John Bell opens doors for many

By Tim Lenton


John Bell, from the Iona Community, spent three days in Norwich in mid-September. He came primarily to run a two-day intensive at St Luke's Church Centre entitled  "Moving the Contemplative Heart to Action", and he made a huge impact in two areas.

First on a congregation of about 450 at the Cathedral on the Thursday evening (September 16), where under the heading
"Different Voices, Same Song" he was scheduled to 'explore the nature of harmony in community, using music as a metaphor'.

While this was exactly what he did, as a bonus he was able through his unique talents to get everyone singing from the outset, using only his voice and later an occasional piano in the background. His laid-back personality, humour and relaxed style enabled him to persuade everyone effortlessly that it was time we learnt spiritual songs from other cultures instead of expecting them to sing our own exported hymns.This opened doors on the vastly different lives that other people lead, the pain that many routinely suffer and how they express their experience of God through their music.

John is a writer and broadcaster, often heard on Radio 4's Thought for the Day. He is steeped in music, and in living the contemplative life that comes from being in community with others. He is an expert in both communal singing and social inclusivity. He also has a gift for story-telling, and in many cases his stories are parables that enable us to see things differently. The effect is to widen our understanding of God and the way he works.

Whereas difference in music creates beautiful harmony, in society we we often shy away from diversity and prefer everyone to try to be the same – thus creating a kind of unison that misses out on the richness of the harmony achievable with diversity. John explored in a lively and compelling way what we could learn from the interaction of different parts in music how we could apply this to our notions of community.

This free event was put on by the Diocese of Norwich in conjunction with Transforming Norwich and the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre.

The second big impact John had was on a group of about 140 people who attended the two-day intensive, which set out to 'facilitate exploring those aspects of our inner life that can move us out into an engagement with some of the social justice issues that confront us on a day-to-day level'. Again, what was delivered was more than was promised.

John, who is based in Glasgow and works with his colleagues in the areas of music, worship and spirituality, travels widely but does not have a mobile phone, driving licence, camera, iPod or wife. He has never traced his family origins, played a guitar, or eaten a Big Mac. But he is not in the business of condemning those who do indulge in any of the above. His intention is always to enlarge our understanding of God and the ways in which He works, and to open doors that had seemed not only shut but in some cases non-existent.

Sessions included The Individual and the Community, Finding the Door to Compassion, Overcoming Compassion Fatigue and From Us and Them to Just Us. One of the most fascinating sessions was John's challenge to the usual interpretation of being born again as presented in the Gospel. He also spoke about the need to look at Jesus' life – what he did and said – as well as at his birth, death and resurrection. This was brought out in role-playing and in discussion, always illuminated by stories from his own life and experiences. We were encouraged to benefit from other people's experiences of God rather than to take a position and defend it as if it were the only correct one.

Each day ended with a specially created liturgy that included fresh songs from around the world, plus some interaction – in John's words, "if, and only if, you want to". It was his consideration and love which came over most clearly and which made the hard things he had to say in such areas as exploitation of the poor, and of the created order, all the more compelling. Few will have left St Luke's Centre on the Saturday evening unchanged from when they entered on the Friday.