This response is made by the Executive of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR), which is the representative body for all territorial and Diocesan bellringing Guilds and Associations, responsible for ringing the bells of over 5000 Church of England churches, as well as the bells in churches of other denominations and in secular rings.
Bellringing in context
The CCCBR primarily represents those bellringers who ring with rope and wheel in the traditional English style. This is a tradition that developed after the Reformation into the practice of change ringing, or “the Exercise” as it became known. Up until late Victorian times, change ringing was essentially a secular sport, but then Victorian ‘belfry reform’ brought bellringers into order and formed the mostly Diocesan based ringing organisations we have today. Although the exact number of individual bellringers is not known, it is believed to be over 30,000.
While bellringing has at its heart a service to the church in calling people to worship, its success is built on a wider picture of bellringing activity. The ‘art and science’ of change ringing that keeps the majority of bellringers interested is not satisfied by just the opportunities afforded by service ringing, but relies on practices, tours, longer performances and competitions. It is a performing art, a group and social activity, a community of diverse individuals performing in teams. Without that there would probably not be enough people interested in bellringing to maintain Sunday service ringing. Some of bellringers’ desire to keep as many parish churches open as possible is because we like ringing their bells!
Canon F 8 “Of church bells” provides that “In every church and chapel there shall be provided at least one bell to ring the people to divine service.” For those churches fortunate enough to have a ring of bells hung for change ringing, those bells form the loudest voice the church has. Their sound alone is a form of evangelism, and the music the bellringers generate, whilst not recognised as music in the traditional sense, has the same traditions as any other form of church music. Although in many cases the bellringers are heard but not seen, their contribution is a significant one.
Bells and the Community
In addition to ringing for worship and other church services such as weddings, bells play an important part of community life. This was brought into stark relief by the silencing of bells at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, when bells were missed, and the public call for bells to be rung for the NHS as restrictions were lifted.
Since Covid the number of requests received by the CCCBR for bells to ring nationwide has increased significantly. Bells were rung for the G7 summit in Cornwall for instance, and the Church of England itself has called for bells to be rung for the Climate Change summit COP26.
Few clergy oppose the ringing of church bells beyond the traditional Sunday service. Most understand the bigger picture, but also every time bells ring from a church tower they are a reminder to the local community that the church is there – they are still performing their function of evangelism. This is bellringers’ special contribution to the mission of the church.
Bells, bellringing and heritage
Bellringing is recognised by Historic England as part of the country’s cultural heritage. Each year there are many bellringing projects funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, however the key characteristic of projects that receive funding is that they are about the ringers and the community, not just about the bells.
Bells make music and need to be heard not locked away. Bells are not just artefacts to be preserved. Consideration of bells as artefacts was central to the cases of both St John’s Hanley and St Cross Oxford (see below), where conservation lobbies argued for heritage artefacts to be retained in their original setting at the expense of their function. The bellringing community will always argue that bells need to be rung, and if that means they need to be removed from their current setting in order to be heard then so be it.
Bellringing and GS2222
The bellringing community has two principal interests in GS2222, and our answers to the consultation reflect that. Firstly, we are keen to see parish churches thrive and continue to be used so that bellringing can play a part in that worship, and bellringing can continue to play its part in the wider mission of the church. Although by no means all bellringers are regular church attenders, in some churches bellringers form a significant part of the congregation. There is one example of a church in Cornwall that made such a focus on bellringing as an activity that it has increased its congregation five fold and now meets its parish share when previously it didn’t. Bellringers are also often involved in the community in multiple ways whether or not they are church attenders, and the most thriving bands of ringers tend to have a clear, single geographical base – the parish.
However, where churches do have to close, we are keen to avoid what is currently a problem of rings of bells being caught up in the disposal process, with the opportunity to remove them and put them to better use lost. This has already happened in many cases, with rings of bells silenced and essentially wasted. For instance, at Christ Church Oldbury, a useable ring of eight bells still sits in a church which has been converted to offices, with a concrete floor cast below them. In a recent case at St Cross Oxford, the efforts of the local bellringers to move a ring of six from the church was thwarted by the DAC arguing that the bells were a heritage asset, so they remain in the building, unable to be rung as it has been turned into a library for Balliol College.
There are however positive examples of where bells have been successfully moved. The fine ring of 10 bells at St John’s Hanley would have remained in situ with a concrete floor cast below them (being the preference of the local Conservation Officer), had it not been for the building owner’s dogged campaign for their removal, and a marginal decision at Planning Committee. They now form a new ring of 12 bells at St Mary’s Stafford.
Under the current process for church closure, little consideration is given to bells. The CCCBR is currently discussing the issue of bells in the disposal process with the Church Buildings Council and Historic England. All parties recognise the benefit of early consideration of the future of bells before a church closes and the need to have a streamlined system, with early notice of potential closure so bells can be considered.
Bellringers will always be able to find homes for good rings of bells. In some cases we will find churches which have active congregations but which have never had a ring of bells for various reasons, or have too few bells to be useful for change ringing. The old 12 bells from St Martin’s Birmingham went to St Helen’s Escrick, while more recently the bells from Cleator Moor provided a new ring of bells for St Bridget’s Moresby.
In some instances rings of bells could go to churches in other countries, with particular appetite for rings of bells in Anglican churches in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The old 12 bells from St Martin-in-the-Fields ring out over Perth, Western Australia, and a ring of 12 bells has just been installed in Singapore Cathedral.
The CCCBR is also working on plans to get rings of bells into schools and community buildings. Whilst being lost to the mission of the church in such instances, the indirect benefit is in introducing bellringing to a wider community who will end up ringing bells in active churches.
Specific Consultation Answers
[to refer back to the specific questions being asked, they are in the original paper here]
The majority of specific questions raised do not have direct implications for bells and bellringing. We have therefore limited our responses to those where there is direct relevance.
Q1 & Q2 – We don’t have a view on this other than we support whatever results in stronger parishes with strong communities. Bellringing can play a role in a church community, but only where the bellringers are seen as part of the community and actively engage with it.
Q3 – Bellringers are firmly on the side of church buildings being important for mission, and the sound of church bells being part of that. However, recognising that there will be situations where a building will be closed for whatever reason, we support a process that is quick and allows for access to bells either to be retained, where a building is put into community use, or taken out for rehoming, where there is a risk that access to the bells will be lost. We are in favour of the idea of community churches with some worship space.
Q1, Q2 & Q3 – Whether or not PCCs are partially replaced at some stage by Benefice joint councils or over-arching deanery structures, we view it as important that bellringers are present as invited representatives, sufficiently empowered to be able to input into the suggested lifecycle continuum process for a church building’s future. This will ensure that any matters relating to bells are considered as part of the continuum.
Q4 – We support greater powers to lease or vest churches in use to organisations that can look after them. We are forming partnerships with such bodies like the CCT, who recognise the value in visiting bellringers in keeping churches used, having some more people making regular visits who can keep an eye on the property, and whose activities ought to reduce the cost of insurance not increase it.
Q5 – No particular implications for bells and bellringing
Q6 – As an interested party and one which would be directly affected by a church closure we would like to see pastoral conversations happening with the local bellringing community
Q7 – Q13 – No particular implications for bells and bellringing
Q14 & Q15 –We support an interim status which gives us more time to discuss and plan the future of bell installations.
Q16 & Q18 – No particular implications for bells and bellringing
Q17 – Yes we don’t think there should be added complication of the faculty system and secular during closure process – it should be governed by a single system, and the secular would seem most logical. Ironically though the faculty system is the better system for enabling bells to be removed, and enabled the successful removal and rehoming of the bells from Cleator Moor.
Q19 – This is not particularly relevant to the bells, but generally we think buildings should be looked after during the disposal process, and if that means the Diocese paying then so be it.
Q20 – We would be concerned if there wasn’t any consultation on proposals for lease, only because some consultation would enable consideration of the bells, whether they will become inaccessible and potentially at risk, or whether the lease use is so restrictive that an alternative home for the bells should be considered.
Q21 – No particular implications for bells and bellringing
Q22 – No implications for bells or bellringing although we are generally in favour of Historic England’s resources not being wasted unnecessarily.
Q23 – Q31 – Not relevant to bells and bellringing
President, Central Council of Church Bell Ringers