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All change at the Central Council

When you read this in Odd Bob, you might have seen official reports in the Ringing World, so I will try to give some personal impressions rather than just bare facts.

This was the end of a triennium (three year stretch) and there were many fresh faces from new members - many of them 'ordinary ringers', not the super-beings people might tell you.

The venue

Different member societies host the meeting each year, and this year it was in Norwich - an interesting city. As well as the 'work' I went to an opera on the Saturday evening and toured the castle on Sunday morning after morning ringing in the city. At the first tower, many of the tower grabbers left after the first couple of touches, and it was clear if we all went, there would be too few to ring up to the service, so I persuaded enough people to stay. Afterwards, the tower captain said how wonderful it was to have all their bells rung - without us there were only three of them.

The welcome meeting in the afternoon is a new feature to introduce fresh members to the council in an informal atmosphere. They had had a welcome pack explaining how the Council works, and at the meeting they could talk to committee chairmen and officers over tea (which was most of the 'meeting').

Round the corner was the annual service at at St Peter Mancroft - a splendid, light, airy building. The singing had the vigour you would expect from a church full of ringers. The address, by a ringing bishop, was among the best I have heard.

Back at the hotel, there was just time to hand over a computer with a quick demonstration of !Strike to Heather Peachey who will use it for a listening course, and then the reception dinner, with more opportunity for ad hoc discussions with people about everything from running courses to advice on bell tuning, and all in between.

Monday is an early start for those who attend the corporate communion. My wife dropped me at 8.30 before driving home to a silver wedding party without me. (We CC members are a dedicated lot!) An hour later the meeting began with forebodings of contentious business ahead, as well as all the committee elections - a recipe for a long hard day. Thankfully after the overnight thunderstorm it was cooler, or the room would have been unbearable.

Contentious methods

The problem of method definitions is a long running saga. You might have read Simon Linford's excellent series in the Ringing World explaining things in layman's language. The immediate problems concern methods most of us are unlikely to ring, but there are important underlying issues of more general concern.

Despite caustic comments people sometimes make, we would all be far worse off if method definitions did not exist. We take for granted that everyone knows what Plain Bob, Grandsire, Stedman, Cambridge, etc. are, but it wasn't always so. Standardisation of methods is a significant achievement of the last century or so, but standardisation should not mean fossilisation. Standards must adapt to the needs of ringers. How they do so is at the heart of the current controversy.

The current rules seek to define what is currently being rung in fair detail. Extending the boundary as the art progresses keeps adding extra rules, special cases and exceptions, so the rules get progressively more unwieldy. Also, anyone wishing to innovate must first break the rules before persuading the powers that be to change them. The alternative now being proposed is for the rules only to define what is essential to cover the essence of what change ringing is about. Innovations would then be filling in gaps rather than breaking bounds.

The two sides of the debate are far from reconciled, but there was give and take in the debate, and Stephanie Warboys, spokesman for the new approach, was elected to the Methods committee to work alongside the traditionalists. Let us hope that this approach works.

The Ringing World

This problem was less comfortably resolved. The Ringing World Ltd, the company owned by the Central Council that produces our weekly newspaper, has gone through a few troubled years. Some problems have been more public than others. Throughout this period of change, much has been achieved and many problems overcome, thanks to the efforts of the board of directors, all of whom are unpaid volunteers, as well as the staff. Yet despite these improvements, there has been a trickle of worrying signals that perhaps all was not quite right. It is hard for outsiders to judge such matters, and many of us hoped things would be resolved without revolution.

After three years of skirmishes, the balloon finally went up. The board made a very creditable presentation of recent achievements, and in a statesmanlike move, two directors offered to stand down after a period of handover. But the drama continued to unfold like a Greek tragedy. Steve Coleman voiced concerns that despite all the good news, something somewhere was not quite right. Speaking as moderately as he could, albeit in florid language, he gave credit to the achievements of the current board, but felt that change was needed. He and others emphasised that they were not questioning the integrity of board members, and there were a couple of moving tributes to Andrew Stubs, the outgoing chairman.

Experience has taught me that the world is not neatly divided into goodies and baddies, but sadly people often react as if it is. The board felt that their integrity was under attack, and all resigned, putting paid to any hopes of injecting new blood while retaining some continuity. A chill realisation went round the room that in a few short minutes, the fortunes of a quarter of a million pound business, providing a crucial service to the Exercise, had been tossed into the air with no certainty about where or how things would land.

The elections duly produced a new board, with a fair mix of the requisite skills, but a lot of catching up to do. They have taken on an extremely difficult task, and it is in everyone's interest for them to succeed.

The rest

The afternoon was now well spent, and we returned to the main Council business with the meat of the agenda - reports and election of fifteen working committees - barely begun. Weary of argument, and conscious of the time, members were reluctant to stir up many issues. We sped through the business with almost indecent haste.

One casualty of all this was the Education committee, which I chair. We needed several new members to replace long-serving ones standing down. In the event, many interested candidates either went to other committees that they felt needed their skills more than we did, or they had become Ringing World directors and had enough on their hands, so we now have six members instead of twelve. We will all have to work harder!

Thus my most eventful Council meeting finally ended at 7pm. It has opened some new opportunities, which we hope will be productive. It also showed some weaknesses in the way we do things, and I am confident this will stimulate reforms over coming years. To an outsider, the Council might seem slow to change (no bad thing in a large organisation) but it does change, and most of the changes I have seen in 13 years have been for the better.

John Harrison (2002)

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