place of Conan Doyle) – yes, there are 5 bells in that little tower!

Once upon a time I was the youngest campanologist in the county. We had three bells in All Saints Church, Minstead, but there’s not much that you can do with three – the mathematical patterns that make up a peel of bells, are a little on the short side with three. Five is a much more interesting number, and research showed that we could fit five in the bell frame without the tower itself being shaken to pieces. So two new bells were commissioned, the old ones removed to be retuned, then all five re-hung – all done with one expert and parish people power, including a nine year old ‘doing as she was told, and staying out the way for the dangerous bits’!

As part of all this activity I had the opportunity to watch bells being cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. It was a hot summer’s day, but I was clothed in good 1970s tweed trousers for protection and stood in the corner of the foundry floor as the metal was heated, and the impurities scrapped off the top so that the hot copper alloy could be poured into a hand-crafted bell mould. It was amazing to watch, and a privilege to ring the precisely tuned finished articles; the bells proclaiming peace and thanksgiving in worship, a community rejoicing in fine craftsmanship and singing out a song of praise to God.

“Rejoice”, in Latin “Gaudete”, the opening word of our reading from Philippians, a connection to this week’s lightening of the Advent mood of preparation, our rose candle and our robes. “Rejoice”, in modern parlance is about a sense of joy welling up inside people, fairly private except for the smile to the face; the sort of blooming look that comes with news of a long awaited pregnancy. In St. Paul’s day, “rejoice” was a word used to describe a public celebration, exuberance tempered with the need to be gentle and gracious toward less extrovert souls – more like change ringing when the pattern of notes moves only on command, rather than with every beat of a full peal.

There is a tension here that sits well with this mid-point in our preparations to celebrate the birth of Christ, sat here as we are, surrounded by scenes of his nativity in our Crib Festival. At the time of John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry that we focus on through today’s Gospel, devout Jews were waiting for a “new word from God”, and eager to place their hope in the presence of a fiery young prophet going about the Galilean villages! Might he be the long awaited Messiah?

But John was only tolling a single bell, proclaiming the steady sound of justice and the need for repentance, a wake-up call for those who would go on to hear the message of his cousin Jesus, the thongs of whose sandals he felt unworthy to untie. John would have grown up with the story of his cousin’s nativity just like we have, but as perfectly-tuned to God’s message for his people as any Old Testament prophet, he was well aware that when the Messiah’s mission on earth was made fully known, it would come with the sound of the axe felling the trees that bore no fruit, burning the resulting timber as waste.

John offered on the banks of the Jordon, the baptism of repentance, God’s power like water washing people clean. Yet, here he is proclaiming the baptism of burning fire that the Messiah would bring, drawing out through the power of the Holy Spirit, the impurities hidden within people’s lives. We may struggle to understand the difference, but if we consider for a moment, we’ll recognise that there is a vast difference between wanting to change the destructive habits of our lives and, dare I say it, make sensible New Year’s resolutions, and actually being changed inside of ourselves, so that it is impossible to return to old habits. It is a painful process.

The image of the bell foundry can help us understand what God wants to do here. As the copper and tin is melted in the furnace to temperatures resembling that to be found in a volcano, the impurities known as ‘slag’ rise to the surface – blackened waste material that is scrapped away, the last remnants of which are held back as the bell is cast. Here is a picture of the process of fire and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives that should be as much a part of the work of Christ in our lives as is the baby in the manger. If we are to ring true to his Gospel in our own lives, there will be ‘slag’ in each of us that needs burning to the surface and scraping away. Our hope of a Saviour for the world must come with the realistic expectation that we ourselves may need to be radically changed into what God wants us to be.

Zephaniah’s prophetic psalm of salvation that is this morning’s Old Testament reading [and I do encourage you to read it], is summoning God’s people to sing, shout and joyfully exult because of God’s presence in the midst of them, rejoicing like the clarion call of bells. It was the sort of prophesy that led to the expectation of a heroic Saviour from oppression and suffering. Yet its’ fulfilment came as the baby we now place in our crib scenes, the saving power of whom would be the refiners fire of judgement and justice, drawing us into a greater awareness of his presence, a sense of the calling to what we call holiness.

Church bells gather God’s people into the holiness of our worship of him, whether that is in the form of a peal of bells, the tempered rejoicing of a slowly changing pattern of life, or a single tolled clarion call to hasten into our place before him. They only do so after the refining process of the furnace has removed the impurities so that their call can be clear and true to the tuned pitch required by the master craftsman. God is our master craftsman. If we are to ring out a tuneful call for others to share in our rejoicing this Christmas and on into the future, we must first come into his presence in humility, seeking to understand what it is in our lives that needs to be burnt away.

Minstead Past and Present – New Exhibition 13th-14th April 2013

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The ancient Yew that stands inside the gate of Minstead Church (Photo courtesy Michael Clarke)

Minstead’s Local History Group are making their fascinating exhibitions a bi-annual event and the next one is at the end of the Easter holiday period at Minstead Village Hall.

For me, it’s about a place, and people, I’ve known all my life, but most particularly about learning new things about a place I love, new connections with past history – national history and local history.

This years exhibition features displays about

  • The Military in Minstead;
  • Gypsies;
  • Furzey Gardens – this great little garden with thatched buildings dating back to at least the 16th Century, last year won a Gold Medal at RHS Chelsea Flower Show for their garden built by young adults of the Minstead Training Project with the help of Chris Beardshaw;
  • Minstead School and Newtown (a particular area of the village);
  • Minstead Poor House;
  • The story of ‘The Hut’, now known as Minstead Village Hall;
  • The ‘big houses’ of the village;

    Ancient Tree Graffiti - what is this mark, and why was it put there? (Photo courtesy Michael Clarke)
    Ancient Tree Graffiti – what is this mark, and why was it put there? (Photo courtesy Michael Clarke)
  • Various records regarding gravestones, particular families and the local tythe map;
  • Ancient trees and charcoal burners of the village and New Forest – including some research by my father on the historic graffiti to be found on the ancient oak and beech of the New Forest;
  • A display of ancient tools, and another entitled ‘Golden Letters’.
  • Other history groups represented will include those from Emery Down, Copythorne and Fordingbridge.

Whether you know Minstead, love the New Forest, are a history fan or just want a nice afternoon out in a friendly community, you will enjoy this fascinating exhibition, and knowing the local baking fraternity the cakes will be fantastic! If spring has really arrived you can even make the very short journey up the hill to Furzey Gardens, or across the village to Minstead Church and make a day of it 🙂

Minstead Past and Present 
Saturday 13th April 2013 – 12noon – 5.00pm
Sunday 14th April 2013 – 10am – 4.00pm
Admission £1.00

Life and Lives Lived – a fresh expression of All Saints and Souls?

All Saints Church, Minstead, lit to welcome those celebrating ‘Life and Lives Lived’ 3rd November 2012

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of sharing in ‘A Service Celebrating Life and Lives Lived’ at All Saints, Minstead in the New Forest. The village church was filled with light and colour as people from all over the area met together at the conclusion of two community events designed to dovetail together.

Minstead Study Centre held a light of heart ‘Days of the Dead’, reflective celebration of death, dying, grief and bereavement, building on the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ celebration of dead ancestors.

All Saints Church in Minstead celebrated ‘Life and Lives Lived’ at the same time, with felt angel making, a prayer tree, time to think and talk about the Christian view of life and death over cake and tea, and a vivid illustration of how a school had engaged with patients at a local hospice to explore ideas surrounding death and dying.

The sarcophagus and display material showing the work of pupils from Pennington Junior School with the residents of Oakhaven Hospice, 2012

The service that concluded both the events was led by Revd Kate Wilson, who as well as being vicar of a neighbouring parish is part-time chaplain at Oakhaven Hospice, where, nearly 17 years ago, my mother died. Kate had worked with volunteers at the hospice, Pennington Junior School, a student at Brockenhurst College, and the residents at the hospice to create a wonderful Egyptian sarcophagus which was on display along with many photo’s of all the other activities involved in their project day. Reading and seeing the details of young children working with people who were dying to create things of beauty like Egyptian bookmarks, whilst also talking about the fears of all about the idea of dying, was actually very moving.

Cross and candles in the south window of the nave at All Saints, Minstead for the celebration of ‘Life and Lives Lived’, 3rd November 2012

The service itself was also very moving, as it drew together people of all faiths and none, with the Gospel message being drawn out through non-scriptural readings. With Revd Wilson’s permission I am outlining below roughly what material was used and the order this very informal service took; what she described as “probably what they call a ‘fresh expression’ of church.

Service for the Celebration of Pentecost

Pentecost candle and holders

On Pentecost Sunday I had the privilege of leading and preaching at the church of All Saints, Minstead (at the invitation of the incumbent Revd Dr James Bruce). This was the church in which I was baptised, confirmed and married. It is also the church that my Dad has attended for the last 60 years, and the occasion also marked his 80th birthday.

In the next post is my sermon, which built on my long association with and knowledge of the community and it’s people and in particular with Furzey Gardens which lies at the top of the village, and last week won Gold at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for their garden created by members of the Minstead Training Project for people with learning disabilities. (BBC South news coverage here.)

The liturgy for the service I adapted from that in Common Worship especially the Times and Seasons section for Pentecost, to create something that was simple but meaningful. I used the word DARE that appears repeatedly in the “commissioning” that forms the conclusion of that service as the mnemonic that I also hinged the sermon on, producing a over-arching theme that started from the light from the Pascal Candle and the Easter story, and hopefully took them into the future daring to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit. You are welcome to see, use and comment on the form the final liturgy took by downloading this: A Pentecost Celebration

Liturgical Notes:

  • I deliberately asked for the Gospel to be read immediately before the Pentecost Reading, so that the flow of the readings was chronologically correct and drawn together into the one story;
  • I created candle holders that used four of the DAREs in the closing liturgy, and a variety of flame coloured card, so that people had something symbolic to receive and take home (see photo). The master copy for the candle holder is here: CandleHoldersForPentecostDARE
  • The ‘commissioning of people of the Spirit’ at the end of the service was adapted from the original to take account of the fact that we didn’t in fact want people to go outside the church, and I no longer live in the community. They also used the liturgical and historic spaces within the church to guide where I asked local individuals to read the individual DAREs from. These could be adapted to use in any other church and community.

Footnote: I can thoroughly recommend The Trusty Servant pub in Minstead where my family continued Dad’s celebrations at lunch!

An unusual Mothers’ Union banner – All Saints Minstead

Mothers' Union banners being processed in Winchester Cathedral 2009

Mothers’ Union banners are often seen in churches around the country. The older ones tend to show lilies, and/or a representation of Mary with Jesus. The more modern one’s often reflect images of modern family life, perhaps combined with the work Mothers’ Union undertake’s overseas.

However in Minstead, the church I grew up attending (where sadly there is hasn’t been a Mothers’ Union group meeting in my lifetime), the banner is rather different. For me it is quintessentially Minstead, and certainly reflects the surrounding countryside of the New Forest, if not it’s family life – though there will be local families who were raised under the spreading arms of an oak tree!

The Mothers' Union banner that hangs in All Saints, Minstead

On more than one occasion I’ve been asked about the history of this particular Mothers’ Union banner, so for posterity, here’s what little I know:

The banner was made in the 1930’s and was designed by Mrs Horton the wife of Revd Henry Horton (who was vicar of Minstead from approximately 1933-1943). It was the gift of Sybil White in memory of her late husband Isaac who died in 1933.

Sybil was still alive when I was a child, still living alone in the cottage she’d lived in since her marriage, but actively involved in village life especially playing the piano for things like the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations when all the children in the village maypole danced on the village green. She died in 1985.

When is a phonebox not a phonebox? When it’s an information exchange!

The Information Exchange at Emery Down, New Forest

I remember student competitions to see how many people you can get in a phonebox, but this is something quite different!

Since I re-tweeted a couple of weeks ago a BBC News story about the new use that locals in Emery Down in the New Forest have found for their dis-used telephone box, I have had repeated hits searching for the “Emery Down Phonebox”.

So I thought, on a trip ‘home’ that I’d view this new phenomenon, and give it a post all of it’s own – because I think it’s a fantastic idea that other communities could copy!

The project to save, and use, a disused phone kiosk has involved the parish council (who bought it for £1 from BT) and National Park Authority. It is now stacked full of information, books to borrow and all sorts of things, and boasts it’s own website!

Alongside the tourist information maps, today we found a great selection of books to suit most tastes, some tomato chutney, duck eggs, fudge and tomato plants (swap or pay for in the honesty box), and I particularly liked the emergency box of plasters for passing walkers with blisters!

Just one suggestion for the organisers (and they’ve possibly already thought of this though I didn’t notice one), since the ‘phonebox’ is set slightly off the main route through the village, put a sign up on the junction at the top end of the lane, so people know there is information there to help them.

If you are visiting the New Forest, perhaps stuck in a traffic jam on the A35 from Christchurch to Lyndhurst, take a break, step aside, and find the phone box in Silver Street, Emery Down (on the back road to Minstead) – and praise the community spirit that made it happen, because I do!

Minstead Past and Present – this weekend!

The churchyard, All Saints' Minstead, Christmas morning 2009 - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's grave is the tall cross on the left

Over the last 12 months or so, I have been helping my father put together his part of an exhibition about the history of the village I grew up in: Minstead.

Minstead is famous for several things, including famous past residents like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and as the place in which William Rufus (King William II) was killed by an arrow. Indeed there are members of the Purkis family helping with the exhibition and of course it was a Purkis who took King William’s body to Winchester on his cart!

Well, the exhibition is this weekend, in Minstead Village Hall, running from 2-4.30pm tomorrow (Saturday 7th May) and on Sunday 8th May from 10am – 4pm. For anyone with an interest in, or connection with, Minstead, the New Forest, Commoning, the Compton family (local “Lords of the Manor”), or fans of Conan Doyle, it will be fascinating. There will be plenty of recent history as well – the May Pole Dancing and celebrations for the Queen’s Silver Wedding, the re-hanging and expansion of the church’s bell peel, Carnival attractions from years gone by, plenty more familiar faces from generations of locals (including mine!), and features about the famous Minstead Pantomimes.

The Compton Memorial window in the South Transcept of All Saints' Minstead

The exhibition is organised by Minstead’s Local History Group. My father’s particular specialisms have been to provide lots of background into parts of the history of the village church, All Saints, and he has done extensive research into the history of the Compton family, trying to outline how the history of the family in Minstead Manor has been affected by interesting marriages and connections since Medieval times.

So, if you live in Hampshire, or have a particular connection or interest in Minstead, spare a couple of hours to visit the exhibition this weekend, and I might even see you there!

A talkative angel… at Christmas

An angel in the Compton Window in the South Transept of All Saints, Minstead
An angel in the 'Compton Window' in the South Transept of Minstead Church

It’s funny how sermons can change… I barely mentioned donkey’s on Christmas morning!

And I’d been led to believe the smallish congregation wouldn’t have many kids… and of the nearly 40 people 18 were children… at least 8 of them grandchildren visiting one set of grandparents!

What I actually shared was the idea of looking in the face of God (including a brief quotation from Trevor Dennis’s “Three Faces of Jesus”… thanks to a Licensing gift) and the idea that there was lots of talking in the Luke 2:1-20 Christmas Day reading, and on a modern Christmas Day. But what are you talking about this Christmas?

It was in fact a re-hash of something I did for an assignment back last Christmas (though even then partly with Minstead in mind), but had never been used as a live sermon outside tutorial. It was a little autobiographical especially to the venue, and getting the kids to blow a post-horn was quite fun.

With Thomas-the-Tank-Engine being used to remodel pews, and a Jack Russell tied to a tombstone on a long-line but sat barking in the church porch, (as well as suffering from a cold) it was a difficult service and sermon to deliver, but it seemed to get a reasonably positive response.

If you want a read of what the notes said (which wasn’t totally how it was delivered, but hey…) please click to download: Christmas Morning 2009 – Talks

The occasion was also the first since licensing when I wore robes – I was jolly glad of them as they kept me warm! Though without them, I’d have worn more layers… I didn’t want to look too fat!

The back of Minstead Church - Christmas Morning 2009

The Christmas round of visiting parents has been a welcome break from looking at the decorating work that needs to be completed. It has been good to have family time with the folk we are closest too. Everything from walks watching Fallow Deer near Mogshade in the New Forest, to playing ‘Hare and Tortoise’ was much enjoyed. As was Uncle’s always excellent champagne. It’s a pity that the oldest is now to frail to join us, but she wasn’t left out, though I think our brief visit was tiring. Sometimes people feel they’ve just had too many Christmas’s and want to move on.

The young man of the family has delighted everyone in different ways, and been chuffed to bits with the presents he got – a very Ray Mears themed Christmas this year, and he’s already completed one lovely rough spoon in a piece of old oak he had been dreaming of working on.

Between journeys we’ve made a start and tonight completed the painting his new high ceiling bit of his room! Tomorrow we have a date with a lot of walls!!

I hope you have had something good from God to talk about this Christmas.

Sparce Christmas and no donkey

Holly in this weeks snow
Holly in the snow

One of the decisions we made early on in the building process, was that we would not have any Christmas decorations up this year – so no tree, only a few cards up (the one permanent string that hangs cards for all celebrations), and few sprigs of holly over the pictures, simply because Dad collected it with me a week ago from some pre-cut by others for some new fencing in the ‘tussocky field’.

Time and money is limited, so we’ve drastically reduced who we are sending Christmas cards to this year (Church and MU friends have had a verbal explanation) and those relatives and friends to whom we do want to send our Christmas letter, will need to be patient – it will probably arrive in the New Year!

There is a steady flow of services to plan for. This morning I led a Family Worship at 9am for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and I’ve just finished preparing for Wednesday’s 11am Morning Prayer. What I need to do now is focus on Christmas Day itself, when I hope to be leading and preaching at an All Age Christmas Morning Service in Minstead – the other end of the Diocese but where I grew up.

St. Peter’s has been decorated for the last week, partly for the several schools that use it for their Christmas nativity/concerts, and partly because last Sunday all our services had candles in them, from the 8am Communion by Candlelight in the chapel (that I led part of and preached at) through two Christingle services (at two venues) and various Advent/Carol Services at our other congregations. Though less ‘candle orientated’ today I was able to light the four candles on our Advent ‘ring’. I love the glow and smell of candle-light, even in an otherwise well lit room.

Among all this, and the snow and ice, I have been very struck about how wonderful it is to be in Church, following in these last two weeks of Advent the increasing anticipation of that Christmas birth. Having so sparce a Christmas at home, has made me look forward even more than normal to the times of worship at church, as well as allowing a little for the different stresses of decorating. And I’m hungry for the space to appreciate some new nuances to the Christmas stories even more, though I suspect that will not happen until after Christmas Day, when I’m promising myself serious time with Trevor Dennis’s ‘The Christmas Stories’  (though I might just dip into it to inspire Christmas morning).

I am thinking of focusing on what is missing from the ‘Christmas Story’ we think we know so well, when we read closely Luke 2:1-20… where, for example, is the donkey that features in so many pictures, and nativity plays? There are good reasons why Mary probably did ride on a donkey to Bethlehem (I heavily pregnant woman would be unlikely to walk the 80 mile journey from Nazareth) but what else have we added into our Christmas’s? The cards, the tree, the flashing lights … should they be part of the story too?

The cards and ‘circular letter’ – are they a chore, or a way of staying connected and in community with people we know and love, and wish to remember even if we’ve not seen them in… too long! The God of love that came at Christmas, came for all people, surely then he would want us to remember all people as we celebrate his coming?

The Christmas tree – probably more common now than a nativity set, is a living thing (at least until we cut it down) that comes into our homes, as Christ came as our living Lord into the world and wants to be present in our homes.

The lights on the tree, or on the house – a personal pet hate in the latter instance, but Jesus was after all the light of the world… it’s just a pity this form causes so much light pollution! Did you know there is now a Christmas Nativity done in lights? I could almost be tempted  (but not quite) be tempted next year.

But with so much added in, that I struggle to find some Christian symbolism in, what has been crowded out?