What Has Modernism Done to Our Belltowers?

I heard a story on BBC World on the way to work this morning that has kind of stuck in my head. Partly because it takes place in the part of England in which Lisa and I met and in the town Ben was born in. But there is more to it also.

Church bells are ringing again in St. Lawrence church in Ipswich. This is notable because they are the oldest bells in the world, dating back to the early 1500s. They were recently removed and restored though they are completely original bells, including the clappers. So as they rang out across Ipswich, they sound just as they would have 500 years ago. The bells had to be moved when they were put back. They’d been moved into part of the bell tower that was which was taller but not as sturdy. The man they interviewed said that the tower would sway when the bells were rung. Putting them back down in the portion of the tower built in the 1500s meant they were more stable.

It all sounds lovely doesn’t it? An ancient English countryside church being restored, church bells once again pealing across the city. Lovey. They even had tea and sticky buns in the church. As the interviewer said as he wrapped up the story “Tea, sticky buns and church bells. If there is anything more British I can’t think of what it is.”

Yes, sadly the story is very British. Modern England kind of British. Church bells were once used to call the people to worship. They sounded before the church service and let everyone know what was taking place. The bells weren’t supposed to be a nice aural decoration, they were part of the worship service. The church these particular bells are housed had its congregation dwindle and the building fell into disuse and then into disrepair. It is now a community centre (using the proper British spelling there) and no longer a church. The bells are a cultural artifact.

Something I found interesting and rather symbolic was that the bells had been in the part of the tower that was added in 1883 but it wasn’t sturdy enough to hold them, they had to be returned to the older portion of the bell tower in order to be safely rung again. Isn’t that something? In 1883 modernism was taking over Western culture. “Reason” was changing how people thought about the world. Darwinism was emerging on the Continent and gaining a strong foothold. In a few years the Fundamentalist/Liberal debate in America would begin splitting denominations.

It is almost as if those bells and that church represent the gospel in the West. At one time, the bells were firmly mounted in a prominent manner so that they could call people to worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Modernism weakened that call though it attempted to hold the bells up even higher. Eventually, the church that housed them lost members and became abandoned. Today the whole thing is restored not as a place of worship but as a reminder of what once was, minus the religion. Church is a community centre and the bells are a quaint reminder of a simpler time. And Jesus is nowhere in sight of any of it.

For the bells to safely be used again, they had to be returned to the original, more sound structure they once in inhabited. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a church began meeting in that “community centre” beneath those sainted bells and one day that building could once again be used for the worship of the True and Living God? Where are our bells in America? Is ours the ancient tower that can safely hold the bells so that they can ring out loudly? Are our churches turned into community centers?

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  • Yeah, funny how the true church seems to be constantly migrating into different buildings/cultures/worship styles as liberalism relentlessly pursues behind and invades and destroys what we build up. Christ’s Church is a hearty creature!

    Just read a really good murder mystery about Church bells in England, “The Nine Tailors” by Dorothy L.Sayers.

  • It seems to me that the gospel goes into a culture and gets a foot hold, the rises to prominence and then gets made “official” and begins its death slide. When the gospel is fresh, the church blossoms, when it is assumed the church weakens. But like you pointed out, in the midst of the decay is Jesus’ true Church which he will build.

    Never read any Sayers but I’ve heard great stuff about her. I should add some to my reading mix. :)

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