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At its meeting in May the Central Council will be asked to consider yet another change to the decisions on methods and peals. It is highly technical but that is not a reason to ‘leave it to the experts’. It is the latest in a line of well meaning patches to a flawed system.
The ringing community needs shared definitions to avoid confusion. We expect to have a common view of what a peal or a quarter peal is, and we expect to use method names that mean the same thing to all ringers. The natural custodian is the Central Council.
But what we have inherited has serious shortcomings – it is generally prescriptive rather than descriptive, and creates periodic conflict and controversy when ringers try to develop the art and science of ringing in innovative ways.
The rules were originally formulated by the Legitimate Methods Committee, formed in 1899. True to its name it defined what it considered to be legitimate methods and declared anything else ‘illegitimate’, including some things that had been rung by advanced bands for much of the preceding century. It also prescribed criteria for performances, notably the requirement that peals should only use ‘legitimate’ methods.
The Committee’s declared objective was ‘to maintain standards’, but ringing permitted methods does not necessarily guarantee a more pleasing performance than excluded methods.
That authoritarian outlook was characteristic of its era, and has been out of step with modern attitudes for at least 50 years, during which time, the rules have been progressively relaxed, usually amid controversy. More types of method are now allowed but anything not yet defined is still proscribed.
This prescriptive approach forces anyone wishing to innovate to break the rules and then try to get them changed retrospectively. That creates ill feeling. The rules are sometimes changed but the outcome is always uncertain.
It can also be wasteful. Innovation doesn’t always yield useful results, so it would be better for novel ideas to be tried and tested within recognised peals, so ringers can then decide what is worth keeping and developing the ideas that have been used, and what gets quietly dropped. With the current approach the Council can spend a lot of time deciding whether to alter the decisions in response to a non-compliant peal for an innovation that may subsequently be neglected. It can also lead to the indefensible position where the first innovative performance is not recorded as such because it fell outside the rules when rung, even though it provided the stimulus for a rule change that made later similar performances admissible.
Many Council members have little interest in highly technical issues, but the current approach forces them to adjudicate on such matters even if they feel ill-equipped to do so.
The ad hoc relaxation of the rules has made them ever more complicated, but the core problem remains – prescriptive rules restrict innovation, create unnecessary controversy and create uncertainty for innovators.
In 2002 the Decisions were reworded so that the Council doesn’t ‘accept’ peals but simply ‘notes whether they comply with the Decisions’. But since the analysis excludes non-compliant peals from all the tables and statistics – they appear as little more than footnotes – that didn't solve the problem. Ringers don’t want their peals branded ‘non compliant’ to be set on one side, any more than they wanted them to be ‘not accepted’.
We need agreed definitions for what constitutes a peal (or quarter) and for the naming of methods, but they should more effectively reflect the needs of ringers. Criteria for performances could define the basics (length, truth, the essence of change ringing, etc) but not stipulate what type of methods may be rung.
The scheme for naming methods could be based on what we already have, and extended as required to cater for new types of method. But this would be a service to enable ringers to describe what they have rung, not a prescription for what they are allowed to ring. Wherever possible, all definitions could be simplified to cover what is essential and avoid over complication by special cases.
Reforms in accordance with these principles could lead to a simpler, more easily understood set of definitions that support the keeping of records and the exchange of information about methods whilst allowing innovation to flourish. They could thus command widespread respect.
Having seen what is wrong with the current setup, and outlined a better approach, let us now look at it from several viewpoints. If we are to avoid problems in future it is important that any changes are broadly acceptable to all sides, and that we don’t just shift the ‘balance of power’ from one faction to another.
These are the people who fall foul of the current prescriptive Decisions most often when they want to try new ways of doing things. Changing the requirement to ring predefined types of method, and placing the requirement for truth on the performance that is rung, not on portions of methods that aren’t rung, would provide a framework that permitted innovation while still maintaining the universal respect for peals as performances.
The Committee does its job in accordance with Decisions laid down by Council. Its report is the one that declares that peals ‘fail to comply with the Decisions’ and lists them apart from all the others. Its job would be less controversial if the Decisions were revised.
The Methods Committee often finds itself in the firing line. Its members use their skills to do a tricky technical job – developing consistent definitions for a field as complex as change ringing is not easy. But like professional soldiers, they find themselves trying to solve problems created by others on a front line defined in a bygone age.
If the changes are made, their technical skills will still be needed, and they will be able to focus on providing an effective service without being on the front line of a battle. Without the pressure to codify every new idea before it has been proven to be durable they may be able to take a more strategic view of their work. They may also be able to consider ways of simplifying what they have inherited.
Many Council members who don’t consider themselves experts in technical matters are understandably suspicious when people who ‘break the rules’ ask for them to be changed, and one can understand many voting for the status quo as a ‘safe option’. The essence of what I am suggesting is not about the arcane detail of method structure and it is not framed in technical language. It is about a principle of whether peal ringers should only be allowed to ring types of method that have been rung before, and which the Central Council has already described and sanctioned, in order for their peals to be recognised by the ringing community. As members of the Council they all have a collective stake in its reputation with ordinary ringers.
Which brings us to the thousands of ringers who don’t ring many peals and certainly don’t ring anything ground breaking. Is this even relevant to them? If you asked them, most would probably say no, and they might comment that the Council is irrelevant because it spends all its time arguing about such things.
The fact that so many ringers see the Council as irrelevant, and are unaware of how much of what it has done they benefit from, is a major failure on behalf of the Council. The Council exists to provide services to the ringing community (and not just to peal ringers, but also to those who ring quarters or just want to explore and name new methods). It will not gain the respect it needs to function effectively by clinging to prescriptive concepts inherited from a former era, or by hitting the headlines with arguments about methods and peals.
So although many ringers may have ‘no interest’ in the debate, its outcome could have a major impact on how the Council in future relates to the community it is intended to serve.
Unlike most protagonists in these matters, I don’t have a vested interest on either side. I am unlikely to ring in leading edge peals since my peal ringing is quite modest and I have never served on the Methods or Peal Records committees. In that respect I am an ‘ordinary Council member’ – I want the Council to provide better services to all ringers, and thus to gain their respect. So I feel we must break out of the cycle of continual conflict and patch.
The Council should not just keep adding concessions to its prescriptive approach. It should be bold and develop a permissive framework, supported by a descriptive service. It should probably do it in two stages, first to agree a set of principles and then to develop the detail. It should also do it openly, seeking the views of the ringing community at all stages. That won’t be easy and it won’t be quick because there will be many conflicting views, but it will be worth it to produce a durable set of definitions that has broad consensus rather than grudging tolerance.
John Harrison, April 2014
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