Father Tony Bell started life in the merchant navy. Born and raised in what was County Durham, near the town of Stockton-on-Tees, he left school early and set sail on the ocean waves and now, many years later, he is having to guide his flock through uncharted waters all over again.
Father Tony and his wife Pat, a nurse and carer for the elderly who worked as a home manager for Methodist Homes until her retirement, arrived in December and are due to stay until March, although two flights they had booked to return home to the UK have already been cancelled, so they are simply going to have to wait and see how the current situation progresses.
Father Tony grew up in what was the industrial heartland of the UK and was clearly influenced by his experiences as a child and then as a priest. On leaving school, where every one of the 36 boys in his class had fathers with jobs - the vast majority in one of the many factories, foundries or shipyards in the area - he was not too sure on what he wanted to do, so he joined the merchant navy.
“It was the largest in the world at the time, It was hard work, not that I minded, but more than anything it was rather lonely. I was working on the large tankers and you never really made real friends, just trade associates. Plus, we were never back in our home port for more than three days before turning around and setting sail again. For example, we would be sailing to Bahrain. Three weeks there and back, and there were few forms of communication; just mail, and a letter could take two weeks to finally catch up with you.
“And for many, those letters were often bearing bad news. I would often be on watch having to listen to a Dear John story and all about marriages and relationships breaking down because we were away from home so much and for so long.
“After a while, I realised that my future did not lie in the merchant navy, but I was again unsure what I wanted to do next, what career path to follow. However, I came from a church family in which my father was churchwarden as well as sexton and verger, and my mother was deputy organist in the Parish of St. Cuthbert’s, Redmarshall, so I began thinking about joining the church and that is what I eventually did.
“First off, I had to go back to school and sit my A Levels at the local technical college’s night school. Then I studied for four years at King’s College, London and then a year at St. Augustine’s College in Canterbury. I was eventually ordained a priest in Durham Cathedral in 1973 and I served for 23 years in the Durham Diocese including seven years as an industrial priest driving a forklift truck at a Tetley Tea factory.
“Industrial priests came from France where, during the Second World War, due to a lack of manpower for the factories, they decided quite literally to put the priests to work. The idea was eventually picked up on by the Anglican Church in the UK. So, I became a worker priest, which for some of my colleagues was a shock to the system because they were used to a more privileged parish lifestyle.
“But the worker priests brought a great sense of justice and solidarity to industry, in particular the workers, and it was they who organised the trade unions - to protect the rights and welfare of the workers, their families and the community at large, which as priests is a very important part of our job in all walks of life,” Father Tony explained after just having recorded his weekly webcast.
He also spent another seven years with the Teesside Industrial Mission and would minister in a number of factories, something which was encouraged by both the unions and the management. His final sixteen years in Parish Ministry were in the Derby Diocese in the rural parishes of Ault Hucknall and Scarcliffe, covering ten villages.
“For a while when I was there, the area had the highest rate of unemployment in the country. The only people who used to get up in the morning were the kids to go to school.”
Father Tony has certainly had to help thousands of people and their families through extremely hard times and witness the end of Britain as a global industrial powerhouse.
“For me, the early '80s were the tipping point, that’s when it all began to change and the factories, mines and shipyards began to gradually be closed down and millions of people lost their jobs. That was the time I was an industrial chaplain, providing ministry to workers and management. I was independent of the unions, but it was very hard not to ignore the persecution of the workers.
“I remember ICI once employing over 20,000 people in the area and now it’s all gone. There are no industrial sites left on Teesside, the economy is so different now and the balance of power and wealth has never been so extreme, favouring just a few at the expense of the masses.
“This is what the church should be questioning. It should be asking why. Why are there people living on the streets in the UK, why are people forced to beg in a country which has never been home to so many billionaires? Why should people have to live from food banks? It never happened when I was growing up. Why are people going hungry? Why can’t young people afford to get on the housing ladder. I remember when the scheme to allow people to buy their own council house was rolled out. The idea was that for every council house sold, one would be built. It never happened, hence we had, and still have, a shortage of affordable housing with a fortunate few able to enjoy great wealth at the expense of others - those who have no option but to rent a home from property owners and speculators while the large construction companies sit on developments watching the property prices continue to rise.
“God wanted a kingdom in which there was truth to power - not taking power. It was what the prophets taught in their scriptures and preached, and some paid the price for it; the Apostle Paul was beheaded.
“I feel that the Church does tend to pander to the wealthy and those who control power instead of trying to address the injustice in society. We need to have a fair set of rights and need to try and figure out where it all went wrong from the very top to the very bottom; we need to be questioning those people who are calling the economic and political shots. We need to reestablish checks and balances in society as a whole, and the church has an important role to play in that because we are here to care for and help everyone. Everyone should have the right to live with dignity, we need a return of social morals.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Billy Graham. I keep my weekly webcasts short and to the point, they are very rarely longer than 15 minutes. They are a call to worship with simple prayers and a set prayer which I tend to elaborate on. I focus my prayers on what we really should have in mind, in particular now during this pandemic.
“I encourage people to pray for the overcoming of Covid. One has to remember that God is bigger than all of us and he will see us through this terrible time. It’s obviously affected how I work. I can no longer welcome people to church. There’s no singing, no shaking of hands or hugging and, of course, attendance numbers are restricted.
“But thanks to modern technology, I am still able to reach out via the church’s website and other forms of social media and it’s amazing and exciting to see how many members of the older generation are computer savvy and do follow me and other chaplains online.
“Whether society as a whole will emerge from this pandemic as a more caring, understanding and less selfish one remains to be seen. Personally I have my doubts - at least not until the social injustice I have touched on is addressed.
“Not being able to have got involved with society and the community here in Mallorca is something which I have missed a great deal. Prior to coming to Mallorca, I’d worked as a locum in various parts of Spain, including Ibiza, and in The Hague, which was a very positive experience. The Church of St. John & St. Philip is one of the most established Anglican churches in Europe and I was fortunate to have had the largest congregation ever while I was in The Hague. The church is very palatial, it was built by the Earl of Leicester under Elizabeth I while Spain was busy expanding its colonies prior to the Armada.
“And since I’ve returned, I actually enjoy pastoral work more. I no longer have to get involved with all the admin. I can focus more on being a chaplain and, thanks to my son Alex, have rekindled my love for rock music. He’s taken me to all sorts of concerts, including Bruce Springsteen, Status Quo and Paul McCartney. I love to sing, I am a bass singer, I would not say I’m a great singer but I love nothing more than a Welsh hymn to lift my spirits. And while I’m here, apart from hoping to explore much more of the island, I hope to be able to lift the spirits of the local congregation and help them through these dark times.”