Where have all the church bells gone?

Dear Editor,
In a few short months, the yuletide season will be upon us, and one of the songs which will most definitely dominate the airwaves, is ‘Jingle Bells.’ To a lesser extent we may hear the traditional bell of Santa Clause I use the word ‘may’ guardedly, because I have noticed that in recent years poor Santa has been without his big bell. These days he rings a little bell as if he is less energized.

As a child it seemed to me that bells dominated my entire world. There were bells here, bells there, bells were everywhere. The bell was prominently featured in two of the three major religions in Guyana.

First there was the school bell, which was heard at least four times a day and five days per week during the school term to signal the start and conclusion of every session. The school bell was also rung vigorously to signal the start of a fire drill, which was an event that most, if not all children enjoyed. I sometimes wonder, do we still have fire drills in school these days?

Then there was the bicycle bell, which was heard all day long as long as you were on the dusty and bumpy highway in the rural areas. These days bicycles hardly carry bells. I also wonder, does the present day generation of pedal cyclists know that it is a legal requirement for a bicycle to be fitted with a bell? I think not.

There was the bus bell which – in the country area – was essentially a bicycle bell fitted with a cord which when rung signalled to the driver that he needed to stop to let off a passenger(s). There were also the bell of the village or town crier, and most important of all, the church bell.

In days gone by, the affluent and aristocratic families caused a bell to be rung by a maid or butler, to indicate that a particular meal was served. And in some top-of-the-line restaurants and hotels today, bells are still used for one reason or another.

Make no mistake; the bell can have a lasting effect on the human mind. How can anyone forget the tolling of the bell as the remains of a loved one is being interred or as he/she leaves the church after just saying ‘I do’?

But where have all the bells gone? It is clear to me that bells have always played an important part in the life of man.  As a matter of fact during biblical days the garment of the High Priest who was required to enter the Holy of Holies was fitted with bells for reasons beyond explanation here.

Today I want to briefly focus on the church bell, which seems to be a thing of the past. The history of the church bell is quite an interesting one and I am compelled to ask, where have all the church bells gone? Most of the bells have disappeared from our churches in particular and society in general.

The other day I travelled from Skeldon to Georgetown and noticed that there were few churches with the traditional bell and most of those which had, the bell seemed to be in disuse. So again I have to ask, where have all the church bells gone?

History has shown that the church bell was rung for many reasons, one of which was to inform or remind those within hearing distance, that it was time to pray or attend church because the sermon was about to begin. I don’t know if it still happens, but not so long ago, the bell of the Brickdam Cathedral was rung at least twice per day, ie at 6 am and 6 pm.I tried but failed to discover why it was rung exactly eighteen times on each of those occasions.

I have known of instances where folks on hearing the church bell, stopped what they were doing and scampered off to church. Men in sinful debates and arguments in rum shops or at the domino table on a Sunday morning on hearing the church bell would admonish and advise each other that they should ‘go to church.’ The ringing of the church bell on a Sunday morning was a ‘calling,’ and I want to believe that the decline of the church bell may have had a direct relationship with the decline of church attendance, at least in the country areas.

The church bell was not rung for church services alone, but also for funerals and other solemn or happy events.  In days gone by, the ringing or tolling of the church bell could have meant that an ailing individual, of whom most of the village or community would have known, had just died. That meant that interested persons were invited to the home of the deceased to pay their respects and console the survivors. These days, because the TV has replaced the church bell and the village crier for this purpose, many people have died and are buried without being heard of.

While I would like to advocate the return of the church bell, I somehow believe that that is a remote possibility because there may not be many manufacturers of bells in the world today; yet I would continue to ask, where have all the church bells gone?

Yours faithfully,
Francis Carryl

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