Monks, Mars Bars and Misinformation

Or how to find new ringers and hang on to them.

A recent TV ad showing monks eating Mars Bars before bell ringing and then being hauled up towards the ceiling by the ropes has struck a chord with many non-ringers. The advert will be forgotten soon enough but it is surprising how often a casual conversation about ringing touches upon it. Of course that advert didn’t create the idea that people are yanked up in the air when they ring, it simply played on an existing misconception. It would be interesting to know whether the people from the advertising agency thought that this was roughly what happened in real life or did it tongue-in-cheek. That’s not important, but it does intrigue me that that anyone should believe that this is bell ringing, and it points to the gap in perception between the reality of what we do and the idea that the general public has of it.

Our local papers are very church-friendly, and frequently run articles on things ranging from bell restoration projects, ringers open days and church fêtes, through to the less happy subject of lead theft. And people are aware that bells are rung because they hear them. Lots of churches don’t have ringable bells, or sadly have bells that could be used and aren’t, but nevertheless you don’t have to go far on a Sunday morning to hear church bells.

Scarning’s parish magazine is delivered to over 1200 households, and it is a good way to get information about the Scarning band of ringers to those we need to reach. I was therefore disappointed when the full-page piece, complete with photo, that we put in a recent issue asking for ringers produced little response. It may be that Scarning people simply don’t want to take up bell ringing. It may also be that someone with better PR and copy writing skills than mine could have worded something more effectively. However, I am convinced that a good number of people in Scarning would enjoy ringing if only they could be persuaded to come and have a go.

This experience isn’t limited to Scarning, and the picture nationwide is similar. In many cases it is much worse, with excellent rings of bells unused, and churches where there are too few people available for regular ringing. The Central Council for Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) and some other bodies are well aware of the problem and are addressing it. There are moves afoot to train more people to teach new recruits and to improve the overall standard of teaching and I feel sure that this will bear fruit. However the problem of arousing people’s interest in the first place remains a tricky one. I have been involved in ringing for a relatively short time but am told that before the Millennium there was a surge of interest resulting from the desire to have all church bells available to celebrate the event. The new recruits who became involved then are, it seems, not being replaced in sufficient numbers and if you look at the NDAR website it is striking how many bands have a falling membership. There are notable exceptions, and clearly many towers are thriving. However even here I suspect that there is an element of established ringers gravitating towards towers where the bells are good and there are other skilled ringers, thus depleting the numbers elsewhere.

So how are we to attract new people, and what lessons can we draw from the decline in numbers? Well, it occurs to me that the thriving towers do generally have ‘good’ bells, but that they also have a buzz about them, a welcoming atmosphere, good scope for teaching newcomers and excellent relations with the church and local community. So one area that we can look at is to work on being a lively and welcoming tower, with a good rapport with church and village. The Scarning band can justifiably say that it has been all of those things in the years since ringing recommenced here, and our job is to continue the good work started by the ‘Scarning Four’ and to intensify our efforts.

A second requirement is to have the facility to teach new recruits, since it’s no use if someone comes along and you can’t give them a go or offer to teach them. We are working on that and hopefully we will not be found wanting in the future. However that still leaves the central problem, which is how to gain people’s attention in the first place. We can make sure that our ringing is good and that we don’t miss services, for a start. To this end I hope in due course, perhaps once we have another member or two, that the band will feel able to ring every Sunday instead of alternate weeks. I think there is scope for cooperation with Dereham to achieve this. If parishioners become used to the idea that we ring every Sunday, rather than intermittently, and that it always sounds lovely, this alone will do a lot for our image. If there are a few crashes and bangs on Wednesday evenings then so be it, that’s what practices are for.

Looking at the eight current members of the band I think I am right in saying that one of those was recruited after reading the parish magazine and the rest all as a result of a personal contact. Frank has been particularly good at talking to people and getting them to come along and clearly the rest of us should follow his example.

It seems to me that our future success at Scarning depends partly on good PR, making the tower a welcoming and organised place, and maintaining a high standard of ringing, but that our new recruits will probably come ultimately from personal contact, even if their initial interest was aroused by other means. Having got them through the church door the challenge then is to encourage them to learn and to follow through, and historically we have had several people who began learning but lost the spark of interest or were put off by something that happened. We must ensure that new entrants are fired up with enthusiasm from the moment they arrive and that this is sustained. For this to be the case they need to be welcomed, to be given sufficient teaching time, to feel that they are making progress, to have clear targets and be helped to meet them, to feel confident in their abilities and to know that they are participating in something that is valued, worthwhile and fun. That’s a long list but all of it is within our capabilities. New recruits are certainly hard to come by, in spite of our best efforts, but once they have made the decision to come and have a look we must make the experience sufficiently rewarding for them to be counting the days to the next practice, and no, I’m not joking, we need them to be that keen. If all the people who had started learning during my brief time at Scarning had followed through, the band would have at least another four members by now, even allowing for one who dropped out for health reasons.

To summarise, it seems to me that there are three aspects to the process of finding new bell ringers for a band. First, get the basics and the PR right. The band needs to be a thriving, happy entity with a good relationship with the church and local community. It should be something that people feel positive about and are tempted to become associated with. Second, we need to get our new recruits in through the door. If we have the basics right they should already have a good attitude towards bell ringing, but the final decision to come and have a go is likely to result from a personal approach. Thirdly, once someone has come along for the first time we must nurture their interest and hang on to them. If we can get these three things right there is no reason why the Scarning band, or any other for that matter, should not continue to do well.

TCF  8/15