For Whom The Bell Tolls

1789
York Minster: not hearing the bells at all!

“No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….” 

Thus wrote mystic and poet John Donne in 1624, his Meditation 17 from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.

Much quoted and misquoted ever since, not least because Ernest Hemingway used that phrase to title his most celebrated novel, it appears at first sight to be all about our mortality, how death must come: the bell will ring for us as the grim reaper arrives.

When you read it in context it’s not about that at all, rather describing how “no man is an island”. Donne is illustrating the way in which we’re connected to all of humanity. When we hear the tocsin announcing a death, he says, it’s not for someone else with whom we have no connection: the loss to humanity affects us, too.

Two occurrences in the past week brought this famous line to mind.

First, the five-year-old who attends Celtic football matches with his dad. Invited to a birthday party which clashed with a Celtic match, and feeling so much part of the club by virtue of both his loyalty and his season ticket, he borrowed his mum’s phone and rang the club to apologise to the manager and his favourite player for the fact that he wouldn’t be there. He was afraid they’d miss him.

It wasn’t that he hated to miss the excitement of the game: he enjoyed the party. But his sense of belonging obliged him to be there. There’s a degree of loyalty in play here: though you might also point to a childish self-centredness (I don’t mean that critically) that assumes that the club must be diminished by his absence. For him, the bell tolled for everyone.

I haven’t spotted any headlines using Donne’s famous line to top an article about the furore about York Minster’s bellringers. In short, the Minster’s Dean and Chapter have sacked their 30 volunteer bellringers, but invited them to apply to join a new team to be recruited soon. In the meantime, the Minster’s mighty peal of bells has fallen silent, and will remain so past Christmas and the New Year.

There has been a major falling out between the close-knit band of volunteers and the Dean and Chapter. The Dean, Vivienne Faull, has been criticised as being managerial and dictatorial, nicknamed Vicious Viv. In return, the bellringers have been described as difficult and uncooperative. As the row has grown, the Minster’s authorities have had to make stronger and more explicit statements, culminating in the Archbishop, Dr John Sentamu, revealing that there had been a safeguarding issue, and that one volunteer had been suspended (a decision with which many volunteers disagreed vehemently).

Finally, said Dr Sentamu, “Repeated disregard of the chapter’s attempts to fully implement the Church’s national policies for Safeguarding, health and safety and security meant that decisive action was required”.

We can’t comment further, because we don’t know the facts. But we can perceive an unbridgeable gulf between both sides: the Minster and its staff are seen as highhanded, the volunteers characterised as difficult and a law unto themselves.

One might sympathise with the clergy: any of us working in schools know that, when there are Safeguarding issues, there is little latitude and a requirement both legal and moral to take action. On the other hand, in schools we also work with volunteers: much of the work the best teachers do is not in the specialist area for which they are paid, but in the wealth of extra-curricular activities voluntarily undertaken that enrich children’s lives. To seek to exert too much control on voluntary activities is to doom them. More than that, volunteers demand love and a certain amount of flattery to keep them motivated and make them feel appreciated. It’s an understandable human need.

I can’t help feeling this dispute stems from two sides adopting entrenched positions and being too stiff-necked to listen to one another or negotiate a compromise. The Minster’s bells are stilled, the silence palpable and painful: but neither side is hearing John Donne’s bell that warns them that they are all part of that one endeavour, all part of that glorious exemplar of human artistry and ingenuity, built on enormous faith, that constitutes the Minster, one of the glories of medieval Christendom.

They’re too busy, too angry to “send to know for whom the bell tolls”. So they have no idea that it tolls for them, as it does for all of us. And York is the poorer.

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