Bells and the landscape of English memory

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It is important for the ringing community to know what the CCCBR’s workgroups are doing on their behalf. I was asked to speak at the recent Church of England’s Rural Officers’ Conference. The invitation was a direct consequence of the CCCBR’s contact with the Bishops’ Covid Recovery Group. Both dialogues continue.

Mark Regan
Senior Stakeholder Group lead.

This is the view of one of my favourite churches in Worcestershire – St Denys’ Severn Stoke. It’s in the southwest of the county, on the flood plain of the River Severn and it often floods. It’s peaceful, beautiful, a problem building, and it’s kept open by a small church community despite all the problems. It’s a story which is replicated all over England. I have a soft spot for Severn Stoke which I’ll reveal at the end of this talk. Its bells are special. 

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This is the view from the churchyard, looking west towards the river and the Malvern Hills. I’m sure we all have churches like Severn Stoke in our mind’s eye. Severn Stoke is part of my landscape of my English memory. This talk is about bells and mission. And I need to make a confession. I’ve done time. 30 years on PCCs and 20 as a churchwarden. Now, I’m the ringing master at Worcester Cathedral. I’m also a member of our DAC. 

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And as Hanbury is Ambridge, this means Worcester Cathedral is Borchester Cathedral. There are many similarities. This photo was taken before a recent DAC site visit about some exciting plans for the church. 

I’m not an unusual bellringer doing this stuff. 

I’m committed to keeping our bells ringing and our churches open. This is part of my Cathedral, DAC, and a wider national role with the CCCBR. Bells and mission are important. 


Bells are the biggest and loudest musical instruments

Bellringing is a performing art with 400-year-old heritage. 

(Bellringers are performers and not hobbyists).

The sound of bells marks the rhythm of life in our villages.

Bells are the loudest voice of the church. Their sound tells everyone there is a church at the centre of the community and that our churches are open. 

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This is small church in Worcestershire – Himbleton. Mediaeval glass and wall paintings, a Norman font, and until recently a semi-derelict ring of four bells. Of little interest to most of the bellringing community. But very important to the people of Himbleton. 

The 16th century tower houses an older mediaeval frame, reused when the tower was rebuilt. The four bells were recast by John Martin, a 17th century Worcester bell founder, who was surprisingly busy during and after the civil war. The bells hadn’t been rung in over 100 years. Why bother?

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No-one in the village could remember hearing the bells ringing. The Cathedral ringers offered to restore the bells. My DAC colleagues were supportive, and the List B works were approved. The vicar and two members of the PCC helped clear out the jackdaw twigs (with masks etc). The ladder access is a tad scary. It became a village project, and the enthusiasm was infectious. There was a buzz in the village. Sadly, one of the helpers, died suddenly of cancer. Amazingly, despite dealing with the family’s bereavement, his wife gave a donation which enabled the project to get done quickly. She told me her husband loved our mad idea. We had fun working together. It was a bit bonkers. Not all the helpers were ‘regular church goers’, yet they supported theirchurch in their community. The bells were rung for a Christmas service in 2019. The church was packed. Many came to watch us ring. They all stayed to the service. It’s not a normal setting. One person stands on the organ blower. These aren’t good bells; however, they are Himbleton’s bells. They will only be rung a handful of times a year. And that makes all the difference. 

Although I’m a church goer, I firmly believe that our churches are not just for ‘church people’. They belong to everyone, and this message can be clearly heard in the Save the Parish campaign. And they’re right. 

The effects of Covid will be on all our minds. The pandemic has accelerated something that would have happened anyway within the Church of England. Inside every crisis there is an opportunity. Bellringing has needed to change for a long time. Church and ringing are co-dependent. The old view that ringers just ‘ring and go’ is unfair. Ringers are giving a service like so many other ‘non-believers’ Why exclude people who support the Church? And many ringers are believers. 

Let’s look at my community. It’s getting old, it’s white and middle class, it’s failing to recruit, it’s unattractive. Sound familiar? 

There has never been a time when all our churches had thriving bands of ringers. It’s a fairy-tale. The two wars had a devasting effect on ringing. As did the Victorian Reform Movement. 

The CCCBR is working hard changing how we do things. Ringing hubs are the way forward. This fits in with bigger benefices. Worcester Cathedral’s teaching centre is there for the Diocese. Ringers travel around our Diocese making sure bells are rung. Our Bishop, our Diocese, our DAC are pro-ringing. The secret? We talk each other and look for opportunities. 

When the lockdowns stopped ringing, we had no idea who had done it or what would happen next. I phoned a friend at Church House. I was introduced to Mark Betson. Within a couple of days, the CCCBR and the Bishops’ Covid Recovery Team were in regular contact. And we soon realised we had so much in common – keeping our churches open! 

St. Mary the Virgin, Braddock

One more story about bells and mission. We travel to Bradoc in Cornwall. Only five bells which were unringable. The question was simple: should they spend money on the bells or on growing the congregation. They did both.

Their bells’ project became a link between many groups in this sparsely populated parish. It created a safe, friendly, comfortable environment used by the community. Robert Pearce and his colleagues delivered an inspiring project and congratulations to them. 

This is what happened. It’s a phenomenal achievement, please see the youtube video.

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We return to Severn Stoke. These bells had been unrung for over 100 years. They are one of the heaviest rings of five. Silent since the Great War, myth and prejudice had become fact. The bells were “unringable”. They weren’t. I challenged the status quo. I wanted evidence. There wasn’t any. Again, the Cathedral ringers restored the bells. We rang a sponsored peal and raised £2000 for a flood proof toilet in the church. The parish love hearing their bells. They’re not rung very often, however, when they are, people come out to listen. The churchwarden has become a friend. He lets me scrump the apples and pears in his orchard. We rang for his wife’s funeral. The village is proud of its bells. 

I often visit this church. It’s part of the landscape of my English memory. It affirms my sense of place and community. 

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Investing in ringing’s future. Worcester Cathedral is a hub for these young ringers from all over the Diocese. Any activity which encourages young people to enter a church is a good idea. Then network with other churches. Working on your own is hard work. 

I sat next to Bishop John in Worcester Cathedral a couple of weeks ago during our Elgar Festival. I mentioned that Mark Betson had asked me to speak to you today. Bishop John gave me these words to share with you:

If the towers and spires of thousands of wonderful parish churches are the distinctive vision of the English landscape, it is their bells that is its quintessential sound. It is a glorious one, which proclaims that these churches are open, living, and active, as they have been for hundreds of years, summoning us to perceive that ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God’.

Thank you.

Mark Regan
16 November 2021

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