A Sermon from Sherborne

The faithful calling of the Lord

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist, preached at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 8 July 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


It is a fact little known to the general public, or even to most church members, that clergy and bellringers traditionally hold each other in deep mutual suspicion. To the bellringers, clergy are the pestilential nuisances who ration quarter peals, hide the tower key, come bursting into the ringing chamber ten minutes before a full peal is due to finish and ruin everything, and who make dark remarks about ringers who slope off before the service starts. Well, life is terribly unfair, and at least the ringers can enjoy a good grumble after practice in the pub. Meanwhile, the clergy return muttering to their studies and pour out their woes in their journals. Take, for example, the Reverend John Skinner, Rector of Camerton in Somerset for forty years, from 1800 to 1839. His diary, published as The Journal of a Somerset Rector, is full of complaints about the ringers. Here is just one example, from the entry dated Friday 19 July 1822.

“Returning from the glebe, Stephens, the under-gardener to Mrs Jarrett, came to me in the field facing my house saying he had a favour to ask, which was to let the ringers give a peal it being the King’s Coronation Day…. I said I was as much attached to the King as any man in the country, yet could not see how his Majesty derived any good from people leaving their work to make a noise with the bells; with respect to the ringers, they certainly did themselves much injury by frequenting the Ale Houses in the manner they had done last week, and then returning home and beating their wives to a jelly. I said, as the Parish seems so desirous of having them rung… I would not oppose it; but I recommended their not going to the Public House spending the money they had gained in folly, which might be much better spent on their families. They accordingly commenced their ringing, and I walked in the village to avoid the jingling of the Bells.”

Poor Skinner frequently imagined that he was at war with the whole world. The previous year, on 29 July, he had complained:

“Alas! My labours in the Vineyard, I feel more and more convinced are of no avail: when I look for good fruit the grapes still continue to tart, they set my teeth on edge. Truly may it be said Society is now out of joint; what with Methodists, Catholics, Colliers, Servants and Attorneys, all domestic comfort is estranged: may better prospects brighten upon me.”

They never did. One morning in October 1839, the Rector took his gun, walked into the beech wood near his home, and shot himself dead.

Well, my experience of bells and bellringers has always been much happier, and there is nothing lovelier than being in the garden on a fine Tuesday evening and hearing the bells of Sherborne Abbey ring out over the town for bell-practice. I have been very fortune in my relationships with our bellringers. It has been a profound sadness in the last few days to take the funerals of two of them: Carol Campbell-Pitt on Thursday and John Harris on Friday.

So, perhaps a little in their memory – and simply to annoy Carol, my good friend and sparring-partner – I want to tell you about one bell which at one time in my life I would gladly have silenced.

A miserable little thing it was, hanging at ground level in the cloister of my theological college at Cambridge. Its sound did not carry very far, but close-to it was deafening. And during my first year at college, when I was still a bachelor, my bedroom window was directly over that pesky bell. Every morning at 6.00 am the first bell of the day rang to ensure we were awake. At 7.25 am it demanded my attendance in a cold unheated Chapel. It did the same at noon, and at 6.35 pm every evening the same bell ordered me to prayers before dinner. At five to ten at night it called us to Compline, and then a few hours of silence until it began again: the bell which must be obeyed. That bell and I were not good friends.

Until, that is, my Greek improved, and I was able to pick out the squiggles etched onto the side of the bell. Three Greek words: pistos ho kalone. “Faithful is he who calls.” From St Paul’s first letter to the Church at Thessalonica, thought by the scholars to be his first letter to any church, the earliest he wrote. And it is a reference of course to Christ, the Christ who first called Saul (as he was then called) on that day as he was journeying to Damascus to persecute the Christian Church there. On the Damascus road Saul was halted by a great light, and the voice of Christ calling him to a new life, a life of Christian service. And in the years that followed, Paul would discover time and time again, in good times and bad, in danger, in prison, in hardship, that the One who calls is faithful.

Pistos ho kalone: “faithful is he who calls”. The words have come back to me time and time again in the course of my ministry, and they come back to me today through our two readings. St Paul reminds us that he has suffered “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ” but concludes that he is content with his lot, for when “I am weak, then I am strong.” [2 Cor. 12.10]

And then in today’s Gospel [Mark 6. 1-13] Jesus almost despairs that he can achieve so little in his home town of Nazareth. He is dismissed as “the carpenter’s son” and St Mark records him as being amazed at the unbelief of the people. And he warns his disciples about the hard road they have chosen to travel, and that often they will not be welcomed, and people will refuse to hear them.

But “faithful is he who calls”. Last Wednesday my three Team Vicars and I did our latest updated Diocesan Safeguarding training, something we have to do every three years. Inevitably the conversation at the end of the course came round to the risks of ministry: of being misunderstood, or having our reputations sabotaged, or being falsely accused. Brothers and sisters, this is not an easy time to be clergy in the Church of God, and we need your prayers, or else we shall all fall over. But “faithful is he who calls”. Not a single one of us would trade our calling for a more comfortable and more secure life. Nor must you. You too are called to follow Christ in the narrow way. You too are called to take risks for God, attempt much for God – and to expect much from God. That is as much your calling as it is mine. And – always – faithful is he who calls.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 08/07/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne