Ringing the Bell – John Bell of the Iona Community on Faith and Politics

Just as I was simmering down over Fr John Dear, I decided to go and hear John Bell of the Iona Community speak today. He was being hosted by the Victorian Council for Christian Education and a small crowd gathered for pizza and coffee to hear him speak this afternoon in Port Melbourne.

He is very easy to listen to, bearing some resemblence to Billy Connolly–grey hair, beard and thick Glaswegian accent. But again, as I listened to him, I found myself asking how we can guard against mistaking our ideology for theology.

It started early in the piece when he said that there was too much fuss about same-sex relationships in the church, given that there are only a few scattered references to homosexual activity in the scriptures and Jesus never said anything about it. He said “If God didn’t like gay people, why does he keep on making them?” I couldn’t resist retorting: “With respect, John, he keeps on making sinners too.”

Later on, he talked a little about song writing that takes into account people’s real lives. “Why can’t we sing songs in church that refer to the stockmarket? Or why isn’t the word “kitchen” ever used in a hymn?” Again, while I can just imagine “kitchen” being used in a song of blessing perhaps, I balk a little at singing about the stock market. After all, when you have the Blessed Trinity and the forgiveness of sin to sing about, who wants to sing about the stock market?

He did stress listening to Scripture as a way of making sure that our understanding of God’s/Jesus’ message is connected to the real world, and was keen to emphasise taking in the whole “panopoly” of scripture. In an exchange at the end of the lecture, he suggested that the best way we can be self-critical about our reading of scripture (to avoid adopting our own ideology as the theology of the gospel) was to listen to scripture “in community”. To me this suggests the need to read and interpret scripture in what the Catechism calls “the analogy of faith”, ie. congruent with the whole Catholic faith.

John Bell is entitled to his own opinions (he is not, after all, like Fr John Dear, speaking in the name of the Catholic Church). He was interesting to listen to, but I didn’t go away thinking “Yeah, he was spot on about this or that”. Perhaps the most valuable thing he said was that we need to learn to value Psalm 88 as deeply as we value Psalm 23.

For myself, I think there is more to learn about faith and politics in the second half of Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est or in his speeches to the Latin American Bishops on his recent journey to Brazil. Still, I like singing John Bell’s songs. Well, most of them anyway. Not the ones about the stock market.

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3 Responses to Ringing the Bell – John Bell of the Iona Community on Faith and Politics

  1. Christine says:

    Well, I had to go to the Iona Community’s website and see for myself just what they are about.

    Oh dear.

    While I have no problem in general with their “ecospirituality” in that I’ve always seen creation as a sort of “sacrament” of God and agree we should hold it in reverence, the lack of Trinitarian or even explicitly Christian language is troublesome.

    They’ve pretty much rewritten the classic catholic understanding of Christology and ecclesiology. So of course, they feel free to abandon classic Christian teaching on gender identity, etc.

    I wonder what the Holy Father would say.

  2. Josh says:

    David, John Bell’s songs sometimes have ludicrous double entendres that used to make friends of mine and myself laugh, especially as the musicians playing these songs were a bit dubious themselves: in “Will you come and follow me” one finds a camp sensibility including “Will you risk the hostile stare / should your life attract or scare” (verse 2); while “Sing hey for the carpenter” is even campier, especially the phrase “Come sleep by my side / Come share in a lifestyle with nothing to hide”. both are in that awful “Gather Australia”, better relabelled “Gather Dust”, a book to set at one’s left. ROTFL!

  3. Schütz says:

    Yes, all these caveats I share. Nevertheless his songs are not universally awful and show flashes of brilliance. Especially clever is the way in which he uses traditional folk tunes that are very singable (compared to your average Haugen or Haas composition anyway).

    I like (and I give Together in Song references):
    + “In you, O Lord, I found refuge” TIS 19 (A version of Psalm 31, and one of the only tunes I know to which the Hail Mary can be sung)
    + “Just as a lost and thirsty deer” TIS 26 (a version of Psalm 42, and a brilliantly plaintive tune)
    + “Clap your hands all you nations” TIS 29 (a good one for Ascension, a version of Psalm 47)
    + “Sing to God with joy and gladness” TIS 92 (a version of psalm 147)
    + “No wind at the window” TIS 287 (An annunciation hymn to a traditional irish tune)
    + “Christmas is coming” TIS 289 (An Advent Wreath lighting song–great for the kids)
    + “Who is the baby an hour or two old?” TIS 325 (a good Christmas carol)
    + “Pull back the viel” TIS 326 (A Christmas/Easter song that is a little bit daring, but not heretical, and has a terrific tune)
    + “Funny kind of night” TIS 329 (I don’t recommend the words, which are a bit “funny”, but the tune is tops and I have arranged the proper words of the Gloria in Excelsis to it — email me if you want the full score — for Christmas eve which works a treat)
    + “God beyond glory” TIS 678 (quite a good wedding hymn)

    Then, of course, there are those that I wouldn’t go near with a 40 foot barge pole, such as “She sits like a bird” TIS 418, a Pentecost Hymn that images the Holy Spirit in feminine form. Just too heterodox for words (It’s a great tune, though.)

    Interestingly, Together in Song has neither “Will you come and follow me” nor “Sing Hey for the Carpenter”.

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