The art and science of ringing bells

MOST churches have bells, but it takes a special kind of teamwork to ring them at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Manuka.

Behind the continuous cascade of sound is a peculiar English combination of art and science called change ringing.

St Paul’s is the only place in Canberra where you can do it, under the guidance of tower captain Julie Doyle, who has about 50 years’ experience.

More mathematical than musical, change ringing was devised in 17th Century England to co-ordinate bands who jointly play the bell tower as one instrument, with one person responsible for each note it can play. This makes normal melodies awkward.

“We’ve tried doing it once or twice and it’s just really difficult,” Julie says, explaining that the eight bells of St Paul’s form a complete octave, or a major scale, but what her band plays on them is not really music.

“The first thing you do is ring the scale, which is also called rounds, then you go on to ‘call changes’, which means you tell one bell to ring after another one,” Julie explains. “Then you start getting on to ‘methods’.”

She opens a book full of methods, which are not songs, but long lists of number codes showing the order for the bells to ring (12345678 denotes a round from highest to lowest).

How the codes change from one line to the next in each method is important. It follows a pattern that gives the method a unique sound, and explains why the art is called “change ringing”.

“The maximum number of combinations you can have is 40,320 on an octave, 5040 on seven bells, 720 on six and so on,” says Julie, explaining that the ringers need only memorise the patterns, not the entire lists of numbers stretching down the page like a spy’s notebook.

Only once, in 1963, has a band ever rung all 40,320 possible combinations of eight bells in one session, in just under 18 hours. To do the same with the 12 bells they have at St Saviour’s in Goulburn would take over 30 years.

St Paul’s installed its bells in 2003. Julie says there were plenty of ringers in Canberra before that, who had looked for a place to practice their arcane craft for years.

“St John’s [in Reid] is too small,” she says. “St Andrews [on State Circle] weren’t interested in converting theirs into real ones, which is really disappointing because they’ve got that lovely tower – it’s perfect for it – so we ended up here as a sort of last resort really.”

At St Andrew’s, the pointy church beside Parliament House, the bells themselves are magnificent but only their clappers swing, which means there isn’t much for bellringers like Julie to do.

Converting them to what she calls “real ones” would mean installing special mechanisms that let the bells swing 360 degrees and stop upside down, giving the bellringers the control they need.

“There’s a real finesse to doing it properly,” says Julie. “There’s the speed and the rhythm and all that sort of thing, bearing in mind that every bell is different; in some, the clappers move a bit slower than others, so you have to take that into account.”

Interestingly, she says a lot of bellringers do not share the same religious faith as the congregations they call to prayer, and many have no strong faith at all.

“You don’t have to be a member of the church, but quite a lot of people are here,” says Julie. “We’ve got quite a good group and we’ve got a fantastic rector who grew up in Parramatta, where there’s bells, so he’s very friendly.”

 

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