Iona hymn writer John L. Bell talks about touring the U.S.

Iona Abbey, heart of the worldwide Iona Community on the isle of Iona off Scotland’s western coast. Photograph by John Hile.John Bell is a hot ticket for congregations, clergy conferences and Christian communities around the world, but the truth is:
He’s a tough guy to track down!
On Sunday, Bell talked with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about the start of his current U.S. (and Latin American) tour. He is sought after by Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational churches around the world. But, Bell started our interview by quickly dismissing interest in the online realm.

“I am happy to talk to you,” Bell told Crumm on Sunday, “because you know the Iona Community and the work that I am doing—but I don’t have much use for online media. The things written online aren’t all that accurate. Sometimes I am sitting at a conference, waiting to be introduced, and I realize that the person who is introducing me must have gone to Wikipedia for the details. I don’t ever to go Wikipedia or anywhere else online to read about myself. But I can tell you: There must be things online that aren’t very accurate about my life and work, because they do keep popping up as I travel.”

One problem is that Bell shares a name with nearly 50 other John Bells listed in Wikipedia, including athletes, artists, politicians, scientists—and other musicians. It takes some savvy online searching even to locate John Bell’s current American schedule. He doesn’t have his own website or blog.
So, to help John Bell accurately kick off his 2012 American tour …


John Bell in one of the few online photographs available for republication.John Bell draws a crowd! Not only is he personally responsible for a long list of hymns and anthems sung in churches around the world, but he also is a popular teacher on Iona-Celtic-Christian approaches to prayer, worship and work with the world’s most needy communities. (ReadTheSpirit has published many stories about Iona’s important Christian influences. Here’s a 2011 interview with John Philip Newell, another influential Iona writer. And, from 2009, here’s an earlier interview with John Bell about his book on reviving Christianity. NOTE: All ReadTheSpirit stories can be republished, as long as you link back to our website. See our Creative Commons sharing license below.)

Coming soon: February 1-4, Bell is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at a Presbyterian educational conference. Then, February 3-5, he is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at First United Methodist Church for a global music weekend. From February 13-15, he is in Phoenix, Arizona, for a clergy conference. And, February 23-25, he is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a clergy conference. In March, Bell is in Atlanta. He also is visiting two countries in South America. In May, he is in Atlanta, Tulsa and Bangor, Pennsylvania. By June, he is in North Carolina.

Best place to find details about his U.S. tours? Iona Community New World Foundation keeps track of his plans and posts updated event information—and some links for further information. The Foundation also posts a helpful index to a wide range of Iona-related links, including the Wild Goose organizaton that is John Bell’s professional home base in Scotland. Want to go right to the source in the UK realm of the Internet? The Wild Goose Resource Group also maintains a short profile of John Bell.

Interview: Iona hymn writer John Bell

Iona Abbey and cross. Photograph by John Hile.DAVID: Let’s start with biographical details. You’re John L. Bell—to distinguish you from the other famous John Bells out there. And, I believe you’re 62 right now.

JOHN: Yes, that’s right.

DAVID: Where do you live these days? That’s not clear to me from some of your online biographies.

JOHN: Glasgow, Scotland, is home, but I’m on the road between eight and nine months of most years. Right now, I’m over here in the U.S. for eight weeks doing different events. I’m also taking care of some business with my publishers and I plan to visit a small community in Paraguay. So, I’m doing some public events, some private events and some personal visiting.

DAVID: Why is Paraguay on this trip?

JOHN: We have a relationship with a small community there. Every year, volunteers come to us in Scotland from Paraguay. I want to visit their home, see where they come from, and experience some of their culture. This year, I’m also traveling in mainland Europe and in parts of England and Ireland.

DAVID: You’re an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland and you’re famous for composing music used in churches around the world. But, how do you prefer to introduce yourself before a group?

JOHN: I say that I’m a resource worker in areas of worship and spirituality. That’s really what I do. Sometimes, I work in universities and seminaries. Sometimes I work at conferences. Sometimes I work at local churches. I focus on different things in different places. I may work with congregational music and show ways that music can be improved; or I may talk about scripture and help people lose their fear of engaging with scripture; or I might help to prepare men and women getting ready for ministry in seminary; or I might work with people trying to deepen their individual spirituality.

DAVID: You have a unique perspective as an outsider, traveling widely across the  U.S. Can you tell us anything about trends you’re seeing in American Christianity?

JOHN: Oh, America is such a huge country that if I make any comments, I can immediately be contradicted by people with contrary examples. So, I would not want to make any specific comments. But, I can say this generally: I see a lot of what we might call non-liturgical churches that now are interested in styles of music and worship that have a much more ordered sequence. They are reaching out for more traditional forms. And, at the same time, I’m seeing some more liturgical churches that are trying to open up.  I see conferences organized by more traditional churches inviting people from nondenominational churches or megachurches to address them. And I’m seeing some nondenominational churches inviting people from more historical churches to speak at conferences.

DAVID: So, you’re seeing something of a crossover in Christian culture. Do you think American churches are looking for some kind of new middle ground?

JOHN: I don’t know if they’re trying to find a middle ground. But, I can say this: I would hate to see the church become so intermixed in traditions that we wind up with a sort of morass of grayness. For example, if your gift in the church is lively song and a strong emphasis on social justice like the Mennonites, then that’s an important and distinctive gift to share with others. Orthodox and Catholic churches have gifts for exploring the mystery of God and those are true gifts. Some traditions have gifts in their welcoming nature and in showing hospitality. I would say: Major in your gifts! A failure of ecumenism would be to merge everything into a sort of shapeless mass of sameness. God made us different to represent the full spectrum of all colors within Christianity.

DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we have covered some of these movements back and forth through Christian tradition. For example, Shane Claiborne—a very popular American speaker and author among innovative Christian leaders—now is heavily promoting Common Prayer. There’s a new edition coming out this week of his book called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

JOHN: Yes, I have friends in Britain who already are using his Common Prayer book and appreciate that, because it’s rooted both in traditional practices and in contemporary language. He draws on the spirit and wisdom of a whole lot of people in his Common Prayer book. I think that approach is much more attractive to people in this postmodern society—rather than telling people that they have to spend endless hours wrestling with tangles of archaic religious language in some prayer book from an earlier era.

DAVID: You and John Philip Newell and other Iona writers are now known around the world. Do you think of yourself as a global voice?

JOHN: No. I don’t think about it that way at all. I believe that for my work to have any authenticity, it has to be rooted in the place from which I come. All my own writing and composing is done in Scotland. I don’t write anything while I’m traveling—with one exception. I do believe that it’s important for me to engage with and learn form people in the developing world.

But, I never write something with the thought that I expect it to be translated into other languages. I never stop to think whether someone in a distant country—Finland or Argentina or some other country—will want me to come talk about what I’ve just written. If I thought like that, then I would have taken my eye off the ball. Spirituality must be localized and nurtured in the soil from which it has grown.

And I don’t think of what I write as coming directly from me to the world. That’s not how I work at all. I would never write a book where the material hadn’t gone through friends and colleagues and people I trust in our community. My work is developed in conversation with other people. I have a very strong feeling that God has blessed me and given me gifts that come out of a particular geographical and historical situation. As long as I’m true to that—then what I do may have value elsewhere. But if I were to think of myself as some kind of global writer, then I would lose the spiritual plot of my life. That may not be true for everyone, but it’s true for me. I live in Scotland; I’m a person who is Scottish; my heritage draws on the experience of the Celtic church; and our faith has been formed by living and working among impoverished communities. These are my spiritual roots. These are what give me energy.

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