Behind the Bells at Christ Church
by Joel Haas | photography by Smith Hardy
On Sunday mornings in downtown Raleigh, eight men and women convene in a ten-foot-square room in the base of Christ Church Episcopal’s bell tower. There, standing in a circle, each focused on a single rope dangling before them, they practice the art of change ringing. While other mechanical or recorded church bells sound all over town, this group will ring eight bells by hand, in a precise series of patterns developed over centuries by the Church of England.
Bells have always played a role in religious life. In the Anglican or Episcopal tradition, they don’t just ring out to call people to worship, they ring out in a unique form of musical expression, evocative of a time when a village church was completely integrated into the fabric of the community. The bells are like the voice of the church structure itself, speaking out in joy or in sorrow, always welcoming.
Christ Church is one of only 52 churches in North America with a true bell tower. (The only other one in North Carolina is at St. James Episcopal in Hendersonville.) Its three-floor bell tower, built in 1860, was designed to resemble an English village church. In it, a one-ton bourdon bell hangs in the topmost tower chamber behind louvred windows. The bourdon does not ring with the change ringers; it is rung just before services and after the change ringers. The change ringers’ bells were installed on the second floor in 1987.
Change ringing is an arcane and exacting practice, full of its own language, methods and apparatus. These bells don’t chime, for example, they peal (a chime is the sound you hear when clapperless bells rung are struck from outside). To the untrained ear, a cascade of peals may sound random, but they are, in fact, ringing through at least 5,000 patterns, called changes, which can last between two and four hours for an eight-bell tower such as Christ Church. Inside the tower, the bells are numbered one through eight; the smallest is the treble and the largest is the tenor. The musical notation looks like a sudoku puzzle: columns and numbers filled with zig-zagging lines. A puller grasps the sally, a fluffy, colorful handhold on the rope. To begin a peal, the lead puller calls out the changes—patterns with fusty old English names like “Whittingtons,” “Queens,” “Plain Bob” and “Grandsire”—to signal the order in which the bells are to be rung. Then he’ll intone “treble’s going” as he tugs the rope down and “treble’s gone” as he releases it, the signal to the other pullers to start ringing their bells in the exact right order.
Pulling ropes to move heavy bells for an hour and a half requires dedication, stamina and biceps—at their Thursday practices and Sunday peals, the ringers work for hours without a break. Christ Church’s largest bell weighs 500 pounds and could send a man crashing into the ceiling if uncontrolled. Rope burns are common. To complicate matters further, the bells are in a chamber above the pullers; often they can neither see nor hear their bells to know if they’ve rung the correct pattern. “Bell ringing invites continuous improvement, you are working an intricate pattern rendered in time,” says ring master John Mabe. “Even when you get it right, it could always be better. Then you go out for a beer and talk about it.” But, says tower captain Harry McKinney, “When it all comes together, it is truly an amazing experience. I haven’t found anything else that duplicates it.”