When bells fall silent

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 The English interdict of 1208 is represented as an inverted bell in Matthew Paris’ History of the English people in a 13th-century manuscript (British Library, Royal 14 C VII). Later in the chronicle, Matthew signals the end of the interdict by a doodle of two hands making church bells ring.

The pandemic has led to the closure in many countries of most public spaces, including all places of worship. The liturgical life of a faith community, based on worshipping and doing things together – the deep meaning of liturgy as leitourgia (public service) – has come to a halt. Liturgy is now, for lack of a better word, monergy, the ministration of that service on your own.

As churches and bells fall silent, we remember the English year 1208, another time when churches closed and bells stood still. There was no pandemic that year, but a quarrel between King John of England and the pope flared up like a plague outburst. Because the royal and the papal HR departments couldn’t agree on who to hire for the vacant role of Archbishop of Canterbury, the pope snapped, ordering a ban on the performance of religious services and sacraments known as an interdict. No more masses, no more funerals, all ceremonies kaput. The interdict went on until 1214, long enough to make even the staunchest agnostic nostalgic of foregone times.

The ecclesiastical Prohibition was designed to bring the king to his knees by making him feel responsible for the souls of his subjects and by creating dissension among the English bishops. Instead of bringing John to his knees, the interdict brought many bishops to foreign shores, allowing John to cash in on the proceeds of the church. As for his conscience, there’s no evidence he understood for whom the bell tolls.

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