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"Grateful Vicissitude"

A Middlebury College senior's essay on the ideology of change ringing

by Jeremy Bates

I came across a fascinating paper by Emma Stanford, apparently a senior at Middlebury College, who draws parallels between change ringing and other ideological developments in 17th-century England, especially "concepts of change and circularity" in science, theology, and literature.

Here's the website for her paper. And here's a choice quotation, to whet your interest:

The specific permutation performed depends on the guidance of the conductor, a ready analogue to “Jehovah, who makes Changes as he will.” Utter change is governed by systematic constancy, and although the individual ringers, and certainly any external listeners, may not be aware of the conductor’s specific plan—as humans are unable to “interpret God’s ‘end’ or ‘method’ by observing events”—that plan undeniably exists. The successful performance of long and complex peals is enough to demonstrate that.
The spiritual equivalent of a successful peal is the completion of the progress from Creation to Resurrection, which has not been witnessed by any man and therefore cannot be held up as evidence that it is possible. This uncertainty creates a gap in human faith, which became particularly problematic after the Reformation made individual faith the center of Christian virtue. That gap is mimetically filled by the performance of change-ringing.

Agree with Stanford's analysis or not, it's a great read.

Posted Sep 12, 2012


Don MorrisonSep 13 2012, 8:14 pm

Thanks for posting this. I'm very glad to have read it, and would never have stumbled over it on my own.

Leaving aside its content, its mere existence is a good thing. It represents an approach to change ringing from a rarely seen direction. The more diverse a collection of folks that are taking an interest in and talking about change ringing the better for all of us!

I fear the extract Jeremy quotes may seem a bit intimidating--certainly it did to me! Don't let that put anyone off, the paper really is perfectly approachable, and not a difficult read.

I wonder if Ms Stanford learned to ring during her stay in Oxford. While Middlebury is not particularly convenient to any towers (though there has been a handbell peal rung there!), I presume she has or is about to graduate, and may be moving somewhere closer to ringing.

Assuming I've correctly understood her argument, there is a delicious irony: I believe she has asserted that both the birth of ringing, and much English literature contemporary with it, aim to console those discomforted by the changes overtaking society at that time. It is ironic that we as modern change ringers are ourselves practicing an archaic art, often looking backward with longing, and in many ways resisting inexorable change ourselves!

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