We have a massive bell tower at Bridge St Church, which soars over the downtown in Belleville. In that tower there is a hefty bell pull rope, although it is no longer used, as the bell is controlled electronically from the convenience of the narthex. It's better and worse to ring it from downstairs. We can't speed the ringing to a joyful cadence for a wedding, nor can we slow it down to a mournful toll for a funeral or a memorial service such as the one held here for those killed in an Orlando nightclub earlier this year.
In some of the cathedrals of Europe, and a handful of places in North America, bells are much more serious business. There are peals of bells, and trained ringers who play complicated changes which ring out over the cities where the churches are located. I've heard this, quite by happy coincidence while in Canterbury, Great Britain.
There has been a stir at another of the foremost cathedrals of Britain, York Minster, over the firing of 30 bell ringers from their team for reasons unknown. If you're like me, you're surprised that there might be that many ringers (are there more?!) and that this would become such an issue. How do you get fired as a bell ringer? Do you riff on Born to be Wild" when you should be playing medieval changes? Apparently these volunteers ringers will be replaced with professionals, but not until the new year. This means that the fourth "heaviest" peal of bells in Britain will be silenced for Remembrance Day and Christmas/New Year's.
As odd as this controversy sounds, we know that there is a long and meaningful tradition of church bells serving as warning, celebration, invitation to worship within communities of all sizes. Bells are rung to mark the conclusion of conflict, to say farewell to a significant figure, to warn about climate change, and to mark the hours of the day. It's wonderful that places of worship have been the home to bells and it is curious and intriguing that the brouhaha at York Minster has become newsworthy.