Welcome to the month of October in Wokingham Without and beyond its borders. October is a month for our semi-rural senses, according to The Campaign for Rural England. In our forests and nature parks, near and far, trees begin to turn colour, leaves rustle on the branches and tumble down on windy days. There are smells of wet and decay as plants start to die back, of fungi in the woods, of damp moss and ferns. Fruits are ripe in hedgerows: crab apples, brambles and damsons, food for birds and foragers.
October is remembered in other ways too. Take, for example, The Twyford Church in Hampshire. The church has a tradition of ringing bells every year on a specific day in October. The tradition goes back to the 18th century when a local resident, William David, became lost in heavy fog while riding home at night. Fortunately, he heard the church bells toll and from this managed to find himself home. As a form of thanks, he left some money to the church when he died so that the church could continue to ring the bells in October for all including lost travellers.
At St Sebastian’s, we are blessed to have a bell, regularly rung on Sundays and Wednesdays (as well as special events). I recently came across the following Bellringers’ special prayer: “Prosper with your blessing, O Lord, the work to which you have called us in your church, and strengthen the hands of all who serve you. Make our worship more worthy, our witness more effective, and inspire us with the fresh zeal in the furthering of your kingdom; for the honour and glory of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The bells of our churches are not only there to provide direction for local residents like William David, but it is also there to draw us into an encounter with faith. A faithful encounter. This can take many forms but primarily it is there to experience the reality of God within the space of a Parish church building and us.
We need a home for faithful encounters and a distinctive building with one or more bells serves this purpose well. Church buildings can be a reminder that God chooses to reveal himself in specific places, and such places are deemed to be sacred and holy. Such revelations draw a response. They witness to Christian faith being alive and often, through the windows and other physical aspects of the building and its surrounds, to the message of that faithful encounter. Moreover, our buildings are living testaments of intercessory prayers shared in the last 150 years and more. Prayers also shared at life events for past gatherings and future generations. We remain blessed here from the abundance of prayers of the past which, like our bell, still keeps on giving today.
A faithful encounter can also emerge from our hearts, sometimes prompted by something external. In 2021, during a telephone pastoral meeting with a bereaved family member, who lost his Dad, I discussed the Order of Service. As the narrative was rehearsed with this person, the comforting words became deeply personal as I reflected on the bereavement of my parents resulting in the choking of my voice and tears. I apologised and pulled myself together only to discover that this person was also in tears in relation to the loss of his Dad on hearing those words despite us being miles apart. The faithful encounter was unforeseen yet bringing an unpredictable heartfelt connection. The 11th chapter of Hebrews cites: “Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see”.
Our enduring message of good news is like the tolling of one or more bells to help recover the lost paths of travellers back to faith. Lost travellers who failed to accept the reality that things have now changed in order to initiate a new transformation from the heart. The restoring of lost travellers’ hearts to assure they have what it takes to succeed in life. Correcting lost travellers’ misreading of path signs in order to reach a safe place that heals their restless spirits. The 37th chapter of Psalms cites: “The Lord directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives. Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand”. I concur with these words.
So, the next time we hear the tolling of our bell at St Sebastian’s, what are we going to do? First, think of the lost travellers around us and how we can assist them in their faithful encounters. Secondly, reflect on the earlier questions of transformation, ability to succeed and recovering life’s pathways for peace of mind and heart. Thirdly, look out for your daily personal faith encounters in the mundane or exciting things, and count your blessings. I have! I close on this favourite quote of mind by James Dobson: “Faith in God – life can never take you by surprise again”. Amen.
Stay blessed with love
Reverend Rickey Simpson-Gray
Parish of Wokingham St Sebastian’s
Prayer for the month of October
God of life
Ring the bell of faith encounters in my life
In order to be guided by your truth and right behaviours
Help me to experience more of your reality
as I visit St Sebastian’s or another church
Open my heart to your transformation, confidence and assurance
That faith would become my reality
and prompt to better things
I am grateful for our Parish Bell
May it remain a blessing to Wokingham Without now and in the future
We ask this in your name.