Saturday night out with Lucy at Olney, home of the pancake race, John Newton, Amazing Grace, and William Cowper, to help launch their bells appeal. Olney has a glorious medieval Church, with one of the most spectacular spires in Buckinghamshire — 185 feet in the old money.
Olney must have been special for generations of US migrants, because there’s only one in England, but no fewer than twelve in the US — townships in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Pennsylvania, and a school in Ohio. That list, in itself, is pretty much a canned history of the US!
Olney’s bells, the oldest of which has been ringing since 1599, have got into a bit of a state. Lucy’s a ringer, and had a go. She tells me they’re ringable, but only just — bearings wearing out, oak frame rotting and twisting out of true, bird mess everywhere. Ringing had fallen on hard times late in the last century, but under the leadership of Charles Knight (Tower Captain) and David Phillipson (ringing master) there’s a recently recruited band of ringers in the town of all ages, and the tower is coming alive again.
Olney PCC has decided that the best form of defence is attack, and they're going to sort everything out properly, rehang the bells on a new frame, tune everything up, and raise the tower to a ring of ten. When finished it will be one of the finest heavy rings of bells in the country, ideal for training beginners, as well as doing what it’s done for hundreds of years — marking out the shape of life in the town, ringing out joys and sorrows, calling people to worship, and reminding them of God’s love and faithfulness. There’s an interesting appeal website where you can find out the difference between a passing bell and a pancake bell, as well as donate.
I sometimes feel a twinge of puritanism about projects that require big fundraising for the fabric of medieval Churches. I find, however, that Parishes who steward their world class buildings competently are usually as committed and competent about their bigger responsibilities. No surprise then, that Brian Lintern, former churchwarden, was just back from Africa participating in a world development project, Olney’s eight year link with Newton, Sierra Leone. It’s both/ and, not either/ or, I find. Judas played Puritan games when a poor woman wasted oil on Jesus — partly because Judas was someone who took himself very seriously indeed but mainly, we are told, because he was a thief.
The appeal kicked off with a poetry evening, with Lance Pierson, a professional actor, introducing and performing poems by John Betjeman, most popular British poet of the last century. Not only do church bells form a surprisingly persistent theme in Betjeman’s poetry, but he saw himself as being the kind of hack for popular verses William Cowper of Olney was. Lance’s presentation was, frankly, brilliant and eye opening not only about Church, but also about faith and doubt in Betjeman’s poetry.
To bring it all home, Lance included Betjeman’s poem about Olney, a gentle parody of the style of the original 18th century Olney hymns. It captures precisely a spirit of grace in ordinary life that you can hardly avoid in this buzzing market town on the crook of the river Ouse: