What Is the Significance of Bell Ringing in the Church?
The playing of bells in the church has a long and glorious tradition, whether the bells are of the small handheld type or the huge cast bells in the bell tower of a great cathedral. Bells have often been sounded for a variety of liturgical purposes in the local worship setting:
- Bells are rung as a signal to the people that it is time to make their way to the church for worship, for a meeting, or to greet an important person. In previous years, bells may have announced a visit by the king or a prince, or the Pope or a bishop.
- Bells are used as a signal that something of significance has happened in the life of the church or one of its members: a birth, death, marriage.
- Bells are rung on othe great liturgical feast days of the year, such as Easter, Pentecost, Christmas ("I heard the bells on Christmas Day").
- Within the worship service in the Roman Catholic service, bells have been rung at the consecration, elevation, and adoration of the host — the moment when the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. In The United Methodist Church, of course, we do not hold the same understanding of the sacrament, so the ringing of bells has not traditionally been a part of our worship. In recent years, however, with the recovery of some of the ancient liturgical rites and traditions, some United Methodists will strike a bell at that point in the liturgy — even though our sacramental understanding of Communion is different from that of the Catholic Church.
- Bells are often rung to signify the start or conclusion of a time of prayer. Some congregations use a single handbell from the handbell choir for this purpose; others use a single chime that may be part of the organ keyboard; still others use one bell from an outdoor carillon. Other congregations are more modest, using a small handheld bell that is struck with a mallet or other striker.
- A bell (or bells) might be rung at the start of, during, or at the conclusion of a baptism.
- A bell or bells may be rung on any liturgical occasion of great joy, such as Christmas Eve or Morning or Easter Sunrise or Day.
- Likewise, a bell can also appropriately be rung on solemn occasions, such as a funeral, a memorial service, or on Good Friday.
- Handbell choirs are often used to signal the start or conclusion of worship, as well as to enrich congregational singing and the worship service. For many centuries, handbell processionals have signaled events of great pomp and celebration in the church.
Bells are also rung for non-liturgical, civic occasions: presidential inaugurations, the outbreak of war or peace, a time of general public mourning or celebration, marking the changing year, a time of imminent danger (such as tornado warnings, floods, fire). Sometimes churches are asked to ring their bells by the civic authorities on such occasions, and participation is always up to the church. Some churches do not respond to these appeals, preferring to preserve the sacred significance of church bells.