The Mystery of the Silent Bell Tower…

THE silencing of York Minster’s bell ringers is a story only half told. A report on BBC Look North seemed to encapsulate the problem. We learned that the 30 volunteers had been axed and that a more professional system would introduced next year.

The Dean of York, the Very Rev Vivienne Faull, was interviewed but the encounter threw little further light on what had happened or what exactly the bell ringers had done. It was suggested that some sort of health and safety offence might have been committed, and that these sort of things couldn’t be allowed to happen so far away from the main body of the Minster. So far so mysterious.

What could all this mean? It seems hard to say. I just went for my Sunday morning run, going this week into York from the suburbs and through Bootham Bar. I have run this way many times before, and will do so again no doubt. It’s a lovely route and usually on a Sunday morning you hear the bells, but not today; today there was only silence, a weird silence of the sort introduced into a spooky film (“the bells aren’t ringing – no good can come from that silence.”)

Our eldest lives in a flat near to York Minster so perhaps he enjoyed his lie-in this morning. In truth he is probably used to the ringing by now, and few people seem to be impressed with the Minster’s behaviour.

A skim of the comments on Facebook brought a number of standard responses. Mostly people thought the Minster’s actions were hardly Christian and regretted the muffling of the bells. One unusually fair-minded person said something along the lines of how we would know the truth when the dust had settled and that the Minster wouldn’t have acted in this way without due cause.

And then there was an interesting thought from the musician Karl Mullen, who wheels his piano round York and into pubs as well. Karl said, in effect, that the bell ringers had been out of control for some time now and the situation needed to be resolved. Again the exact reason for what had happened remained elusive.

There is a strange opacity about this story, with everything being reported through a blur of half-told truths. Whatever the rights or wrongs, the Minster authorities emerge with little credit.

Yesterday The Times wrote a leader article on the matter. In this, the newspaper said: “The management techniques of the FTSE 100 companies, not known for their roots in Christian compassion, have taken root on consecrated ground have taken root on consecrated ground: the bell ringers have been told to re-apply for their jobs.”

The leader writer on The Times, like everyone else, appeared puzzled by why a church would act in this manner. My old newspaper reported that John Ridgeway-Wood had been suspended. I don’t exactly know John but did speak to him in my letters editing days, as he was an occasional correspondent.

According to the Press, John received a letter telling him the move followed his ‘intemperate’ comments on Facebook and ‘similarly objectionable’ comments attributed to him in the media about the Chapter’s decision.

There was also a quote from Canon Precentor Peter Moger which bears repeating: “The unacceptable terms of your comments about the Minster and people involved in the Minster’s life contravene Chapter’s Volunteer Agreement and Social Media policy.”

Who knew that York Minster had a ‘Social Media policy’ or that it could so easily be contravened?

When I lost my job I did for a while consider PR work but the applications always fell on stony ground. And, you know, I am not really sorry. I am better on this side of the fence. If nothing else, the silencing of the bell ringers of York Minster shows just how badly wrong public relations can go. For whatever the true reason is for the strange affair, the result is copper-bottomed clanger of a PR disaster.

Perhaps there is a book in here somewhere. Lovers of classic crime fiction will recall that Dorothy L Sayers introduced bell ringing into a couple of her novels, notably The Nine Tailors, in which Lord Peter Wimsey used his knowledge of change ringing, the art of ringing tuned bells, to solve the mystery.

Does anyone have Wimsey’s number? York could do with a visit from the aristocratic sleuth to solve the Mystery of the Silent Bell Tower.

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