For Whom the Bell Toils: An interview with John Bell of the Iona Community
My first impression of John Bell was that of a modern-day John the Baptist. From his piercing eyes down to his sandal-clad feet, he projected the intense charisma I've always associated with that desert prophet.
He strode onto the sanctuary platform of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and quickly captivated the members of the Hymn Society who were gathered there for their annual conference. His first words were not spoken, but sung—"Glory to God"—in his clear, strong voice. As he sang, everyone sat up straight, and when he extended his arm to invite us to respond, we did. We all did.
Then he began to speak, his voice softened by the rolling cadences of his Scottish brogue. Afterward, I talked with him. Bell has a message, and he proclaims it with strength.
Tell us a little about yourself—where you grew up and what drew you into the ministry.
I come from a town in Scotland called Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, which has as its most famous son Johnny Walker of whiskey fame—though I was born a good while after him. I suppose all my life I wanted to be a music teacher, teaching a class of kids to sing. That was my intention until the age of seventeen or eighteen, when I felt the call to the ministry.
At first I had a thousand objections to thinking of myself as a clergyman, probably because of all the unattractive stereotypes and models of ministry I had encountered. However, eventually I said yes and went to the University in Scotland.
People who are going into ministry are required to first work on a degree in a subject other than theology and I chose liberal arts. But I hated every minute at the University. I particularly hated my music classes, because they were so dull and academic. So after three years I left and went to do volunteer work in a deprived neighborhood in London.
Eventually I returned to the University—this time to study theology. Before I graduated, I went to Amsterdam for two years as an associate pastor at the English Reformed Church, and then came back to finish my degree.
After I graduated, I began working as a youth pastor for the Church of Scotland—not with any one congregation, but for a region that included about five hundred churches. At that time there
were only two youth pastors for our entire denomination.
How did you get involved with the Iona Community and eventually with hymn writing?
After five years as a youth pastor, I went into the Iona Community (see p. 24) to take on a similar job. I found the new position appealing because it enabled me to work with the young people who were the farthest from the church— those who were either disenchanted with the church or who would never go near it. The Iona Community is a place to which I could take people knowing that they would be accepted, knowing that they would find an experience of worship and a kind of conversation about God that was different from what they had experienced before. I saw a lot of young people changed by that experience.
About six years ago, my colleague Graham Maule and I decided that instead of continuing to work solely with young people, we should broaden our ministry and work for a renewal of the church's worship. When you sit beside someone who doesn't sing hymns and you take up the denominational hymnal, the Church of Scotland Hymnary (1973), you immediately feel how alien in character it is for some people.
I knew some new hymns were needed, but I didn't favor either of the current extremes. It seemed that most people were either using popular choruses, which to my mind represent only a fraction of God and a fraction of human experience, or they were remaining apologetic about singing hymns that don't touch life today or speak a language that people can understand.
One alternative was to compose music within the identifiable traditions of hymnody and Christian theology, yet find some new way of speaking about God to the people or about the experience of the people to God. So that's how it began.
You've mentioned your interest in working with the poor. In fact you said earlier that you left the University for a while to work with the underprivileged. How has that affected your ideas about the relationship between worship and work?
When I was first ordained, I expected that most of my pastoral work would be among young people who were in the church, most of whom are fairly privileged. But my association with the Iona Community made me aware that the gospel had to deal with the physical and the material as well as the spiritual, and while we could claim to have many young people and adults who are spiritually poor, that didn't address the material deprivation.
I discovered that seldom did our hymns represent the plight of poor people to God. There was nothing that dealt with unemployment, nothing that dealt with living in a multicultural society and feeling disenfranchised. There was nothing about child abuse, which is one of the big problems in our country just now. There was nothing that reflected concern for the developing world, nothing that helped us see ourselves as brothers and sisters to those who are suffering from poverty or persecution.
Now you find that music is able to help you speak to these issues, and you write "in community." How did that happen?
I never started out to be a hymn writer; that was the furthest thing from my mind. But I suppose it happened because my colleague and I—and then a wider group of people—did some theological reflection together. Then we began to biblically look at issues and develop a theology that speaks to the young or to the marginalized. For example, we studied all the Bible passages that dealt with young people, and we asked questions like, "Is the story of David and Goliath about a boy who is a super hero? Or is it a passivist parable in which God chooses a child's instrument—rather than sophisticated adult weaponry—to achieve his purpose?"
I suppose our next stage was to try to put that theology into verse, knowing that while people often forget what they hear preached, they remember what they sing. So some of the songs we came up with were scripturally based and brought to life some passages that we had all read, known, and spoken about time after time and in which we discovered a fresh insight. Or they were songs in which we tried to express the aspirations of people or the plight of people that hymnody doesn't normally deal with.
In doing that, we developed a corporate process of working. I needed the support of others because, while I originate most of our material, I've never had any lessons in either musical or poetic composition. So it was important that whatever was produced was not the me-anderings of my fevered mind at an inopportune moment of the night when I'd scribble something down! It was important that these words be written down and then digested by someone else who would revise them and question what they communicated. And it was important that we then share each hymn with a bigger group of people—our worship group of thirteen people—who would again chew over and digest and regurgitate and criticize. As a last step, we'd offer the hymn to the congregation to see whether it worked in worship.
For me that corporate hymn-writing experience has been very formative and continues to be important. A whole lot of good things have occurred as people have looked at and made suggestions about and criticized our texts.
You've also done a great deal of meeting with people from other cultures. You seem to have a good ear for languages and also for melody and harmonies, which you are able to notate.
That, I suppose, also grew out of our work with the poor. When we began to work more closely with the disenfranchised people in Glasgow and other parts of Great Britain, we discovered that Jesus associated with poor people because they had gifts he could use: the widow's mite, the boy's lunch—these small things which to the world might seem insignificant—had within them the potential for pointing to the kingdom. We recognized in our conversation and our engagement with poor people that they had unique insights into the Scripture and to human life. Often those insights inspired a prayer, a melody, etc.
So when we began to come in contact with people from other parts of the world—especially the developing world, to which we had exported a large number of hymns—I felt it was important to listen to what they had to offer. I've been fortunate—sometimes through the World Council of Churches, sometimes through other agencies—in getting opportunities to meet with people from the Camaroons or Bolivia or wherever. And if it is possible, I get them not only to sing but to tell me the story of the song so that I get to know the context. I get them to sing the song and suggest how it is used and whether it is harmonized, and then I transcribe it as accurately as possible. I try to replicate it in a way that it can be used easily in a European or North American context.
Some songs I don't touch, because I know they would be inaccessible for the majority of people in Western congregations. For example, some Taiwanese or Korean folk tunes have melodic intervals so alien to the Western ear that to sing them would be little more than an academic exercise. But whenever possible, I do think it's helpful to sing the songs of other cultures. By singing their songs, we can stand to some extent in deeper intercession with these people. And through that experience our understanding of mission and evangelism and the kingdom of God and the Trinity is enlarged.
Iona is an ecumenical community of men and women founded in Scotland in 1938—during the depths of the Great Depression and amid prospects of war. The founder, George MacLeod, was an inner-city minister who was appalled by the lack of impact the church had on the lives of those most hard-hit by economic and political events.
MacLeod believed that ministers would understand little of working people until the ways of training clergy were changed. So in 1938, he set off to the remote island of Iona with a half-dozen young clergy and a half-dozen craftsmen to rebuild a 1,000-year-old historic abbey that had fallen into disuse. This effort would serve as a tangible sign of the unity of worship and work, church and industry, spiritual and material. Craftsmen and clergy worked as one to create what is now called the Iona Community.
As a vital part of the work of this growing community its members returned to the inner city to build housing and to experiment with different patterns of Christian life. The main tenets of the community became peace and justice, work and a new economic order, and community and celebration.
Today the community is led by 200 men and women who reside mainly in Britain, but also in Africa, Australia, India, and North America. Although the community comes under the auspices of the Church of Scotland, its members are drawn from many Christian denominations, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. And, as with the community of Taize, thousands journey to Iona every year for spiritual growth.
Reprinted by permission of G.LA. Publications, Inc.
The Iona Community has published several collections of songs, available in North America from G.I.A. Publications, 7404 S. Mason, Chicago, IL 60368. The new songs are jointly composed by John Bell and Graham Maule. Two other collections of songs, Many and Great and Sent by the Lord, were gathered from around the world. They include worship songs from Brazil, Peru, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Korea, and many other countries.