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Decisions, decisions, ... 1 – What’s it all about

Decisions (by Yvonne Hall)One of the services the Central Council provides for ringers is to act as the central repository for definitions and information about change ringing – methods and peals. That helps ringers to exchange information about ringing in another place or at another time, and to know what was meant. We benefit without realising it – for example if you visit a tower and are asked what you can ring then your reply will be understood.

Managing a shared resource carries with it the responsibility to ensure order, and since some aspects of ringing can be quite complex it can be harder than you might think to provide consistent ways to describe everything.

The Council has always accepted this responsibility – and has been accused of exerting too much rather than too little control. The Council has decided to review its approach (as embodied in the ‘Decisions’), and needs to hear the views of ringers if the result is to satisfy as many of their needs as possible. That presents a problem because most ringers are unfamiliar with the Decisions, which are quite technical and rather long.

In this series of articles I will give an overview of the purpose and function of the Decisions aimed mainly at non-technical ringers who are not already familiar with them. I will look at their role within the ringing community and explain some of the key features, as well as discussing some of the changes that have been suggested. I hope that I may help the majority of ringers who haven’t so far been involved in the debate to understand what the fuss is about and to feel able to contribute to the review process.

The Decisions

As the name implies, the Council’s ‘Decisions’ are things it has decided. They come in several different forms. Some decisions state the Council’s approval or disapproval – for example it encourages ringing societies to have specialist advisors and bell restoration funds, and it approves of good striking and muffled ringing for public mourning, but it discourages breaking up good bells or installing electronic bell substitutes.

Some decisions describe things that the Council will do, for example look after the Rolls of Honour or form beneficial alliances with other organisations.

Most of those decisions are pretty non-contentious. The heated debate is about the technical aspects – peals, methods and compositions – which between them account for some 85% of the words in the Decisions. Critics call them ‘rules’ but that is an over simplification, and a bit misleading.


Some Decisions are just definitions – they give precise meanings for specialist words (or specialist meanings for common words), which is sensible. To take a trivial example, the word ‘change’ is commonly used with two completely different meanings, but anyone involved with ringing theory uses two separate words to avoid confusion: A ‘row’ is a sequence of bells in order (eg 123456 or 324165) and a ‘change’ is the process that transforms (ie changes) one row into another. We call ourselves change ringers because we keep changing the order while ringing. A method is defined in terms of its changes, which can be applied to any starting row. So the changes in one lead are the same as the changes in the next lead, but the rows are all different (unless ringing something false).

Classification and codification

Some of the Decisions classify what we ring, for example methods are classified as ‘Bob’, ‘Treble Bob’, ‘Surprise’, and so on. These classifications are based on their structure. These classifications are more than mere definitions because they codify things in a way that represents choices about how they should be grouped and named. Over time these choices have changed as new classifications have been added and old ones have been dropped or merged.

Classifications are useful because they simplify things and help to bring order, but they need to reflect the ringing community’s needs or they can get in the way, as we shall see in a later article.


Some Decisions do sound like rules. For example the ‘conditions required for all peals’ say that every bell must be rung by the same person throughout and that none of the ringers may use any physical memory aids. Most of these broadly reflect what ringers do anyway but a few seem questionable as we shall see.

One requirement is particularly problematic because it requires the methods rung to be as defined elsewhere in the Decisions, which makes it difficult to ring a peal in a new type of method that hasn’t yet been described and classified.

How we got here

The Decisions originated in the Council’s early years. In previous centuries ideas and terminology had spread through books and word of mouth but some ambiguity and contradiction was inevitable without a central reference.

The growth in change ringing, and the greater organisation that came with territorial societies, led to a desire for more order and coherence in the technical side of ringing. Sir AP Heywood once said that: ‘of all the sciences, ringing is possessed of the most indefinite, most ambiguous and most inadequate phraseology’. This was part of his motivation for forming the Central Council.

The early Council went well beyond standardising terminology and trying to provide consistent central records of performances. The ‘Legitimate Methods Committee’ defined what it felt constituted a legitimate method and in the process it condemned some things that had long been rung (and many things that we consider quite acceptable today) as illegitimate. In debate such methods were variously described as worthless, and those who performed them as being unworthy.

This authoritarian mindset may shock us today but that was in an era when society was more hierarchical and deferential than it is now. For example, one in twenty of the British population was in domestic service and one in five Council members were clergymen (it’s around one in a hundred today).

Another indication of the different ethos of ringing during those early years was the competitive nature of peal ringing, and the desire to rank the merits of different peals. The Council spent some time trying to devise a scoring system for the level of difficulty of a peal before abandoning the idea.

The Council still keeps records of peal ringing, but as an indicator of the overall health of ringing and the progress of the Exercise rather than as to adjudicate between the merits of individual performances.

In the century since their creation, the Decisions have been greatly changed to bring them more into line with modern needs. Constraints have been removed and additional types of method have been added. But the process has been problematic for various reasons that I will cover later.

The status quo

Despite a lot of effort to adapt the Decisions to the needs of modern ringing they still come in for criticism from both ends of the spectrum. Ringers at the cutting edge typically complain that the Decisions get in the way of innovation while the mass of ringers tend to see them as over complicated and remote from their needs. That is clearly not an ideal situation and it is why the Council needs to review the Decisions.

Future articles will discuss: peals (compliant and non-compliant), methods (what’s allowed and what’s not), method naming (why it’s important), method extension (why it’s difficult), quarter peals (their role alongside peals), our audience (and the implications) and finally some thoughts about what we might do.

John Harrison 2016 (Cartoon by Yvonne Hall)

See the current Decisions . Article first published in The Ringing World  in 2016



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