Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.”
Was there ever a more joyous sound than the church bells’ pealing out across the country last weekend? The celebratory ringing of the bells – thought to be introduced to the Christian Church in AD 400 but officially sanctioned by Pope Sabinian in AD 604 – has been noticeably absent from our lives in lockdown, and we are all the lesser for it.
[Bells provide] an inexhaustible stream of abstract melody which is part of our cultural heritage. – Jonathan Dove
Bells are an audible celebration, once of the one of the nuclei of quintessential Britishness – unpolluted by political interference, as so much of our national identity has been in recent years (ladies and gentlemen, I present the Union Jack). In fact, the sound of our bells inspired Handel to nickname Britain “the ringing Isle” after he visited in 1714, and British composer Jonathan Dove has described the sound of bells as “an inexhaustible stream of abstract melody which is part of our cultural heritage. It’s the most public, and the loudest, piece of British musical activity.”
The ringing of bells goes back much further even than AD 400. Bells are mentioned in the Old Testament: “And beneath at the feet of the same tunick round about, thou shalt make as it were pomegranates, of violet, and purple, and scarlet twice dyed, with little bells set between: So that there shall be a golden bell and a pomegranate, and again another golden bell and a pomegranate… that the sound may be heard, when he goeth in and cometh out of the sanctuary…” (Exodus 28).
The sound of our bells inspired Handel to nickname Britain “the ringing Isle” after he visited in 1714. – Constance Watson
In folklore, bells are believed to ward off the devil and other evil spirits.
Hearing the bells ring merrily on high for the first time in over three months sparked rejoice across the country: the sound marked the easing of lockdown and a hope in whatever our uncertain future may hold.
When the churches and houses of worship were closed at the beginning of lockdown – 122 days ago – yes, really – the bells fell silent.
Now, they ring again.
The confusing Covid bureaucratic guidelines of course apply to the bells. Ringers will wear masks, stand one metre apart, and are prohibited from performing for over 15 minutes. There is, however, one concession: bell ringers will not be required to wear gloves as this is thought to negatively impact – or indeed impede practice. A spokeswoman for the Central Council of Bell Ringers (CCBR) told the UK press: “it would be really good to get ringing going again, letting the bells proclaim that the church is open and wanted”. She added that the “return to ringing will be cautious, socially distanced” and “only for services”.
As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in 1850:
“Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.”
Let us hope, with the return of our church bells, we can ring in more optimistic times ahead.
Constance Watson is Assistant Editor of the Catholic Herald. She also contributes to The Spectator, The Telegraph, Standpoint and The Oldie.
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