The Use and Abuse of Church Bells; With Practical Suggestions Concerning Them by Blunt, Walter

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THE USE AND ABUSE OF THE CHURCH BELLS, WITH Practical Suggestions concerning them.

BY WALTER BLUNT, A.M., A PRIEST OF THE ENGLISH CHURCH.

LONDON: JOSEPH MASTERS, ALDERSGATE STREET. MDCCCXLVI.

LONDON: PRINTED BY JOSEPH MASTERS, ALDERSGATE STREET.

THE USE AND ABUSE OF THE CHURCH BELLS.

It has fallen to the writer’s lot, in the Divine dispensation, to be entrusted with the care, or joint care, of very many parishes in various parts of England: and he knows not any one external matter, common to them all, and to the neighbourhoods surrounding them, which has caused him more pain than the ordinary use, and the almost utter neglect for their own proper purposes, of the Church Bells.

Indeed, so much is the proper use of these holy instruments of edification (for such they really are) generally lost sight of, that among all the New Churches which have been builded during the last few years, scarcely any have more than _one_ Bell; a greater number being considered a vain superfluity, a kind of ecclesiastical luxury—or, by deeper thinkers, a link between the Church and the _world_ (and that often in its fiercest contentions, vainest hours, and most carnal aspect) which we may well be rid of.

In our older Churches, the position of the Belfry (on the floor of the Church, immediately communicating with the Nave, generally laid entirely open to it, often, too, having no other entrance, and not unfrequently forming the passage between the Nave and Chancel) is sufficient to point out to every thinking person in the parish the very sacred character which was attached to their Bells when they were first hung, the holy purposes to which they were dedicated—and how solemn a matter, how truly a service of ALMIGHTY GOD, the Ringing of them was then esteemed.

In other Churches, almost always of a later date, we find the original position of the Ringers at a higher level, upon a floor in the Tower. But the Belfry was still laid open, by an arch, to the body of the Church—thus yielding evidence that the Ringing of the Bells was still esteemed a very sacred thing.

In many Churches of more recent foundation, but chiefly in such as have been builded within the last 200 years, we meet with a sad evidence of a decay of this feeling, or rather _principle_; in that the Belfry is placed high up in the Tower, and quite shut out from the body of the Church:—until, at last, it has come to pass (and this, too, is the case in some Churches, of 150 years old) that the Belfry is most frequently entirely omitted; and Churches of considerable size and pretensions are erected with only a single Call-Bell.

But while this result has been coming to pass—(and it has been not a little hastened by mercenary hearts and sacrilegious hands, in the robbery of many of our older Churches of their Bells) another change has gradually been taking place of a still more mischievous character. In various records which have come down to us, bearing date about the times of the Reformation, reference is often made to, and sufficient evidence is given of, the superstitious usage of Church Bells: and there is, too, room for but little doubt that they, as well as the Church itself, were in those later ages frequently applied to profane purposes.

Again, the Rules and doggrel verses (generally from one to two hundred years old) which remain in many of our Belfries, while they often show that the Bells were still used for holy purposes, and according to their original design, afford alas! a melancholy evidence that the Ringing of them was no longer esteemed a sacred service.

Toward the latter half of the last century—(that worst age of the English Church) the Ringing of the Church Bells became a fashionable amusement among the Yeomanry and Gentry, and was degraded to the level on which the hurdle-race and steeple-chase now stand;—and while their sweet voices were seldom heard for any holy purpose, they were made continually to wake the echoes of the neighbourhood, in no more noble cause, for no more sacred object, than the battue-shooting of the present day.

This amusement, however, at any rate in most parts of the country, has long ago “become vulgar” and “gone out of fashion”:—till at last our Belfries—though dedicated to GOD’S service—are left in a state of filthy dilapidation, receptacles for dirt and rubbish of all kinds, and very frequently the drinking-place of the most profane and profligate persons in the parish; who—totally ignorant of the sacred character, and Heavenly uses, of those holy instruments they are desecrating—ring the Bells for their amusement, amid oaths and obscenity, and sell their voices, for drink-money, for any worldly purpose—who ring “the muffled” or “the merry peal” for the rich man’s sorrow or rejoicing, but never send forth a sound of unbought sympathy with the poor.

Far better would it be than this that our Bells should be altogether soundless—or that our Towers (as is generally the case with modern Churches) should possess but one.

It is to point out the proper use of the Church Bells—and how very beneficial may be their influence when rightly put forth, what powerful coadjutors they may be made to the pastoral office—and also to give to his brother clergy the benefit (such as it is) of his own experience in the management of them,—that the writer has put together the following brief observations and suggestions: but, concerning which, he would humbly and earnestly express a hope that no one will act upon them, until he can himself realize the Church’s system on which they are grounded. It would be far better that one who (from whatever cause) is not endeavouring to spread practical holiness among his people, according to the Church’s method, (which such as have tried it, and other methods, well know to be the only successful one)—it would be far better that he should be content with silencing the Bells altogether, or preventing them being rung on improper occasions, than that he should introduce a system into his parish, which, in such a case, would be an _unreal_ one—and, as such, would be hurtful, instead of beneficial to his flock.

In the ordinarily received formularies and Canons of the English Church—I mean those which have been put forward subsequent to her Reformation—there is not much special notice of the Church-Bells to be found. At the period of the Reformation, and for some time after, the use seems to have been generally understood and acted upon; and thus “a law of custom” superseded the necessity of any written law. Little, therefore, in the way of positive command was enacted, except for the abolition of certain evil habits which had grown up. Those notices, however, which do occur in the laws of our Church during the last two hundred and fifty years, are quite sufficient to show that she _now_ recognizes their ancient holy uses, and no others.

_Preface to the Book of Common Prayer._

“And all Priests and Deacons are to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer, either privately or openly, not being let by sickness or some other urgent cause. And the Curate that ministereth in every parish church or chapel, being at home, and not being otherwise reasonably hindered, shall say the same in the parish church or chapel where he ministereth, and shall cause a Bell to be tolled thereunto a convenient time before he begin, that the people may come to hear GOD’S Word, and to pray with him.”

_Canon LXVII._, 1603-4.

“ ... And when any is passing out of this life, a Bell shall be tolled, and the Minister shall not then slack to do his last duty. And after the party’s death, if it so fall out, there shall be rung no more than one short peal, and one other before the burial, and one other after the burial.”

_Canon LXXXVIII._, 1603-4.

“The Churchwardens or Questmen, and their Assistants, shall suffer no plays, feasts, banquets, suppers, church-ales, drinkings, temporal courts, or leets, lay-juries, musters, or any other profane usage, to be kept in the church, chapel, or churchyard, neither the Bells to be rung superstitiously upon Holy-Days or Eves abrogated by the Book of Common Prayer, nor at any other times, without good cause, to be allowed by the Minister of the place, and by themselves.”

The Belfry is a part of the Church,—and is, as is the rest of the Church, dedicated to GOD—any profane use of the Belfry, or any use of it for common worldly purposes, any unholy, light, irreverent conduct there, is a direct sin against GOD—a breaking of the Third Commandment.

The Bells are to the whole parish what a Church Organ is to an assembled congregation. They wake up the heart’s affections, and lead us in our praises to GOD.—But they have a holy use and purpose of still broader character:—They call us to the Church, and tell us it is time for public Prayer, and bid all come who can—They warn, too, those who cannot come, that it is prayer-time now, that they may raise their hearts with us, and wish that they were with us, and send their desires heavenward, and have direct communion with us in our prayers, though absent in the body—They preach to all continually of death and Judgment, of Heaven and Hell,—and while they invite the willing, they warn those who will not come—They remind us all, amid our busy occupations, twice every day, that this is not our continuing city, that we are but pilgrims and sojourners upon earth; and while they warn the slothful Christian, thus continually, to “gird up his loins” and haste heavenwards, they preach to those who never hear another preacher, and tell them of a Judgment to come. Again,—They wake the heart to gladness on all the Holy Feast Days of the Church, loudly calling upon us to “rejoice in the LORD”; and in times of fasting and humiliation,—eloquent by their silence or by their mournful sounds, they call us to penitence and sorrow. Again,—If any of our neighbours, rich or poor, be joined together by Holy Church in marriage, the Bells ring out their cheerful peal of joy, bidding us all to raise up our hearts in thanksgiving with our brethren (whose marriage “represents unto us the mystical union which is betwixt CHRIST and His Church”)—for that “marriage is honourable in all men,” and “if one member be honoured, all the members rejoice.” Again,—When any is passing out of this life, the “Passing Bell” is tolled, acquainting us with that awful circumstance, warning us that our own time may even now be at hand, and calling upon us to pray for our departing brother, that in this “his hour of death the Good LORD may deliver him,” and “not suffer him, for any pains of death, to fall from GOD,”—that one and all of us, Minister and people, whether present with our suffering brother or absent from him, may put up to GOD, in his and in our own behalf, “the Commendatory Prayer for a Sick Person at the point of departure,” which is provided for us in our Prayer Book, at the end of the service for “the Visitation of the Sick.” And when the soul is departed and delivered from this death-bearing body, the Bells ring out in notes of solemn cheerfulness their peal of chastened joy, calling us to thankfulness for our brother’s deliverance from trial and difficulty and peril—this sinful, tempting, ever dangerous world. And when the body of our brother is being carried to its resting place, to be laid up in safety for the Resurrection, and after, too, it is deposited in the tomb, the Bells ring out again their note of praise, bidding us to “sorrow not as those that have no hope,” for that “the soul of him which has departed hence in the LORD, is now in joy and felicity,” and that “this corruptible _body_ shall put on incorruption;”—reminding us that with respect to him we have neither time nor cause for grief—that we must one and all of us return each to the diligent performance of the hard-handed duties of his own position,—and that while we “work out our own salvation, with fear and trembling” with reference to ourselves,—with reference to him we may “go on our way rejoicing.”

Thus holy are the Church Bells—and thus great is their holy usefulness to us. If, therefore, they are used for any common purposes—if upon occasions of mere worldly joy—if when the Church would call us all to gladness, her bells are made to sound the note of sorrow—if their sweet voices should be bought and sold, loudly proclaiming the rich man’s weal or woe, and silent or almost silent about CHRIST’S poor—then is their usefulness destroyed, their holy purpose abolished or reversed, and a grievous sin is committed against the Church, and against GOD to Whom they are dedicated.

But of the Ringers—the Bells are dumb without them. It is they who enable the Bells to put forth their solemn sound, and tune them to their various purposes. How holy, therefore, is the Ringers’ office! How deeply religious is the service of such men! How careful should they be about their manner of ringing! How sinful must any carelessness of ringing be! How very sinful any levity of behaviour in the performance of their duties! And,—inasmuch as no one can occupy a holy office without incurring a largely increased responsibility for the attainment of individual holiness; and no one who does not become better by exercising or holding a holy office can fail of becoming worse—how very careful should all who are in authority be about the appointment and the conduct of the Ringers! How very watchful should the Ringers be of their own lives and conversation!

_Suggestions_—

1. That the Belfry should be carefully kept as clean, and in as good repair (both substantial and ornamental) as any other part of the Church. And that it should be decorated with Texts of Scripture and other appropriate ornaments.—If possible, the Belfry should be open to the body of the Church—or at the most divided from it by a low open skreen: for any other arrangement will be found very inconvenient for the due performance of the Ringers’ duty, and will add to any difficulty which may exist in realizing the sanctity of the place.

2. That no person except the Ringers and other officers of the Church be permitted, at any time, to enter the Belfry, without the leave of the Minister or Churchwardens.

3. That no person except the Ringers be permitted at any time to sound any of the Bells, without the special permission of the Minister.

4. That the Ringers be appointed by the Minister and Churchwardens; and hold their office during good conduct.

5. That the Ringers be regarded as a part of _the general Choir_, and be placed in all things on an equality with it.

6. That two companies of Ringers be appointed—each company being equal in number to the Bells—the one company being the regular Ringers, performing and being responsible for all regular duty, and enjoying all emoluments—the other being a supplemental company, out of which any vacancy which may occur in the first company shall be filled up, and any member of which may be employed by any member of the first company to supply his place during any necessary absence.

7. That one member of each company of Ringers, appointed by the Minister and Churchwardens, be held responsible for the conduct of the company in the Belfry: and report to the Minister and Churchwardens any ill conduct (whether in or out of the Belfry) of any member of his company, which may come to his knowledge.

8. That the use of the Bells be confined strictly to Ecclesiastical purposes.

9. That a list or table of the days and times and occasions of ringing, signed by the Minister and Churchwardens, be suspended in the Belfry and in the Church Porch:—with a statement that no occasion mentioned therein is to be omitted, but upon the direction of the Minister; and no occasion is to be added thereto, but upon the joint direction of the Minister and Churchwardens.

10. That the ringing table should contain the following rules:—

_a._ That a Bell should be tolled (for a quarter of an hour) before Morning and Evening Prayer—according to the direction of the Prayer Book.

_b._ That the Bells should be chimed for a stated time, before the use of the service for the Holy Communion.

_c._ That the Bells should be rung in peal, for a quarter of an hour and no more, after every Marriage.

_d._ That the great Bell should be tolled, according to the Canon, (for a quarter of an hour) when any is passing out of this life, or appears to be dying.

_e._ That the Bells should be rung, according to the Canon, in a steady, solemn, though cheerful peal, for five minutes and no more, as soon as may be after the death. Which particular peal should be kept strictly for this purpose, and never applied to any other.

_f._ That the Bells should be rung or chimed, according to the Canon, in a steady, grave, and solemn, though cheerful peal (kept strictly for this purpose) for ten minutes before every Burial.

_g._ That the Bells should be rung, according to the Canon, in a steady, solemn, though more cheerful peal (kept strictly for this purpose) for five minutes after every Burial.[1]

_h._ That the Bells should be rung in peal at early morning (for a quarter of an hour) and at other specified times, on every LORD’S day, and on every other Festival commanded by the Church to be kept holy, and on the day of the dedication of the Parish Church.

_i._ That the Bells be not rung in peal (except the death and burial peals) for any purpose, on any Friday in the year, except it be Christmas day;—nor in the season of Lent, except upon the LORD’S day and the Feast of the Annunciation.

_j._ That at the opening of Christmas day, the Feast of The Circumcision, The Feast of The Epiphany, The Feast of The Purification, (Presentation of CHRIST in the Temple), The Feast of The Annunciation (Incarnation), Easter day, The Feast of The Ascension, and The Feast of Pentecost, the Bells should be rung in peal, for five minutes, at Midnight.

_k._ That on Fridays and other Fasting days the great and little Bell should be rung together, in alternate toll, for a quarter of an hour at early morning, and at other specified times.

_l._ That in order that they may have opportunity of practice, a special quarter or half hour be appointed, on each Festival, for the second company of Ringers to ring in peal.

11. That, in order to prevent any mercenary use of the Bells, or any difference being made between Rich and Poor, with respect to them, and in order to secure a fair remuneration to the Ringers, a regular definite yearly salary should be paid to the first company of Ringers; and no Ringer should be permitted to receive any payment or gratuity for the performance of his duty, on any special occasion.

Very beneficial results have been obtained from the following out of this system; and it has become evident to those who have tried it, that the more perfectly it is carried out, so, much more than in due proportion, are the benefits. Indeed, after the first difficulties are overcome, it is much easier to carry out the _whole_ system than a _part_ of it—for, when in action, as a whole, it has a completeness and consistency and beauty which approves it to the minds of thinking persons generally—of those even, who from circumstances, are a “not well affected to the Church.”

Perhaps the most difficult part of the system to carry out, or rather to begin upon, in some places, would be the Church’s rule concerning ringing at a death and before and after a burial; and yet in some parts of the Midland, Western and Northern Counties this rule is, and always has been, complied with. Not, indeed, for _all_—for the poor _cannot pay the Ringers_! and the rich consider it “vulgar”!!—but for yeomen and tradespeople; and in other parts of the country, _e.g._ in Cornwall, the doggrel verses which are found in the Belfries, bear witness that the observance of the rule was maintained up to no very distant period. However, people generally have such heathenish notions concerning death and burial that the great majority of them, in almost every parish, would require much instruction concerning them, according to the tone of our praise-breathing Burial Service, before they could be expected to understand and appreciate the Church’s rule with respect to her Bells on these occasions. If, however, careful explanation were tenderly and lovingly given, and the peals for the several occasions properly and judiciously chosen, _and carefully kept for those occasions only_, so that “the trumpet” should not at any time “give an uncertain sound,”—it would soon be found that the observance of the rule is greatly conducive in spreading and deepening more Christian principles and feelings concerning death.

It is true that occasions might occur, and that not unfrequently in many parishes, when the sound of thanksgiving for the death of one for whom he could have but little hope, would grate harshly upon the Clergyman’s ear, and wake up strange contending feelings in his heart. But surely the sound of thanksgiving from the Church tower cannot be inappropriate when the words of thanksgiving from the Priest’s own mouth, in the Burial Service, are not so; and it would not only be possible, but greatly beneficial to the parish, (both in its immediate effect, and as paving the way for a return to a more complete system of Christian discipline) to silence the Bells on particular occasions, and forbid the accustomed sound of public thanksgiving, on the departure of such as had lived unholy lives.[2]

Another difficulty which will be likely to present itself in many places, is the provision of a fixed yearly salary for the Ringers. But the difficulty, however great, is as nothing in proportion to the benefits which will accrue. And while the accomplishment of the object is worth any effort and almost any sacrifice, the difficulty will seldom be found so great as it may at first sight appear.

In a parish which had six Bells, where the price of labour was at about the average rate in country towns, where the population was between four and five thousand, the great majority of which were Church people, and where there was a double daily service, (without which I do not suppose that the system would do much, if any good)—the whole annual expense was less than £19. But it is evident that the expense would be different for different parishes: in fact, for one fixed element in calculating the expense there are three variable elements. The fixed element is the number of ordinary days and Holy Days in the year. The variable elements are, 1, the ordinary price of labour in the parish: 2, the number of Bells: 3, the average number of Marriages and Burials—which must of course be dependent upon the number and character of the population.

In making a calculation of the proper amount of salary, the price of labour should, for obvious reasons, be reckoned higher than that usually paid in the parish, and the number of Marriages and Burials at above the average, in cases where _all_ have not been brought to Church; inasmuch as any such return to consistent holy practice, if done in a Christian loving manner, is sure to win the affections of the people.

For raising the required amount, whatever it may be, a well-affected parish would doubtless contribute something from its “Rates”—if not _all_, as the law requires it to do. There might also be a collection at the Offertory, once or twice a year, for the purpose:—and there might be “a Ringers’ Box” placed in the Church, under the lock and care of the Minister and Churchwardens, to receive contributions of “the faithful” toward defraying the expenses of this part of Divine worship.—Lastly, in parishes which are moderately well endowed, the Priest may well take it into consideration, whether he may not duteously and beneficially devote some _small_ portion, at any rate, of the income which is entrusted to him for the furtherance of the spiritual well-being of his flock, to the honour of GOD and the welfare of His people, in this so very important branch of His service.

[1] There is evidence that in the Sixteenth Century one hour was not too long for the short peal after the death, and half an hour for that at the burial; but the writer has found from experience that a much shorter time is now advisable, at any rate in commencing the system.

[2] On all such occasions the friends of the deceased would have opportunity of appeal to the Bishop, and the Clergyman would be open to censure for any improper exercise of authority.

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