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Inside Oxford Cathedral Oxford Guild’s 125th Anniversary Celebrations
Commemorative RingingSermon preached by the Bishop at the Guild Service
Rude Boy Bellringers Tamed

Commemorative ringing for the Oxford Guild’s 125th Anniversary Celebrations

With all the celebratory ringing for last year I believe that Associations are now geared up to big events and are prepared to come out and share their festivities.

The first spate of ringing for the anniversary took place within the Octave of the date itself, January 17th and covered the spectrum of ability among our ringers.

Quarter peals were planned at Burford, Little Milton, Benson, Warborough, Drayton-St Leonard, Berrick Salome and Great Haseley. I have heard that one of them was a promise too far and couldn’t be organized but await the results of the others.

Of those attempted I have information from Brill: Plain Bob Minor; Islip: Grandsire Doubles; Great Tew: 2 doubles methods and first quarter ‘for a very long time!’; Eynsham: Doubles; Woodstock: Plain Bob Major; Burford: Grandsire Triples; from the Guild Master, Jon Chamberlain a quarter of Stedman Doubles at Faringdon and an unfortunate loss of Plain Bob Minor at Marcham with a basically youthful band; Goring: Cornwall S. Major; Chalfont St Giles: Cambridge S Major; Longcot: three doubles methods and a first quarter for the tenor ringer; Downs Barn: 4 doubles; Shrivenham: Plain Bob Caters; Wallingford: Stedman Caters; Wokingham All Saints a date touch of 1881 Plain and Little Bob, composed by John Harrison and accomplished; Cowley: Cambridge Minor; High Wycombe: Stedman Caters; Hook Norton: Stedman Triples; Steeple Aston: Grandsire Doubles; and Wantage, where according to Peter Davies ‘quarters are like buses, nothing for a long time then three special occasions come along: Grandsire Triples rung to mark the 125th anniversary of the ODG but also to mark Father Salter’s Installation as Hon Canon of Christ Church Cathedral and the MBE bestowed upon local ringer, Dave Endacott, for his work with bat conservancy.

General ringing on the date itself took place at Weston Turville where an extra practice was put on and the Guild was toasted with mulled wine. At Shinfield the four of us who were not ill or on holiday toasted the Guild with ordinary wine. Cookham and Shabbington rang ( average age 14 ), the latter for 20 minutes with a new band and the youngsters of South Oxon Branch rang at Great Haseley with a mixed band from three towers.

For this occasion peals were even more prolific than usual. There was an unfortunate start to proceedings at the Cathedral where the Oxford Society kindly allowed us to attempt a peal of Stedman Cinques which was lost after 2 ˝ hours. There is to be a rematch in Reading in March. At Banbury 5003 Grandsire Caters was scored and Stedman Caters at Wallingford. Superlative was rung at Milton, Fairfax Delight at Bucklebury, and 12 Spliced Surprise Major at Cholsey. At Thatcham 2 spliced Surprise Major was rung and Adlelachestone S. Royal where the conductor, Bill Butler, past Master of the Guild, called the peal and noted that he had called peals also for the 75th and 100th anniversaries of the Guild. With his record he’ll be around for the 150th, though this one might be on handbells. At Headington the Oxford City branch rang Yorkshire. At Stoke Poges Colombo Delight was rung; at Longcot, Cambridge and at Hughenden, Superlative. Aston Clinton rang Aston Clinton S. Royal, first in the method. High Wycombe rang Yorkshire S. Major and a handbell peal of Spliced Treble Bob Major was rung at Wallingford. Great Linford rang a peal of Plain Bob Minor which was in the year of the 250th anniversary of the bells and the conductor, Edith Robinson, was the first lady to conduct a peal in the tower and turn in the tenor (16 ˝ ).

If I have missed anyone, I apologise and would like to take this opportunity to wish all those Dioceses well who will be, or have been, celebrating their 125th anniversaries around this time.

Bobbie May

(Public Relations Officer for the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers)


Christ Church Cathedral - 7 July, 2006

ODGCBR 125th anniversary

Sermon preached by the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, at the Guild Festival service

Spare a thought for dogs with short legs like Tattoo the Basset hound. In 1992, a traffic patrol in Tacoma, Washington State, saw a car travelling at twenty with something apparently dangling from the door. Close inspection revealed this to be a puffing basset hound with tiddly four inch legs, ‘picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could to keep up’ Caught up in changes we don’t want, padding along faster than is reasonable towards an uncertain future for which we were never designed? Is that us? Change and decay in all around we see. When I left college, we thought we’d do 40 years in the same company. This century people leaving college are trying to pack an average of six careers into their working life. No wonder we suffer from future shock. David Ford the Cambridge theologian tells us that life today is "a sequence of Multiple Overwhelmings." Anyone, in any walk of life, will know exactly what he means.

Some people retreat from their fear and bewilderment, into Church. After all, Church is about the eternal truths, the things that don’t change. And yet, we all know, life is change, even in Church. It always was. Writing 150 years ago, Cardinal Newman said:

Perhaps in some other, higher world it is otherwise, but here below, to live is to change, and to have lived long is to have changed often.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus describes this great mystery. He talks of good change and bad change; of new wine and old skins; of unshrunk cloth and an old coat. Faith is not sentimental attachment to a fixed idea, or nostalgia for the dear old days, or adherence to a monolithic principle. It is being caught up in the life of God. It is engagement with a living Lord. It is participation in the Holy Spirit. It is a life of continuous personal renewal. Like life itself, the kingdom has at its heart a teeming process of creative variety. New wine, living water springing up, new clothes. People of the Kingdom have to learn how to embrace positive change positively, as they hold fast to what is good. Living tradition is far more than custom — it is always renewing itself, as people receive it and live it and hand it on down the generations. Living tradition is always bigger than nostalgia. Ringing is not just a hobby, but the work of living ringers. That’s why those lists of names in towers are worth keeping — It’s the people who matter. Bells themselves have personality, names, stories. Ringing is an immensely human activity, in a country where we have never really gone in for mechanical bells like the Dutch or Germans do.

Implicit in Jesus’ words is an awareness that change and renewal is vital to life. As we celebrate today, we can affirm the survival and vibrancy of change ringing as a living tradition within our diocese. Numbers of towers and ringers are encouragingly buoyant in many places. Looking at what should change, the brewing of fresh wine, the life of this guild has been something of a success story, a great Victorian reform movement, to tame the rather rough and ready bands of ringers that had plied their art hitherto in their own sweet and not so sweet ways, often with scant reference to the rest of what went on in Church, or even standards of decency. Look at the model rules you can still see on the walls of some of our towers, and you can see pretty much what the founders of this guild were up against, and judge for yourself how wonderfully successful they have been in their enterprise. I think we can cheerfully report that instances of drunkenness and gambling in towers have come down encouragingly, that the stabling of animals in ringing chambers has become less frequent; that the chewing of tobacco in divine service and instances of ringing during services in competition with the parson and clerk have all plummeted since 1881. Similarly, I think we can say that the simple physical condition of Church towers and clocks is as high as it has ever been, and the number of ringable towers holds up in a gently encouraging way, with an encouraging kick around the millennium.

God’s creation is alive. Cardinal Newman was right – here below to live is to change. One reaction to this fact is the kind of sourpuss whining associated with Victor Meldrew, and some of the more stuck-up Fleet Street Comics. Another traditional response to the inherent changes of life, is the ringing of changes. Think of all they mark — our sovereign’s coronation, jubilees, 80th birthday, birth, declarations of war and peace, weddings, funerals, congregational celebrations, big services, small services, additions to fabric, mayoralities, artistic festivals, inaugurations of new ministries, retirements, the simple turning of the year. So I could go on, from great to small, from intimate to national, from regular as clockwork to once a millennium, and still not tell half the tale. Today, we acknowledge in the breaking of bread the way ringing enriches the life of the communities of our three counties, and gives identity and stability and public significance to personal reality. This ordinary general activity is so much part of life, that often it is taken for granted, simply as part of the fabric of daily life which it is, but not, I hope unacknowledged here and today. In the name of the Lord, and everyone who lives within the sound of church bells, thank you.

For with some notable public exceptions, most of the great British public do like the sound of bells. In my last parish our bells rang three times many Saturdays and twice on a Sunday, often with a quarter peal on summer Sunday afternoons, and yet we never had any complaint. People who lived within earshot often said to me things like, "Your church seems to be busy. I don’t go, but I like to hear the bells." Somebody surprised me by saying they felt safe when they heard them. Why would the sound of bells make somebody feel safe? The connection between ringing and safety, runs deep and far back. The medieval Paris liturgy for baptizing bells asked that "whensoever this bell shall sound, it shall drive away the malign influences of the assailing spirits, the horror of their apparitions, the rush of whirlwinds, the stroke of lightning, the harm of thunder, the disasters of storms, and all the spirits of the tempest."

That’s quite an impressive list, but think that’s a bit more specific and retro than my lady in Lych Gate Close had in mind. She simply felt safe when she heard the bells. In the seventeenth century, when the foundations of English Change ringing were being laid, people made much of the music of the spheres and the song of the universe — the way that our music could somehow reflect a deep and enduring reality refreshed and renewed — what Jesus was talking about with his wine and his coat.

For make no mistake, ringing is music, and its pleasure is profoundly musical, albeit without melody. The eighteenth Century German philosopher Leibniz had an interesting theory of why music is pleasurable. He suggested that Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting

Change ringing is Mathematics applied to the making of music. Methods are a form of group theory, predating Galois, Euler, Lagrange, Gauss, the great mathematicians of early group theory by four or five hundred years. Teenagers ring changes on church bells, and enjoy what they are doing, with no idea about the maths behind it. They’d be surprised to be told that the algorithms of methods demonstrate the necessity of determining quadratic factors in a biquadratic equation as a sextic expression, but they do. Some people say reality is ultimately mathematical, and if it is, change ringing is a good way to connect to the logic at the heart of everything. Maths is not really about numbers, but patterns. The courses you will ring in Oxford today are as true and as beautiful, mathematically, as they were in 1881 and would have been in 1681, or, for that matter in 1081 or 1881 BC, had anyone had the wit to have worked out how to ring them in those days. They reflect the ordering of everything. On the surface there is an incredible variety, a dancing logic, changes in hundreds and thousands. A full extent on twelve bells would take over thirty years! Change ringing models ordered change. We are often fascinated or fearful in the face of change. Ringing takes us right into the heart of how things change, and opens our spirits to big reality.

It has a firm mathematical logic, albeit implicit to most jobbing ringers most of the time, whilst at the same time clearly articulating the dancing logic of life that brings change in all its courses, ever old, ever new, eternally grounded, always fresh. God’s eternal mercies are new every morning. Perhaps that’s why change ringing makes people feel safe. And ringing models a way of being with others that is intensely corporate, each dependent on everyone else. Bells, if you remember the old ads in the Church Times, bring people together. Ringing is an intensely corporate enterprise. You need to be sensitive and aware of other people for it to be any good. Egotists and pig headed individualists need not apply.

Thinking of how bells bring people together, however, it’s important to remember that for all the intimacy and closeness of ringing bands, ringers are the most open hearted, democratically minded people in Church. The fact is, that any ringer from anywhere in the world can walk into any tower on spec, and find a welcome. That’s how it works. Ringing brings together a group of people, sometimes total strangers, the regius professor next to the lady from the post office, next to the teenage learner, with all their oddball factors, quirks and individualities, into an extraordinary unity, with its own special intimacy. The contribution of each individual is vital, and the whole is far more than the sum of the parts. So ringing models what Church is and what it should be; each individual valued, yet the whole far more than the sum of its parts, with its own special unity and logic. Only a very few select groups of people, like rowing eights, string quartets, bomb disposal crews and surgical teams, regularly feel the kind of closeness and human integration that a company of Church bell ringers does.

What an extraordinary thing to be able to do. By doing what they do, Sunday by Sunday, ringers not only produce a pleasant sound; call people to church; but also participate in a mystery which no one can describe, and express the beauty of change ordered in sequence. This living application of mathematics to life reflects nothing less than the order and beauty of the God who said let light shine out of darkness, on us, and through us, and by us. The glory, as always with the glory we sense on hearing of bells, be ascribed to him who planted the ear, and ordered all things well, the living God to whom…


Rude-Boy Bell Ringers Tamed!

Today our church bell ringers are pillars of society, in the main but it hasn’t always been so.

At the beginning of the 19th century church services were in a state of disarray with the singers and church orchestras of Thomas Hardy’s time vying with each other for solos and more or less controlling the services. The bell ringers were worse: often they refused to ring for Divine Service, making a merry noise only if they were paid for civic duties. A desperate need to regularize all these happenings led to the evolution of the Oxford Movement, a complex revolution within the church but which laid down the foundations of what we recognize today in established church tradition.

The wind and string bands were ousted and organs introduced in the church and the old singers replaced by a robed choir. However, the ringers proved to be intransigent. They continued to set themselves apart, brew up in the belfry and lock themselves in, ringing any time of day or night at their own pleasure and in one case at least, tied up the bells and locked the vicar out of his own tower. These men, who were poor and rough, would compete with rival bands from other villages for prizes of hats, gloves and other basics of life and an ‘away’ team might even be forced to sleep under hedges having walked many miles for the competition. There was almost invariably bad blood between them.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago this January the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers was formed. It was one of many such associations beginning to blossom up and down the country. A few like-minded clergymen who loved their art and hated what ringing had become in the churches went out to evangelize the community. They stood cheek by jowl with the local, dissolute hard men who were the ringers and taught them to ring properly, rather than just make an unpleasant noise. They laid down regulations for belfry reform and gradually law and order was maintained in the church. The ODG celebrates its founding on January 17th. An initial meeting in Reading in 1881 was the precursor to the establishment of the Guild in Oxford on this date. This year will see celebratory ringing throughout the diocese of Oxford (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire) with a Festival Service in July at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

But for this Movement the tradition of church bell ringing in this country as we know it would probably have died out.

Bobbie May

(Public Relations Officer for the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers)

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