Urban Bells — The Sound of Religion in the City

1 Oct

In my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, an argument over church bells saw tourism pitted against religious practice and religious history. As the Boston Globe reported this past February, guests of the Hotel Providence complained that Grace Episcopal Church‘s quarterly bell ringing from 8am-9pm made their visits unbearable. The church agreed to reduce its bell ringing to twice an hour, but bells continue to ring out the start of the day bright and early every day at 8am.


A little background: Grace Episcopal Church is the church I grew up in. I attended roughly from the time I was 7 until I left for college at 18. As a member of the boy’s choir, I spent more time in the church than nearly any of its parishioners. We practiced twice a week and arrived early on Sundays to rehearse before the service. The choirmaster from the article, Mark Johnson, was my choirmaster then, too. It’s funny how some things don’t change much. There is also no mistaking his personality in this quote:

“In my mind it’s a huge sacrifice,” said Mark Johnson, ­organist and choirmaster at the church for more than 20 years. “It’s an extremely generous gesture, one which I have objected to very strenuously.”

More background: When I was in high school, I was one of a select group of choristers to be allowed to ring the bells. As you can see in the video, ringing the bells consists of pushing handles down–hard. You really needed to put all of your weight into it. And woe unto you if you made a mistake. Your mistakes would be ringing for miles across the city, echoing in the alleys and parks of scenic downtown Providence.

English: Grace Church, Westminster Street, Pro...

Grace Church, Westminster Street, Providence, Rhode Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the intersection of urban living and historical religious practice are holdovers like bell chimes. In the era before affordable time-keeping, church bells measured the day for workers. The sound of bells ringing will, for me, forever be the sound of urbanity. Today it blends together with honks and the mechanic hum of buses and cars, but these sounds carry shallowly. By design a bell is made to be heard.

Beyond the historical reality–“the bells were here first”– and the legal precedent that preserves the ringing of church bells, there are larger questions the Globe insufficiently explores. What expectations do tourists have that are unmet by the reality of the city? How is it that they come to the city and expect it to be a quiet interlude? Would you expect subway cars to cease running in New York City? The trains to quit blowing their whistles in Chicago or Boston? How does one come so unprepared for the sound of cities? If you lived in an apartment complex and this was a leaf blower outside of your window, would you have been similarly incensed?

I suspect, but I could easily be wrong, that one of the major hurdles here is that today the bell ringing is seen as little more than “religious noise.” This is not an instance of past and present. This is a battle between the secular and religious. The bells are offensive because, lacking any secular purpose today, they are left with little but religious meaning.

In counties that have battled with the Islamic call to prayer, noise pollution, and other zoning excuses have been put forward as reasons to prevent the adhān from reaching its audience. Much like the church bells, the sunrise call must be especially galling to those who would like to sleep in.

Sound can be orientation just as easily as geography. If we have lost the chronological orientation of church bells, then they may still serve to orient urbanites to the intermingling of religious and secular in the city.

After all, Grace Church, like many other urban religious churches, lies in a developed residential zone. The skyscrapers, apartment complexes, hotels, lofts, malls, warehouses, and other buildings that surround it are built on the ruins of old homes. The combination of development and the investment in the religious structure left the church as a last oasis of a formerly integrated city. Now that the city is attempting to return to a mixed development zone (with businesses and residences across the downtown), they’re rediscovering what was left there. It’s probably inevitable that such clashes are occurring. In fact, I’m surprised there haven’t been more (despite the links below).

I suppose that in cities where residents never fled the urban center, these problems were addressed decades ago. That leaves the terms of negotiation up to folks like my choirmaster and the Pastor. The parishioners live in the suburbs–or at least they did when I attended. Thankfully, it seems like a reasonable compromise was made that preserved the historical elements of the practice as well as good relations between  the church and its new neighbors.


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