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Hallo again to all.

Ah and amen and alleluia. Today as we write it is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and a week before Christmas (whenever Christmas falls on a Sunday our world feels ever-so-slightly odd). With commercial Christmas swirling around us, the Advent IV liturgy ended, with the annual Churches Advertising Network poster and the annual St Matthew-in-the-City outrageous vandalized-every-year poster making us smile, we find ourselves thinking about something entirely outside all of the swirl.


Never mind the court fight about church bells 140 years ago at St Mark in Philadelphia (we wrote about it here); most people who are not named Scrooge seem to love bells in both concept and realisation. We know a young adult who grew up in a desert climate and didn't know that a sleigh was something real until half of her childhood had passed, but who knew what a 'sleigh bell' was long before she knew how to spell it. Even secular Christmas carols, like Jingle Bells, Silver Bells, or Carol of the Bells focus on, well, bells. Elvis Presley and John Calkin and Bette Midler all sang out that they 'heard the bells on Christmas day'. Bells and Christmas are absolutely intertwined in the secular culture of most countries that were once English colonies or colonisers. Motion pictures that try to evoke nostalgia for bygone days often feature horses with hame boxes whose bells ring sweetly ('bells on bobtail ring, making spirits bright').

For us, bells and worship are absolutely intertwined. Tower bells, the Sanctus bell, handbell teams. Those who dismiss high-church liturgies as 'all smells and bells' more likely than not have a belltower on their church. Less-wealthy churches often mount loudspeakers on the outside of their steeple, used to play recorded bell sounds, but only the very finest audio system can reproduce bell sounds well enough to fool anyone. The seemingly-simple bronze bell generates sounds that are almost impossible to record and play back accurately; accept no substitutes.

By Biblical standards, church bells are high-technology artifacts. Even today, they are not easy to make well. If you take a group of schoolchildren to a museum of science and industry, they might be fascinated by space rockets and fast automobiles and powerful computers, and will certainly be fascinated by huge television screens and slick electronic games. But if you show them a bell that is bigger than their family car and that took much longer to manufacture, they will pay no attention. Bells are quiet about the technology and expertise needed to make them.

The metallurgy and engineering required for proper bellfounding added new mystery to the already-substantial mystery of worship. The ideal formula for bell metal (a special kind of bronze) was deep magic for centuries, but nowadays anyone with access to Wikipedia can tell you that bell metal is 78% copper and 22% tin). Bell metal was once so costly that it was used to make coins as well as bells. Making a big bell, suitable for a big steeple, was a huge undertaking that required great skill and great effort. Usually the skill was provided by an itinerant expert, the bellfounder, who would travel from town to town helping the community make big bells. When transport was provided by carriage or barge, it wasn't practical to make bells in a factory and ship them. You made them at the church, or sometimes even inside the church, so that you didn't have to move them very far when you were done. If you're fond of heroic construction projects, go find a book about bellfounding. The process hasn't changed very much in 1000 years, and it remains impressive.

Tower bellsFewer and fewer churches seem able to muster the requisite number of skilled bellringers to staff a handbell team, but when they can, the music is transcendant. Our own parish has a six-octave set of Whitechapel handbells, donated by a former parish couple in memory of their daughter who died as an infant. It was to them the most glorious memorial for their sweet child. But mostly those bells stay in their velvet-lined protective cases, waiting for a group of people with enough time and talent to learn to ring them.

Soon we will 'ring in Christmas' and 'ring in the new year'. Our neighbors may well 'ring in the holiday season'. How ever shall those events be rung in? What shall we use? A not-well-known book by Charles Dickens, The Chimes: a Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year out and a New Year in will probably have the answer.

See you next week; we can ring in Christmas together. No, wait: that means that if there is an Anglicans Online published next week, we shall have to do it on Christmas day. We oughtn't do that. See you in a fortnight, when we can ring in the new year together. And do have a blessed Christmas.

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18 December 2011

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