Change Ringing

More than seven years ago, I received my first letter during my first week as the Rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota. It was a strongly worded complaint from a neighbor about the church bells, a carillon that was allegedly disturbing the peace of that letter’s author. Eventually I had a face to face meeting with the Deputy Chief of Police for the City of Edina about the noise level of those bells and the hymns that they played. Welcome to the neighborhood!

I thought about that introduction this week because Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where I now serve, also has bells — 17 bells to be exact. Nine of them can be used to play hymns and songs, and four of those nine are the original bells from 1929. The remaining eight bells are change ringing bells.

There are no hymns or other melodies played on these change ringing bells, and they’re rung neither by a single person nor by automation. Rather, it’s an art form that is both a human effort and a team effort, with a group of people ringing them in a series of mathematical patterns called “changes.”

In North America, 52 bell towers can produce this unique sound. Five of them are in Texas. Three of them are in Houston. Last Sunday, between services, I climbed a ladder into the bell tower at my new church to watch the change ringers at work:

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Yesterday, my family and I stopped by the church in the evening. Our two boys ran around the courtyard and explored the water fountain there. The three-year-old had a great time jumping over puddles. But all of us enjoyed listening to six change ringers complete a quarter peal — about 45 minutes of continuous ringing — that was done in honor of my becoming the Sixth Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. Don’t worry, this is only one minute of the sound of that quarter peal:

Now . . . I wonder what’s going to be in my mailbox or my inbox at the church after the holiday weekend. Hopefully it won’t involve the Houston Police Department.

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