I have been the priest of a small, rural parish for several years now. Our church is a modest and modern building which sits well in its village surroundings. It is the sort of place where you would never dream of planting a church today. But because of the conversion of the 8th Earl of Denbigh, in the 1850s the parish was endowed and flourished.
When the new church was built in the 1990s a small bellcote was erected but left empty. For a long time I have felt that it was crying out for some bells to call the faithful to Mass, ring the Angelus and be a gentle reminder of God’s Kingdom and his presence in our community. I also had the romantic notion of the bells ringing across the village and surrounding countryside after many years’ absence.
This desire was recently realised following a casual suggestion during the notices at Mass that it would be a good idea for the parish to have bells. I did not expect such enthusiasm from the congregation. Within a few weeks we had covered the cost of a digital system with speakers (not real bells, sadly), which would allow us to accompany our pattern of prayer with gentle tolls from the bellcote.
We now ring the bell five minutes before Mass and at other times during the day. A hymn even plays out each day as the children from the local primary school are collected by their parents. Last week I was walking by at half past three and a couple of children were skipping home to the hymn “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus”.
It may seem to some that fitting church bells today is unnecessary and an extravagance rather than a necessity. However, bells can be part of our evangelisation and witness as Christian communities.
Bells are a way of gently reminding people in the local area of the church’s presence. When rung for times of worship, they send out the message that the church is alive and active.
We have certainly had much encouragement from those in the village who have enjoyed hearing the bells. One person has even given me a list of hymn requests to add to a list played at the close of the school day. Just a few weeks ago someone stopped me in the street and asked about the bell we ring at noon and 6pm, giving me the opportunity to explain about the Angelus and the Incarnation. I never would have had this opportunity in any other circumstance. I have also appreciated the reminder to pray when I hear the bells ringing from my garden, a few streets away from the church.
There has been some minor opposition, as there often is in a traditional community when something new is introduced. A couple felt that the bells were imposing upon them, and let me know their feelings even though they live some distance from the church. There will always be those who seek to detract from what the Church is doing.
Thankfully any negativity has been from a very small minority. We ensure the bells are not a nuisance and don’t ring at unsociable hours or for prolonged periods. In fact, it is our immediate neighbours who have been the most supportive and encouraging.
There are many Catholic churches without bells. This is a missed opportunity. Over time bells become part of the community and help mark people’s days and life events.
Church bells are part of our Western Christian tradition which has never been completely regained by Catholics in this country. Historically bells have been blessed ready for their important mission. When we had our digital system installed we prayed for those who would hear the bells, that they would be blessed and reminded of the God who loves them.
I don’t know what impact our bells will have longer term, but I hope they will enhance the mission and place of our little parish in the community. I also hope that, in the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, our bells will
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.
Fr Matthew Pittam is the parish priest of St Joseph, Monks Kirby, and English Martyrs, Rugby. Fr Dominic Allain is on holiday