The Wall Street Journal reports…
“Philip Mills grimaced as he tensed his arms to pull down a rope and ring a bell at St. Vedast Foster Lane, a 12th-century church reconstructed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666.
He puffed out his cheeks and his brow glistened with sweat. “Now I am warming up,” said Mr. Mills, 52 years old, who has rung at 280 church bell towers in Britain.
Fellow ringer Kristen Frederickson, 51, also caught her breath during the church’s two-hour bell-ringing practice session. “It’s very athletic,” she said.
The church’s ringing master, Thomas Lawrance, 64, kept a watchful eye. “Whip it through, keep that rope moving,” he told his team.
At St. Vedast, Robert Lewis, editor of the Ringing World journal, fondly recalls his first ringing group. “There were two Royal Navy officers, a rear admiral, a crane driver and a very left-wing teacher—the whole gamut of society,” he says.
That isn’t so much the case anymore, and amid a decades-long slump in church attendance, England’s tradition of church bell-ringing thrums with discord over its modernization.
Mr. Lewis, 53, spearheads a ringing faction that says the ancient practice urgently needs to rope in enthusiasts from outside its traditional circles. Their solution, as the sweating and the heavy breathing suggests, is to promote ringing as an athletic pursuit.
Church bells, after all, weigh hundreds or even thousands of pounds and take effort to move. Elva Ainsworth, 53, says she fainted while ringing peals at London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields for the 1981 engagement of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles.
Ringing at London’s celebrated St. Paul’s Cathedral is similarly demanding. A peal, or series of bell strikes, involves 5,000 ringing combinations lasting 4½ hours. Since 1878, St. Paul’s has only witnessed around 100 full peals, one being Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.
“Those bells are so enormous,” says Ms. Ainsworth, who began ringing at age 12 and whose father was chief ringer at St. Paul’s. “If I ring for 20 minutes, I am sweating.”
The Churches Conservation Trust, a U.K. charity, is promoting the fitness benefits of ringing. The trust commissioned research by fitness and training provider YMCAfit that found bell-ringing offers “improved agility, coordination, reaction time and balance, plus improved muscle endurance and cardiovascular fitness,” according to the website bellringing.org.
But the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers—which represents “all who ring bells in the English tradition with rope and wheel,” including in the U.S.—wants to muffle the move to athletic status.
Chris Mew, the council’s president, says calling ringing a sport is “hot air.”
“Nobody has given evidence that it would have the effect of attracting hordes of new recruits or very big amounts of money,” says Mr. Mew, 74.
The council also fears that marketing bell-ringing—or campanology—as exercise would sever ringing’s link with Christian worship and jeopardize its relationship with church bodies.
“There is a majority view that it is primarily a church activity,” says Mr. Mew, and the belfry shouldn’t be “treated as a sports hall or swimming pool.”
Adds the council’s secretary, 40-year ringing veteran Mary Bone: “There have been some members of the clergy who have insisted that all their ringers go to services every week.”
Mr. Lewis’s response: The Council of Church Bell Ringers, of which he is a member, hasn’t done “due diligence.”
“I know a lot of atheists who ring,” he says. “They tend to be fairly quiet about it.”
For centuries, ringing devotees have rung bells at the British Isles’ roughly 7,000 church towers. Ringing spread to Britain from Europe in medieval times as friars and monks created religious orders.
Using multiple bells to create harmonies started in the 16th century. Nearly all of the world’s so-called change ringing towers are in the British Isles.
Dwindling churchgoing, as well as the older makeup of congregations, is putting the practice’s future in danger.
Over the past 25 years, regular attendance for Church of England churches has dropped 45%, to around three million, according to the CCCBR’s Ringing Trends Committee. Today’s roughly 30,000 ringers in the U.K. are down by 10,000 in the same period, says the Association of Ringing Teachers. Two-thirds of remaining ringers are over 50, the CCCBR committee notes.
Some bells have fallen silent as churches have been deconsecrated.
The Church of England, which declined to comment for this article, said in a recent paper that diminished participation in church activities “will not come as a surprise.”
Ringers campaigning for an athletic emphasis point to history. In 1829, the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle called bell-ringing one of the “old English sports and pastimes.”
Bells rang out to herald London’s Olympic Games in 2012. At the London Marathon, ringers have enticed enthusiasts by bringing portable bells to the race for spectators to try out.
The National 12-Bell Striking Contest, the U.K.’s premier ringing contest, draws ringers from Birmingham, Cambridge and Exeter, among others. Later stages involve the “strikeometer”—a strike-recording tool using microphones in towers.
At the Ringing World National Youth Contest in Oxford last summer, 19 teams vied for “top ringers” status. Twenty-four teams are expected this year.
Competition encourages standards, says Mr. Lewis. “There is a lot of indifferent or bad bell-ringing going on out there,” he says.
Those opposed to the fitness push raise objections that range beyond the ecclesiastical to the financial.
Nearly all bells are church property. While ringers raise funds for local repairs, more people using the bells means higher maintenance costs.
“To maintain a simple tower with a set of bells, you could be talking about several hundred thousand pounds a year,” says the CCCBR’s Mr. Mew.
This means the church has “absolute sovereignty” over the use of bells and can shut the bell towers, he adds.
Ms. Ainsworth, who has resigned from the CCCBR partly because of its resistance to popularizing bell-ringing as an athletic pursuit, says disputes between ringers and clergy lead to some bells not being rung at all.
“We don’t pay that much attention to the vicar anyway,” she says. “We are very independent beings.”