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The ringers who arrived at church on the morning of Princess Diana's tragic death had to respond quickly. It would be unthinkable to ring the bells unmuffled on such an occasion, so the muffles needed fitting. The steeple keeper was working on shifts, ringing was due to start in a few minutes and to cap it all someone had to raise the union flag to half mast.
In fact this presented no great problem. At All Saints we are fortunate to have a healthy band of ringers, many of whom are very experienced and can turn their hands to almost anything. This set me thinking about another (much happier) national event which will break in the media before you read this. For some time now, the ringing fraternity has been preparing for a millennium project called 'Ring in 2000'.
The flagship event is an attempt to ring the bells in every church as part of a short service at noon on 1st January 2000, but behind this is a much more challenging task. There are some five and a half thousand churches with rings of bells in the UK, about 40,000 bells in all. There are also about 40,000 active ringers. But if you allow for healthy bands like ours with nearly three ringers per bell, you will not be surprised that one in five churches do not have their bells rung regularly, and nearly one in six has no ringers at all.
It is estimated that nationally we need to recruit and train another 10,000 ringers to achieve the target. This will be an enormous effort, given the many hours that go into training a ringer. For most of us what makes it worth trying is not a moment of glory on one day, but the prospect of doing something permanent about the number of silent towers in the land. That means we must not only train people to ring, but also to organise their own bands, to maintain their own bells and to teach their own recruits.
How to do this is taxing ringing associations up and down the land. It is easy to produce new ringers in a healthy band like our. We have the teachers, an established organisation and the enthusiasm and commitment needed to motivate recruits through the difficulties of learning a new skill. Many of the ringers we train will move away, but we see this not as a loss, but as a gain for the wider ringing community.
But the need is greatest where there are fewest people to help. In this Diocese, there are more silent or struggling towers in the rural north, but more of the expertise that could help in the populous south. Finding enough experienced ringers (who tend to be busy people) to give up one or more nights a week over many months is hard enough when they live in the next village. When they live half a county away it becomes daunting.
Some of us at All Saints are playing a role in this huge enterprise. At this stage it feels a very small part seen against the size of the challenge. But we have to start somewhere if the ringing community is to be ready to face the challenges of the new millennium.
John Harrison ( August 1997 )
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