Called to be bells

May 19, 2019

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Preached by the Very Reverend Catherine Ogle, Dean of Winchester, using Micah 4; 1 -4 Matthew 25: 31- end at Choral Evensong , on Sunday 19th May 2019, Easter 4.

At twi-light on the 3 August 1914, on the eve of war, Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary saw lamps on London streets being lit and he remarked, ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe.’ And as lamps dimmed, so too many church bells began to fall silent as members of bell-ringing bands left towns and villages for military service.  During the course of the war 14 Hundred ringers fell.

So it is a sign of both remembrance and hope that bells and bell-ringers have played a significant part in events to mark the hundredth anniversary of the war, its outbreak, the major war-time anniversaries and finally the armistice and the ending of War on the 11th November 1918.  It’s a great pleasure and honour this afternoon to receive this beautiful record of peals rung between 1914 and 30th November 2018 by the Winchester and Portsmouth Guild in honour of servicemen or servicewomen, ringers and non-ringers who gave their life for their country in WW1.

Bells have been part of the texture of English life across the centuries. Since the eight century, bells have hung in most churches to mark the hours of prayer, and weddings and funerals and the great transitions of life.  Bells gave regular shape the day; calling labourers to the fields with the seeding bell, the harvest bell and the gleaning bell and the oven bell told people when to come to the Manor house to bake their bread.  Bells warned of danger and of invasion.  And eventually, when the precision of change ringing was devised bells were able to make music.

And what music! Great invisible, vibrating waves of energy sent out across towns, cities, villages and country-side. This sound links heaven and earth, claims our attention, from far beyond us, bells call us to something greater than ourselves. The evocative call resonates deep within us because our hearts recognise that the call is love. God who is beyond is also with us, at the heart of our communities and lives, calling us to respond.

The prophet Micah shared his divine vision of the Lord calling all nations to him, and to his ways of justice and his paths of peace.  And the heavenly kingdom in which the Lord judges disputes so that war is no more, swords become plough shares and spears, pruning hooks.

Yet human beings make war and with devastating consequences.  The First World War as we know, affected every household in the country in some way.  And this brought about great social change.

Previous to WW1 individual commemoration of war dead was almost entirely limited to commissioned officers.  In 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was established to meet for the first time an expectation that every soldier would be commemorated, including privates.  There was a democratisation of memorial.  Those who died in France would not be repatriated and memorials would be uniform and avoid distinction of rank.  This reflected the real, lived, experience of brotherhood between ranks.  But this ‘equality of treatment and uniformity of design’ in the war graves was not without controversy.  You can read the debate in Hansard but in the end, the desire to express brotherhood and comradeship which levelled all ranks and distinction of other kinds prevailed.  Men of different ranks who had been brothers side by side in arms were lain side by side in death.

These poignant memorials reflect the teaching of Jesus of individual and shared human worth.  ‘When Lord was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ and the king will answer ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  It’s by our behaviour and attitudes towards one another that we judge ourselves.  God calls us by name, we are his and therefore of infinite worth. In the kingdom of heaven, no one is invisible, no one is passed over or ignored.  Jesus teaches us not to over-look one another.

There always were statues and memorials set up to commemorate great leaders in war.  This was the first war in which memorials were set up in every community, to name individual casualties, in towns and villages across the land.

And in every year since, we have gathered around those memorials, with the names of the dead of the first and second world wars, and we have remembered those who paid the ultimate price, made the greatest sacrifice, those who laid down their lives.

And we need to remember.  Someone has said, ‘don’t forgive and forget: instead forgive and remember’.

Some of us of course, don’t have our own memories, so we remember by offering our imaginations, listening to the voices of those who speak to us from the past, and learning from their stories, and by visiting battle sites and graveyards.

And remembering has another meaning.  Re-member, to put back something that is broken.  After war there are lives to be rebuilt; there is a peace to be built.  Relationships to be healed, trust and confidence to be regained.

Church bells remind us that we are called by God into his ways of love.  We are called to paths of peace and healing.  We are called to remember our broken Saviour and to the glorious love that sacrifices and serves others.  To dare to face the brokenness of our world, our nation, our communities, ourselves, and to build peace. We are called, in fact, to become bells so that our lives speak clearly, in harmony with others, that we chose the way of Christ, the way of love.