Let the bell ring out for Christmas!

For no fee the Muppets perform in support of St Robert’s Bell Restoration Fund:

“Let the bell ring out for Christmas!” -The Church Bell Appeal
We are very fortunate here at St Robert’s to have a very beautiful church that was built by Fr Augustine Lowe OSB in 1850. Like every church it stands as a witness to the world. A church building preaches. It declares the Gospel. Built in beautiful natural materials, it stands steadfast and firm. It represents our faith, which is also beautiful, natural, firm and steadfast, indeed everlasting. The unknown architect of Glastonbury Abbey said, “I want to create a church so beautiful that it will draw even the hardest heart to prayer”. In other words, one of functions of a church is to lift the heart to God in prayer.

St Robert’s is blest with an elegant bell tower and spire. It points to heaven. Again, it speaks to us of the raising of the heart to God in prayer. The tower and spire were built to house a “six hundredweight” bell that was installed in 1856. It cost “sixty one pounds ten shillings” and was paid for by Mary Boot. Fr Lowe and Mary Boot, two great benefactors of the parish, are buried along the south wall of the church. St Robert’s bell, from it’s earliest days was described as the “sweetest bell in Morpeth”. The bell like the whole of the church building, proclaims the Gospel, reminds us about God and calls us to pray. It is very sad that this beautiful and noble witness to the faith fell into disrepair and become silent. Nobody is certain when it was last rung on a regular basis.

The use of bells in the worship of God goes back to the Old Testament and probably before that. Exodus 28:33-35 and Exodus 39:25-26 describes the vestments worn by the high priest Aaron as he approached the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. We are told that there were bells around the skirts of his robe. There were “very many golden bells round about, to send forth a sound as he walked, to make their ringing heard in the temple as a reminder to the sons of his people.” Further, in Psalm 150:5, we are called to “Praise Him with sounding cymbals, Praise Him with clanging cymbals!” The Latin word “cymbala” comes from the Greek “kumbalon”, meaning cup. Ancient cymbals were shaped in the form of large water pitchers with open mouths. They were basically bells! Thus, bells were used in the Old Testament worship to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalm 98:4) and to serve as a reminder of God’s presence.

In the book Sanctus Bells (by Matthew Herrera) we read that “the use of bells in the Church dates back to the fifth century, when Saint Paulinus, the Bishop of Nola, introduced them as a means to summon monks to worship. In the seventh century Pope Sabinianus approved the use of bells to call the faithful to the Mass. The Venerable Bede, an English saint of the eighth century, is credited with the introduction of bell ringing at Requiem Masses. By the ninth century the use of bells had spread to even the small parish churches of the Western Roman Empire.” So, church bells were ringing here in the North East of England from the time of St Bede who died in 735AD. When did a church bell first resound along this part of the Wansbeck valley calling the faithful to prayer? There is the very real possibility that there was an ancient Anglo-Saxon church on the present site of St Mary’s on Kirkhill. Perhaps, they used a simple bell to call people to Mass! I would imagine that the later Norman church used a bell, especially by the time of Ranulph de Merlay who introduced the Cistercian monks to this valley in 1137.

Undoubtedly, Newminster Abbey used a bell to summon the monks to prayer. For four hundred years the bells of the Abbey resounded along this beautiful valley calling the monks to prayer as well as summoning all who heard it to raise their hearts to God. I wonder when the Angelus bell first resounded along the valley? The Angelus originated with the 11th century monastic custom of reciting three Hail Marys during the evening bell. The Franciscan friars were the first to adopt the practice but I have no idea when the Cistercians began to do the same. Gradually, it developed into a prayer that was said three times a day, 6.00am, 12 noon and 6.00pm. Three Hail Mary’s with verses of scripture between each one, “the angel of the Lord declared unto Mary…”, a beautiful devotion that calls us to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation, “that God so loved the world he gave his only Son” (John 3:16) Sadly, the bells of Newminster Abbey were silenced on 19th August 1537. The next time the Angelus bell would have been heard in this valley would have been from our own church bell in 1856.

Let’s not forget that we have here in Morpeth “the oldest original civic peal of bells in England”. The clock tower we see today was constructed between 1604 and 1634. The bells are rung every Wednesday evening and on special occasions. Every evening at 8.00pm the curfew bell is rung. It is interesting to note that the curfew bell is linked in some places with the Angelus bell.

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth, break forth into joyful song and sing praises” (Psalm 98:4). The church bell is indeed an invitation to rejoice and praise God. The sound of church bells can send a thrill of emotion through the most hardened heart. It’s no wonder then, that church bells are often named after angels, because they announce the joyful news of salvation in Christ. Like St Gabriel, the archangel, the bell sings out, “Rejoice…the Lord is with you”(Luke 1:28). This is particularly true of the “Angelus” bell and prayer. Three times a day we are called to rejoice in the fact that God has become man for our salvation. How wonderful it would be to restore this prayerful custom of our Catholic heritage by having the Angelus bell resound once more along this beautiful valley that has already been hallowed by the prayers of St Robert and the holy monks of Newminster Abbey. Henry VIII, that “spot of blood and grease on the history of England” (Charles Dickens) may have destroyed the monasteries but he didn’t destroy the ancient faith of this land. Let the Angelus bell sound again like it did 400 years ago, let it proclaim that the “faith of our fathers is living still”.

Indeed, a church bell proclaims that the Church is alive. It proclaims the fact that Christ is risen and is present in the community that worships in this church. The bell sounds out “we are here” – God’s people, the community of believers called the Catholic Parish of St Robert of Newminster. It calls on the faithful and the not so faithful to come and worship here. The bell is an evangelist. It preaches! It is everything that the Church should be. It is a most valuable and important part of our heritage. How wonderful it would be to hear the bell ring out with joy on Sundays and the great feasts of the Church. The bell would once more ring out the joy of a wedding and any great and happy occasion that may come along.
From the 13th century the tower church bell was used to accompany the two elevations of the Eucharist during Mass. The bell calls the faithful in church to adore the Real Presence of Christ on the altar and it alerts the faithful outside to pause and contemplate the great mystery of the Eucharist. What a wonderful way to express our faith in the Real Presence of the Risen Lord in his Body and Blood. It is another ancient Catholic custom that we can easily restore here at St Robert’s.

St Bede speaks of the tolling of the death knell at Requiem Masses in the 8th century.        It really is a very ancient custom that calls the faithful to pray for the repose of the soul of the person who has died. I don’t expect any of you to come running forward for this privilege but I would like you to have this honour when the time comes.

Another function of a church bell was to alert the faithful of danger. I understand that during the Second World War the ringing of church bells was forbidden except to alert everyone if the Germans invaded. I would never have imagined that St Robert’s bell would be used as an alarm but in fact it has already served this worthwhile purpose. The criminals who broke into the sacristy at 8.00pm on Thursday 18th November picked up the remote control for the bell, pressed the button and consequently rang the church bell. They fled immediately. This preserved us from further damage. They had already broke the handle on the safe and I dread to think what may have happened if the church bell had not raised the alarm. For this reason alone it deserves to be paid for.

If I haven’t convinced you by now of the value of restoring the church bell I give up! This is my final push to raise what is still needed to pay for the restoration of the bell. The total cost is £3,800. £1,240 has definitely been raised. Many thanks for two donations this week amounting to £50. We don’t have the final figure of how much has been raised by Dickens of a Draw but I estimate that it will be about £800. So, we are still in need of about £1,800. I want to say a big thank you to everyone who has worked hard to achieve what we have so far. There is not much time now for fund raising but I hope that some of you will consider making individual or family donations to the fund. I really hope that our restored bell will be able to ring out the joy of Christmas. Please make cheques payable to “St Robert’s Church”. Every little helps.

Thank you for your support and generosity.

Fr Lawrence Jones.