If you’ve never heard of something called “change ringing,” you’re not alone. Change ringing is a musical performance that requires a team of people pulling ropes that ring giant bells in a precise order. It’s more popular in eastern states, but Texas has five churches with a bell tower built for change ringing – including one in Abilene.
On a recent Sunday three men climbed the narrow winding staircase to reach the top of the bell tower of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, they gripped ropes that stretched through the ceiling, connecting to large bronze bells.
“So what we have to do before we actually ring is we have to ring the bell up, we have to turn it upside down,” Ringing Master Lynn Blair said.
Once the bells are ready, the men start to perform what they call a method, each ringing his bell in a specific order. Inside the tower you can hear rocking and creaking sounds in addition to the chiming of bells. Change ringing comes from the Church of England, where every parish had at least one bell to call the faithful to worship. The tradition made its way to America along with the colonists. Today, it’s described as a musical performance and an actual team sport.
It doesn’t take long for Tower Captain Robert Partin to become short of breath and for good reason- his bell weighs 600 pounds.
“It’s a good exercise when we ring constant for 30 or 40 minutes,” Partin said. “It’s a good exercise coming up the dang stairs.”
To him, change ringing is challenging and fun. And it’s not something that everyone can do.
“We’re kind of an isolated little oasis for change ringing and we’re lucky to have this tower here because it’s not something that any church can just decide that they’re going to do,” Partin said.
It takes a lot of structural planning and specialized maintenance for change ringing. Texas only has five churches with a bell tower designed for change ringing, one in Dallas, three in Houston, and one here in Abilene.
But Abilene’s bells have been silent recently because the frame has deteriorated, making the bells difficult to handle.
Heavenly Rest Choirmaster Wes Gomer said the repairs will cost tens of thousands of dollars and the vestry is already working with a company that will reinforce the bell frame. When they’re in top order, the bells can be heard several times a day and during special services. Blair won’t be joined by a full team of ringers until the frame is restored.
“With the three bells you only have six changes you can ring, when you have all six going you have up to 720, you go to eight (bells) you have as many as 40,320,” Blair said. “So the more bells, the more interesting it is."
If you couldn’t tell, Blair’s good with numbers. He’s an engineer.
“It’s kind of interesting how it all works together because this [change ringing] is part mathematics, part music,” Blair said. “That’s the cool thing about change ringing because no matter what walk of life you come from, what profession you are, there’s something in it for you.”
Blair has high functioning autism, he said change ringing has been a great outlet for him. But he admits it’s an art that’s not for the impatient. It takes time to learn, and he’s been doing it for 14 years. Change ringing can get very technical. The bell makes a full rotation each time the rope is pulled, allowing ringers to time when their bell sounds.
“There are some basic rules,” Blair said. “You cannot move any more than one position forward or back from change to change, you can’t repeat any changes along the way and each bell must sound at least once.”
Blair spends a lot of time teaching methods and composing new ones. He’s visited towers all over the country and even rang the bells in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. But his favorite part of change ringing is the social aspect.
“When you become a change ringer no matter where you’re from, no matter what your religious background, no matter what you profession is, your political affiliation, whatever, you’re welcome in towers all over the world,” Blair said. “You have instant friends anywhere you go and that’s probably the best part about it all.”