If you’ve still not knocked off “do the new” on the year’s bucket-list, we have a suggestion. Join the Wednesday Night rites of New York’s church bell ringers.
Bell ringing, also known as change ringing, is what Furnivall calls “an ultra-niche interest.” Originating in medieval England, it is practiced by an estimated 40,000 people around the world today, mostly in the United Kingdom and among countries of the former British Empire. In the U.S., there is a small but enthusiastic bell-ringing scene, spread across 42 towers. The North American Guild of Change Ringers, established in the 1970s, calls ringing “a team sport, a highly coordinated musical performance, an antique art, and a demanding exercise.” “We ring bells to celebrate,” Furnivall says, and if you’re spry enough to clamber up a clock tower, you can grab a rope and join in the fun.
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It’s a frosty Friday evening in New York and, as most people are fleeing Wall Street to head home, Tony Furnivall is just arriving. At the end of the street, built into the stone wall surrounding Trinity Church, is a heavy door with a big cross on it.
He swipes an access card, clambers through the bowels of the church, and then begins the climb up the clock tower. There, in a dimly lit room that overlooks Alexander Hamilton’s grave, he’ll find a circle of ropes dangling from the ceiling.
This sounds like the beginnings of some dark Masonic ritual, but it is nothing of the sort. Furnivall is a bell ringer and he’s here for this week’s practice session. Soon he’ll be joined by seven other bell ringers, all of whom will climb up to the clock tower to pull the ropes attached to bronze bells that weigh hundreds of pounds.
Ringers sound the bells for practical purposes—Sunday church services, weddings, special occasions such as ticker tape parades—but also just for fun. At Trinity Church on Wall Street, there are about 30 volunteer bell ringers on the books, eight to 20 of whom will turn up for practice on Wednesday nights. (This Friday session was an anomaly, organized after the church needed to do a recording session on Wednesday.)
Furnivall estimates that around half of the regulars are expats. Some have grown up in bell-ringing families, while others encountered the activity through the church—not that you need to be a member of the congregation to be a bell ringer. “Church involvement is pretty well irrelevant,” says Furnivall. “We enjoy ringing their bells, and they enjoy having their bells rung.”