In Churches like ours, the ringing of bells is an established part of our tradition. They call the people to worship on a Sunday from far and wide and are seen by the public as characteristic of Anglican worship. They are, however, not the only bells which can and should be used in our church.
The ringing of bells is an ancient tradition of the church (directly traceable back to before St Paulinus of Campania in the 3rd Century) and is an important although often overlooked element of worship. We worship with all of our senses: we do not gather simply to read the words of the Holy Communion together, but to celebrate and to do this we use all of God’s gifts:We see the liturgical action
- We taste the bread and wine transformed by the Holy Spirit into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ who is really present in those sacraments
- We touch those elements, we touch our neighbour when we share the peace
- We may have the opportunity to smell – flowers, perfumed candles, incense
- and we hear the word of God proclaimed and the symbolic ringing of bells
We are multisensory beings and therefore we worship using all of our senses. Some acts of worship are more like this than others: Blessèd, for example, the alternative worship events that take place throughout the diocese are more immersive celebrations, but Evening Prayer on a Sunday when led by Jane are also examples of sight, sound, smell and hearing combining to help us to reach out to God.
Even a small child can be drawn to the ringing of a bell, and it can penetrate through the deafest of ears to point out in symbolic terms key points major stages of the Mass. Where we may be less able in one sense, God provides in other ways, so by using as many of God’s gifts to us in his worship we can all come closer to him.
It is rung at the end of the Sanctus to identify the beginning of the words that Jesus used to institute the eucharist, signifying the epiclesis or sending down of the Holy Spirit on the elements to consecrate them. It is also rung as the priest elevates the elements to expose them to the people to draw attention to this showing.
It is customary for the congregation to make the sign of the cross on themselves as the elements are elevated (and also later when the priest shows both chalice and wafer to the people as he/she says the words “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the World…” and when a blessing is given or the priest uses the words “In the name of…”). By making this gesture we begin to pray with our whole bodies: body and soul together.
The bell is also rung as the Priest finishes his/her communion and is an indicator that the people should now come forward to make their own communion.
Each time the bell is rung, it is rung three times, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a momentary pause between each of the three rings because at that point the external church bell can be rung once to signal to all those in this area that these key points of the Mass have been reached. I personally would love to see our witness in this way – and let the world know what we are doing – wouldn’t you?
Isn’t this all an anachronism? I think not, for tradition means building upon the past, and acknowledging our part in the past whilst looking towards the future. In ringing bells we enable people of all abilities, ages and understandings to approach the throne of grace in worship.
We use symbol because words alone are inadequate in our worship and we recapture some of the wonder and awe that we perhaps had as small children and which we want to engender in our young people.