England, home of the Anglican Church, reverberates with the sound of church bells in city and countryside. The traditional purpose of ringing was to call the faithful to services, but the bells ring out for many different reasons now. The sounds, stirring and sonorous, are not simple to produce. It can take years for a ringer to master the protocol and proficiency of the centuries-old skill of bell ringing.
Carillons and Change Ringing
Church bells are either carillons -- a set rack of bells that plays songs, controlled by one person or programmed by a computer -- or hanging bells mounted in a frame and pulled by ropes or struck by hand. The large bells hanging in the campaniles and towers of Anglican churches are sounded by pulling ropes in a procedure called change ringing. Change ringing bells can be tilted a complete 360 degrees, and learning to control them and play them in perfect timing may take one person on one bell years to master. A peal of change ringing produces a cascade of music, with each bell handled to prevent spaces between rings and to coax the clapper to hit the bell hard and reverberate cleanly. It is a unique and completely different sound from clamorous fixed cathedral bells or the chiming of carillons.
Most change ringing takes place in Anglican churches in England, but there are enough churches with bell-ringer bands in the U.S. and Canada for a North American Guild of Change Ringers. They've published suggested etiquette for belfry behavior to give neophytes a sense of what to expect. Bell ringing is a volunteer activity -- anyone nominally fit may learn it for free from experienced ringers. In turn, change ringers commit to ring for a Sunday service and practice times during the week and are willing to ring for special occasions. Key suggestions for new change ringers are to refrain from distracting other ringers just before or during a practice or performance; accept the bell you are given to work on; memorize your method -- the pre-determined sequence of rings -- before showing up to practice; and remember that shouting directions in the heat of performance is expedient, not rude.
Bells are rung in an Anglican Church according to a protocol which may be tailored to custom in the local community. Historically, the bells were rung to call workers to church services and to the farm fields -- a seeding bell, a harvest bell and a gleaning bell determined the start and finish of various tasks. Today, bells compete with city and town noises and are mostly confined to church functions. Trinity Church in New York City rings its bells for 10 minutes before the late-morning Sunday service and 20 minutes after the service. Bells ring before or after weddings for 20 to 30 minutes. Civic occasions in the city, like ticker-tape parades, may rate a 15- to 30-minute ring and the anniversary of the World Trade Center terrorist attack, which happened within sight of the church, is observed with 50 minutes of change ringing.
Church bells are intended to be uplifting and inspirational, but everyone within earshot may not agree. The peals, tolling across the open countryside, may be muted and romantic. In a nearby home or business, change ring practice or performance may amount to intrusive and repetitive racket. The Church of England went so far as to issue a legal opinion about how to manage the nuisance factor and the etiquette of being good neighbors while still providing a rich ministry and cherished custom. Suggested precautions include announcing the schedule for bell ringing; limiting bells to Sunday services and morning and evening prayer; and limiting the length of time the bells are rung. Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan installed sound baffling shutters to allow change ringers to practice on its 12 bells without disturbing the Wall Street businesses and residents in surrounding buildings.
- The New York Times: From 12 Ropes and Bells, a River of Sound Over Wall St.
- Church of England: Ringing of Church Bells
- Oxford City Branch of Church Bell Ringers: Bells and Bell Ringing
- Guild of Devonshire Ringers: FAQ
- North American Guild of Change Ringers: Belfry Behavior
- Trinity Wall Street: About the Bells
- Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images