Home page Bellringing Talks & lectures Fell walking Settle - Carlisle Metal sculpture Brickwork Journeys Ergonomics The rest Site map

Public ringing

The massive amount of ringing for Notre Dame after its fire stirred strong comment on the letters page (pp.482, 505 and 531, and Editorials pp.395 and 443). But what seems at first sight a simple question – whether we should have rung – is not so simple when you scratch the surface, since it raises several related questions. So I will try to look at them in a coherent way.

Question 1 – Should we ring for a fire in a building if we don’t ring for massacres?

Notre Dame cathedral is an iconic building, but the fire didn’t kill anyone and only injured three people, whereas the massacre of Muslims in Christchurch New Zealand a few weeks earlier claimed 51 lives and the massacre in Sri Lanka churches and hotels just six days later killed over 250.

Let’s start with some facts, using performances reported on BellBoard. All three events had an associated BellBoard event and the numbers of performances linked to them were: 1328 Notre Dame, 21 Sri Lanka and 13 Christchurch. Counting footnote mentions the numbers were: 1118 Notre Dame, 19 Sri Lanka and 10 Christchurch. Combining the two, and adjusting for overlaps, the total performances reported were: 1474 Notre Dame, 21 Sri Lanka and 22 Christchurch. So in round figures there appear to have been 70 times more performances for Notre Dame than for either the Christchurch or Sri Lanka massacres.

Is this a reliable comparison? Around 1000 of the reported performances were tolling, which only needs one person and so is easy than assembling whole teams. Also tolling tolling can be done where there is neither a ring of bells nor any ringers. Only about a third of churches have four or more ringable bells, so there could easily have been 2000 more tolling performances in non-ringing towers, which would not be reported on BellBoard. But even excluding tolling there were seven or eight times more performances for Note Dame than for either of the massacres.

I doubt whether any ringer involved would claim that a church roof was worth more than scores of human lives, so the question is not so much why would anyone choose to ring for A rather than B, but rather why one event should trigger a response when so many others don’t. That’s an important question, but to answer it I think you need to look beyond the ringing community, and and you also need to draw on an understanding of how human psychology affects unconscious reactions, as well as overt decisions and values. Let’s consider some possible factors.

Is it proximity? Notre Dame is a mere train ride from London, whereas Sri Lanka and New Zealand are on the other side of the world – could that explain the difference? Not if we bring in another example – the fire at Grenfell Tower. It was on our (UK) doorstep, and it had wall to wall news coverage. It killed 72 people – far more dead than in Christchurch – and the fire was as photogenic as the one at Notre Dame. It had a BellBoard event but it only attracted 26 performances (8 linked to the event and the others with just a footnote).

Could it be rarity? Great cathedrals don’t often have fires (the last major one in UK was York in 1984) but (sadly) massacres are all too common in our modern world. Tower block fires are not uncommon, but most don’t make the headlines outside local press, unlike Grenfell Tower, which is now probably the most notorious tower block since Ronan Point, which collapsed in 1968. It’s also the only fire in the last 30 years in the Fire Risk Assessment Network’s ‘15 Most Disastrous Fires in UK History’.

Is it an emotional reaction to an iconic building, which people have come to feel is ‘eternal’? That was probably a factor – and it takes us back to human psychology, and why we react more strongly to disaster affecting ‘iconic things’ of which there is only one (like Notre Dame) than we do to ‘ordinary things’ of which there are millions (like people we have never met). As I said above, I doubt that anyone consciously makes such a judgement, but some things come from the unconscious, and as St Matthew said: ‘you shall know them by their deeds’.

That brings us to the final reason – the source of the request to ring for Notre Dame. It came from the top of the Church, and although ringers don’t normally need telling to ring for things, when they are, especially by their churches, it has a very strong influence. So the questions above, about priorities and response thresholds, need to be asked within the church as much as, if not more than, within the ringing community.

Does that mean we can say that we were just jumping to the Church’s tune, slope our shoulders and blame the Church for getting its priorities wrong – ‘not me guv, just obeying orders’? I don’t think so. We can’t evade all responsibility because we are not mere minions – we enjoy considerable autonomy, and with that autonomy comes responsibility. Which leads on to ...

Question 2 – Should ringers always ring in response to official requests for ringing?

It depends on who is requesting, what is being requested, and why. Official requests come from many sources – bishops, ministers, government departments, other public bodies or high profile individuals. Some requests come via the church, with or without a recommendation to support them, some come via the Central Council, and some come via other routes. Some are preceded by consultation and planning but others come out of the blue, often not as requests but as public announcements that there will be ringing, which take us all by surprise.

While I served on the CC PR Committee we received many requests to promote ringing for various causes, some quite obscure, and among the factors we had to consider was whether if we put our weight behind a particular event, we would be expected to do the same for every similar request, which might prove impractical. Out of that emerged Things to Ring For where we could list a wide range of events that ringers might like to ring for, but only run major campaigns for high profile ones such as the Diamond Jubilee, which would receive widespread support.

Requests for ringing take different forms. Some may just be for ‘ringing’, while others might specify a particular time, or particular types of ringing. One notorious case was for 3 minutes of ringing at 6am (or was it 4am).

Some requests are for worthy causes, some might be contentious, and some are suspect (like the politician who decided there should be ringing to commemorate a historic war victory a few days before an election).

So the short answer to how we should respond to requests is ‘it depends’.

There is a logical converse to the question – should we wait to be asked before ringing for an event? That might seem a non-question since ringers often do take the initiative, and ring for things without being asked, but the statistics show they are in a minority. Of the 1328 bands that responded to the request to ring for Notre Dame, over 1300, ie 99%, did not ring for the other tragedies for which there was no comparable request.

Question 3 – Who makes the decision about whether to ring?

The legal answer is the PCC and clergy (or equivalent authority/owner for a non-church tower) but in practice neither ringers nor PCC can have absolute say without the other’s consent. Ringing can only take place if ringers are available, able and willing to ring, and it cannot take place if the relevant authority is unwilling to allow it. So it needs to be by agreement, whoever initiates the process.

In practice agreement is often tacit, with the ringers given freedom to organise ringing that they consider appropriate, on the understanding that the clergy would be consulted in any cases that might be contentious or cause difficulty. That gives us a lot of freedom, but it is still better to keep the clergy in the loop and encourage their input because they have a wider perspective of how the church sees things, and through their contacts with the community they may well have a better understanding of the public’s view too.

One example of where the Church’s view matters is ...

Question 4 – Should the ringing have taken place on Maunday Thursday?

The custom of ‘no ringing in Holy Week’ is widely observed, and those who do so often assume it is universal. Conversely those who normally ring for Holy Week services find the idea of not doing so rather odd. But whichever custom you have inherited, it’s a good example of something that is a ‘church’ issue at heart, and where the decision to ring or not ring should be based on the church’s view of what is appropriate rather than on the ringers view of ‘what we’ve always done’.

In the case of ringing for Notre Dame on Maunday Thursday, since the request came from the head of the church it’s presumptuous of ringers to say that there shouldn’t be any ringing in Holy Week.

Thinking a bit more broadly now, we could usefully ask ...

Question 5 – What is the purpose of public ringing?

Sunday service ringing has a clear purpose – it welcomes people to church and it reminds those who don’t come that the church is alive and holding a service. (As an aside it’s worth noting that the oft quoted ‘calling the faithful to worship’ has little relevance to modern life, where people live in double glazed houses, often some distance from the church, and are most likely to hear the ringing as they arrive – long after taking the decision to come.)

When we ring for other reasons we are still making a public statement but what is it? How will those who hear our ringing know whether we are ringing for a purpose, or just ringing for our own amusement?

When there is a widely publicised event like the Jubilee a lot will be going on and people will rightly guess that the ringing is part of it. The same will be true for local events like village fairs. But if people hear ringing at some random time, with no prior knowledge, then our message is incomprehensible, whatever we would like it to be. So can we claim to have communicated anything about the event, or the cause, for which we claim to have rung?

In the case of Notre Dame there was press coverage of the archbishops’ (and Prime Minister’s) request for tolling at 7pm on 18 April. I don’t know how well it penetrated the non-ringing community, but that plus the distinctive sound of tolling would help to make the link. The other 300 odd performances of ‘normal’ ringing (some on different days) might not have been so readily associated with the event.

So although there’s no way of knowing, we can guess that a significant fraction of the ringing for Notre Dame, in particular the tolling, probably would have been understood by at least some of the public.

But it seems likely that very few commemorative performances of ‘normal’ ringing would be understood, especially in the absence of media coverage in advance, and in those cases we have to ask whether we are really ringing as a mark of public respect, or whether we just ring because ‘doing something’ makes us feel good, especially since we can advertise the fact to other ringers.

As a thought experiment, consider ringing two quarter peals for the same event (disaster or rejoicing), one rung on handbells that the public don’t hear and the other on tower bells that the public do hear but don’t know what it is for. Which achieves more, and for whom? (Assume that the ringing is equally good.)

I don’t want this to be a defeatist excuse for giving up with public ringing – so what is the positive response? That brings us to ...

Question 6 – Could the public be better informed about special ringing?

Ringers are at a disadvantage compared with many other performers. A live concert or a broadcast can be introduced by a compere, but we don’t perform face to face with the audience and we can’t attach any commentary or explanation. Those are things we can’t change.

Most other performances are advertised in advance, whereas ringing rarely is. That is something we could in principle change. There are many channels of communication, each with different reach and immediacy – from social media, e-mail and broadcasts to newspapers and noticeboards. Many are inherently local, so there’s a strong local responsibility (on the ringers who will perform, and where appropriate on the church, council or other body promoting the ringing) to try to ensure that those who hear the ringing will understand its message.

Some communication channels have a national dimension, and for national publicity the Central Council is the natural co-ordinator, as well as being well placed to help coordinate action across the ringing community. The Council is also the natural body to engage with church, government and others to help develop coherent, practical plans for national events – ideally by building relationships ahead of time, so that when a particular event arises, the ringing community will be consulted as a matter of course before plans are firmed up.

Question 7 – Are we too timid about publicising ringing?

Apart from a few special cases like tolling for Notre Dame, most special public performances are quarters or peals, where the associated risk of failing can make ringers reluctant to go public beforehand because it would risk red faces, whereas by delaying until afterwards there’s the option to keep quiet if things go wrong.

I remember an occasion where we had notified the press in advance and promised to supply a story and picture. We were unsuccessful so the story would at best be one of a ‘heroic failure’ but it could still help bring the reason we were ringing into the public eye. But one of the band was rather scathing about this and said: ‘No one’s interested that we lost a quarter – just get over it’. If the story had been about our ringing prowess there would indeed have been no point (unless written by a hostile journalist to take us down a peg) but the story wasn’t about us. Our performance was merely the hook on which to hang the real story of what we were ringing for.

Even had that episode gone well, the public would have read it a few days after we had rung, which might be OK for a historic anniversary, but when ringing for something like a disaster part of the aim is surely for people who hear it to reflect on why we are ringing.

And so to our final subject ...

Question 8 – How much public ringing should there be?

From a historical perspective, there’s probably a lot more ringing now than there was before the Victorian belfry reformers introduced ringing for church services. But since that now makes up the bulk of ringing, the public (and many ringers) tend to see ringing as ‘just a church thing’ rather than as ‘a community thing’. So in an increasingly secular society people are more likely to disengage from a part of their cultural heritage.

Am I stretching things to link this broad historical shift with whether or we should ring for disasters? I think there is a connection. If ringing for public reasons was more common then it would come to be expected, and when people heard ringing they would be more likely to think ‘I wonder what that’s for’ (as they do when they see a flag flying above the town hall) than just thinking ‘that sounds nice’ and assuming it doesn't concern them.

As noted above, the Central Council has only promoted mass ringing for a few high profile events in recent years – mostly planned celebrations rather than expressions of sympathy or solidarity. If we would like to make the public consciousness more readily link ringing to real world events, could we find a way to coordinate ringing for more than just a few preselected events, and can we find ways to communicate more effectively why we are ringing?

Should the Central Council promote more public ringing? And if it did would enough ringers respond to make it effective? The lists of Things to Ring For are mostly minor anniversaries aimed at ringers looking for a reason to ring, and though a few are likely to attract media coverage, mostly it is likely to be less than for major current events. Something more would be needed to make the public more widely aware of public ringing.

Of course we could all look for local opportunities to do more public ringing, and even more importantly we could try to publicise why we are ringing. That would avoid the problems of ‘top down’ initiatives, but it would not benefit from the effect of critical mass, especially in the media, which comes with nationally co-ordinated activity.


I’ve tried to stand back from the immediate debate about one event, and to look at some wider related questions. As well as thinking about how or why to prioritise what we should or should not ring for, I’ve looked at how effectively public ringing can communicate a message, whether we could improve that with better publicity, and whether it would be beneficial to have more ringing directed towards the community.

The questions require discussion not just amongst ourselves but more widely. In particular, the relative priorities of different events to ring for should be discussed with the church and with other public bodies.

I must emphasise that I am not suggesting we shouldn’t ring for our own enjoyment, and I am not denying that ringing can provide an enjoyable public soundscape regardless of knowing why we are ringing. Nor am I suggesting that we should stop using footnotes to inform other ringers about why we rang.

But I am questioning the extent to which we who ring ‘for public events’, and those who ask us to do so, can claim to be communicating a message to the public. And I am suggesting we should try to do it better.

This article was published in The Ringing World on 28 June 2019. 

Back to top Back to Articles Back to What's New Return to Home page

Site search: