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Ringing – The State of the Nation

You probably know that the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bellringers, to which All Saints ringers are affiliated, is one of many throughout the country. Many of the Guilds were formed at the end of the last century to promote ringing and raise standards. What you may not know is that most of the Guilds and Societies in the world are affiliated to the Central Council of Church Bellringers. Since 95% of the world’s ringing peals of bells are in England, we often forget the international dimension.

I recently attended the Central Council meeting in Birmingham and one of the topics discussed was the survey which the Council conducted last November into the state of ringing. They picked 500 of the five and a half thousand towers and sent questionnaires to the incumbents and tower captains, as well as over 1000 ordinary ringers and ringing guilds secretaries.

The results cover everything from what we ring to what Clergy think about us. They are steadily being analysed, and a different perspective on ringing appears every few weeks in The Ringing World. The emerging picture has a few odd twists. For instance, ringing is expanding more rapidly outside England than inside, 5% of all tower captains learnt to ring during the 1910s, and female District secretaries were much more efficient in dealing with the survey.

The statistic which most people will remember, though is ‘one ringer per bell’. That may sound all right, but to run a tower effectively needs at least two ringers per bell to allow for absences, differences of ability, comings and goings and so on. Given that ringers are far from evenly spread, there is clearly a severe shortage, and about a third of all towers are silent on the average Sunday.

This situation is probably not new. There have always been silent and struggling towers, but the generation which kept things going in former years is passing. Nearly half of our fingers learned in this decade. But the pattern suggests that many give up after only a few years. This volatile population has ever more alternative activities which can compete with ringing. How can we retain them?

But retention is not enough. If we are to make a serious impact on the situation, we need many more ringers. ‘Double the number in ten years’ is the target which is being held before us. How could such a challenge be met? Not by carrying on as we are.

Two things are needed. The public need to be more conscious of ringing so that more recruits will come forward. This is an area where the Central Council operating at national level can prepare the ground for local initiatives. Secondly, we need a major training initiative, not just to train ringers but to teach people how to train them. The CC is already active in this area. I am attending a seminar in July on different ways to teach bell handling, the basic skill which underlies everything else we do.

Ultimately, though, success depends on generating the enthusiasm and skills at the local level. Many tower captains hold office for an indefinite period and with the best of intentions provide a block for anyone who could do better. At All Saints, that is one problem we do not have. All our officers are elected annually and serve for a limited period. In fact, most of us during the last decade have stood down before the time limit for other reasons.

We are not immune to problems, though. We have lost several of our best ringers recently and while we are above the average with two ringers per bell on the books, we are much weaker than we were as a band. Many of us have considerable pressures from other quarters which reduces attendances. You may have noticed the fact that the ringers gallery is less crowded these days. You will not, (we hope), have noticed the more restricted scope of what we ring.

My predecessor brought us to be one of the best bands in the Diocese with the glory that entailed. We now have the equally demanding, though less glamorous, challenge of rebuilding our strength after our losses. We are currently training two new ringers, Helen Loughlin and my own daughter Fiona. When they are over the basic stages in a few months, we will be looking for others to follow them. Could you be one of them? Contact me if you are interested.

John Harrison (Jun 1989) 


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