Sermon for the Bellringers’ Annual Service at St Mary’s and St Nicholas’, Leatherhead, on 20th January 2018

Numbers 10:1-10; Psalm 98

When I was getting my briefing from you, Ann, about what your band is used to and what you would consider to be worthy worship for our Lord in your annual service, I learned that sometimes your service comes at the same time as the anniversary of the death on 30th January 1649 of King Charles I, celebrated by the Church of England as King and Martyr, when an ancient bequest pays for a sermon in this church. Indeed there is a fine example of a King Charles sermon by Dr John Swanson from four years ago, on the Church website.

But I’m not going to preach about King Charles. It’s not yet the right time. Although – in passing, I did just reflect that, in the context of the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, it might give us a different angle on our bell-ringing if we thought about the fact that the civil war, which broke out during – and ended – King Charles’ reign, was caused to a great extent by the conflict between rather fundamentalist Reformers, the Puritans, and the Church of England, which we describe as ‘Catholic and Reformed’. It is an early example of Boris Johnson’s cake theory – you know, ‘You can have your cake and eat it’ – in the context of the Reformation and Henry VIII. Henry would have said he was a good Catholic, but with a little local difficulty with the Pope. Catholic and Reformed.

The people he was up against, the Puritans, were not keen on music, or on bells in churches. During Henry VIII’s reign, his having it both ways included, as part of his ‘reformed’ side, the destruction of the monasteries and, often, the removal of bells from churches. So the presence – or the restoration – of a church’s bells had a significance in the tug of war between Protestants and Catholics.

Now of course, especially now we’re in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, those controversies have thankfully long gone, both regarding whether the church is small-C ‘catholic’ or ‘reformed’, with a ‘priesthood of all believers’ rather than bishops, and as a source of controversy affecting the bells.

A more modern thing is the argument that crops up from time to time about whether the chiming of church bells is ‘noise pollution’ – enter the Noise Abatement Society, stage left. On the news this morning there was an item about complaints against St Peter’s, Sandwich, in Kent, about the noise of their bells, and a campaign, called ‘Save the Chimes’, which has been formed to keep the bells at St Peter’s ringing.

Well here, in the hinterland of the Chelsea training ground, noise pollution might be caused by a couple of Lamborghinis queueing up at Waitrose’s car park in Cobham – but not by our lovely bells, here or in any of the other churches locally. I hope so, anyway.

So I’m not going to talk about King Charles. And come to think about it, I’m going to risk being a little bit controversial, and say that I’m not going to talk much about the Bible readings we have today – or indeed about the Bible at all. The reason is, that there isn’t much in the Bible about bells and bell-ringing. There’s a mention of small bells attached to the original priest of the Temple Aaron’s robe, his ephod, in Exodus 28:33-35. The bronze cymbals used in the worship in the temple were forerunners of church bells.

But there really aren’t that many references to actual bells. There’s a sort of convention instead that we can take references about ‘trumpets’ as going for bells as well. Hence our lesson today from Numbers. The silver trumpets that the Lord commanded Moses to have made were to be used for ‘summoning the congregation, and for breaking camp.’ For an assembly, and an alarm. That pretty much sums up the function of the bells in a parish church, even today. The trumpets shall be blown – I mean, the bells shall be rung – at times of celebration, festivals and holidays. I wonder when the next special peal – or half-peal, maybe – will be rung. Perhaps at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. The instructions to Moses recorded in the Book of Numbers for trumpets still pretty much sum up the point of church bells today.

Again, I’m bumping into something I’m not really going to talk about. Not King Charles, or the Puritans, or even the Bible. But I am supposed to produce an edifying address to you: you know, to ‘edify’ you is to build you up, to build you up in faith. But if I’m not really going to get back to my Bible today, where will the teaching come from?

Martin Luther, and no doubt the Puritans ranged against poor old King Charles, did indeed rely upon ‘sola Scriptura’, which is Latin for ‘scripture, the Bible, alone’. Everything you need, in order to be saved, is in this holy Book. Well I know that if Gail Partridge were here as she usually is to take this service, rather than sailing down the Nile – I’m only jealous! – she would wax eloquent about how you often can’t take everything written in the Bible as being literally true.

Earlier this week at Morning Prayers we have been reading the story of Noah and the Flood in the Book of Genesis. It begins with telling you solemnly that Noah was six hundred years old when it happened. Really? And indeed there are a number of places in the Bible where, if you take it literally, it contradicts itself or comes up with seemingly impossible stories, such as Noah being 600 years old. How do we get around the problem? How do we know what to believe, what to rely on and trust in our lives?

The Church of England has three sources of what is called ‘authority’, how we get what we believe, how we derive it; scripture, reason and tradition. If something isn’t clear in the Bible, we are allowed to use our reason to make sense of it. Big numbers in the Bible, for instance, can perhaps be explained by the way that in the ancient world, they weren’t quite so hung up on precise numbers: so in ancient Greek the same word means both 10,000 and ‘countless’. It would be a reasoned way of explaining Noah’s alleged age. Reason tells us that ‘600’, in this context, means, ‘very old’.

But what about tradition? The word literally means ‘handing on’, handing something on to the next bod. And in the Christian context, it’s all about doing our religion, as opposed to intellectualising, theorising about it. For example, how do you think infant baptism works? How can the church say that a little baby is saved, has come to Christ, before he or she can even say, ‘Daddy’? The point is that it’s the doing of the service, the baptism service, that brings salvation. It’s called ‘Baptismal Regeneration’. The blessing of God’s grace is handed on.

It’s the ‘belong and then believe’ school of Christianity, tradition. And definitely, tradition is what you bell-ringers bring. For hundreds of years, the bells have rung out in parish churches all over the British Isles, handing on the worship: inviting the faithful people to come together and be the people of God. What a noble and worthy thing for you to do. Thank you, and may God bless you, in this year of our Lord 2018 and for many years to come.