St George’s Ypres was built as a place of remembrance following the horrors of World War 1. The church building included a bell tower, given by the Knott family in memory of their two sons killed in the Great War. But, back in the 1920s, there was no money to buy a set of bells. So the bell tower has been used mainly as a store room and dumping ground.
Ten years ago, Mr. Alan Regin, Steward of the Rolls of Honour of the Council of Bell Ringers, had the idea of equipping the tower with a full set of change ringing bells. Alan carried the project forward during the ministry of three chaplains – Ray Jones, Brian Llewelyn and now Gillian Trinder. A trust was formed which raised the large sums of money needed. Skilled workmen were found to refurbish completely the ringing room. And John Taylor & Co., the last remaining bell foundry in England, was commissioned to cast the bells. The bells were delivered to Ypres at the end of August and on Sunday 22nd October I had the privilege of dedicating them.
The service included some stirring traditional hymns, and a reading from the Book of Numbers 10:1-10 – ‘the silver trumpets’. I had not previously noticed that Moses’s silver trumpets had two uses, just like English church bells have had – to summon people to assembly and also to warn of impending war.
After the sermon, Andrew Wilby, the Managing Director of John Taylor and Co. Bell Founders in Loughborough, presented a token bell rope to The Revd. Gillian Trinder as a sign of the new ministry at St. George’s Church. We then heard a delightful ‘touch’ rung on a set of handbells, newly presented to St. George’s by Mr. John Coles.
The set of 16 handbells were cast by James Shaw of Bradford in the nineteenth century and were once owned by John’s grandfather, Charles Coles, himself a wonderful ringer. They have recently been restored by Steve McEwan of Whitechapel Handbells and will now be housed in the ringing chamber of St. George’s for use by local and visiting ringers.
At the end of the service, a (very) few of us proceeded to the beautifully refurbished and panelled ringing room, dedicated to Bertram Prewett, a renowned bell ringer who perished in the Great War. These lovely words were used:
“In the faith of Jesus Christ, we dedicate these bells.
May they proclaim Christ’s message of love and salvation to this parish;
May they warn the heedless, comfort the sorrowing
And call all willing hearts to prayer and praise.”
The bells then rang out for the first time!
After the service, I spoke to many bell ringers who were thrilled with the new set of bells. I was also introduced to the chairman of the Sir James Knott Charity. The charity exists mainly to give grants to good causes in the North East of England (in fact I applied to it as a vicar in County Durham!). The chairman told me that because of the particular link of the Knott family with Ypres, and having in mind the ‘unfinished’ bell tower of St. Georges (built in memory of two of the Knott brothers), they had made a donation of £100,000 to purchase one of the set of 8 bells.
Following the dedication of the bells, a team of British bell ringers has offered to live in Ypres for 6 months in order to train up local teams of ringers in the art of bell ringing. Moreover, I was assured that St. George’s will now be firmly on the ‘bell ringers pilgrimage’ itinerary. These are the only ‘in use’ public set of English church bells on the European continent of which I’m aware, so they are very special!
One of the Christian creeds, the Westminster Catechism says: ‘man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.’ Bells put that catechism into practice. They summon us to worship God, they declare the praise of God and they point to the enjoyment of God.
And I think that church bells have a very important and contemporary function. Because in our time, people mostly neglect the worship of God. They have forgotten how to praise God, and they don’t know how to enjoy God. And religion is something which, if it is tolerated at all, is supposed to be something quiet and personal and private. By contrast, a set of pealing church bells says to us: ‘Don’t apologise! We have good news to share! Come and join us! Praise God with all your heart and mind and strength! It will do you good. And it will do your community good too.’
So, as some words we used at St. George’s put it:
‘We pray that the ringing of these bells will awaken in the hearts of all who hear them, the desire to worship God in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’