Was asked a question about how we use bells in the parish. Good question. We need to understand why we do what we do…not just do 'em!
The church generally has three sets of bells: the tower bells, the Sanctus or sacring bells, and the sacristy bell. Their sounding is a matter of customary of the parish, not a canonical requirement, but their usage is steeped in the Holy Scripture, The Blood of Christ and God the Holy Ghost.
The tower bell or bells are rung before the beginning of a liturgy. The English Prayer Book from 1552 onwards directs:
"the Curate that ministreth in every Parish Churche or Chapell, beyng at home, and not beyng otherwise reasonably letted, shall say [Morning and Evening Prayer] in the Parishe Churche or Chapell where he ministreth, and shall tolle a belle thereto, a convenient tyme before he begyn, that suche as be disposed maye come to heare Goddes worde, and to praie with hym."
In England that often means that the bell is rung for five minutes one half hour before public service and then again for the five minutes immediately before. The tower bell also is traditionally tolled solemnly for funerals and joyfully after weddings and on other joyous liturgical or public occasions.
In Anglican parishes, an altar or sanctus bell is typically a small hand-held bell or set of bells. The primary reason for the use of sanctus/altar bell(s) is to create a joyful noise to the Lord as a way to give thanks for the miracle taking place atop the Holy Table, and heralds back to the blood of the sacrifice on the Hebrew Day of Atonement, and its use by the high priest on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies of the Hebrew temple.
They make a joyful noise to the Lord (often in conjunction with select musical instruments such as the lyre) and focus the attention of those attending the Mass--and those who may not be there--that a supernatural and miraculous event is taking place on the Holy Table. The voice of the bell would allow people to offer an act of adoration to Almighty God, both inside--and outside--the parish.
Note this linkage between Sanctus Bells and the ancient guitar, the lyre...something to remember when we tend to reject certain instruments in favor of others we deem more orthodox.
Anglican parishes ring the altar bell, to signify the Real Presence of Christ in the sacred Elements. During the Eucharist, it is usually rung three times - once before the Words of Institution, and once at each elevation of the Host and of the Chalice. It may also be rung to indicate the time that the faithful may come forward to receive Communion and during the Trisagion--the “Thrice Holy” of the Sanctus.
Such bells are also commonly referred to as the Altar bell, sacring bell, Sacryn bell, saints' bell, sance-bell, or sanctus bell (or "bells", when there are three). and are kept on thecredence table or some other convenient location within the sanctuary. The Sanctus Bell--the most common name, is so called, because it is rung during the Sanctus at the Eucharist may be a small silver bell (especially for a bishop), a group of bells (campanili), a gong (like a ship’s bell, mounted on a post), or a switch connected to the tower bell. They have been recorded as being rung as part of the celebration of the Mass in the Church for more than 800 years...although their use is actually much older.
The use of bells is mentioned several times in the Old Testament--our “hand-mirror of the soul” as St. James describes it.
Exodus 28:33-35 describes the vestments worn by the high priest Aaron as he approached the Ark of the Covenant in the Holiest of Holies and links their sound to life and devotion in God’s Presence:
“On its skirts you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, around its skirts, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, round about on the skirts of the robe. And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, lest he die.”
Interestingly enough, many see the bells and pomegranates on Aaron’s vestments as early symbols of the Gifts and Fruits of the Spirit. This creates a mystical connection between bells in the Church and Pentecost itself!
This description of Aaron's extremely ornate priestly vestments is repeated in Exodus 39:25-26 and again in Ecclesiastes 45:9 and reminds the people of the need for Blood on the Mercy Seat:
“And he encircled him with pomegranates, with very many golden bells round about, to send forth a sound as he walked, to make their ringing heard in the temple as a reminder to the sons of his people."
The bells were likely included as part of high-priest Aaron's vestments for two reasons. First, they created a joyful noise to God, which is something man should undertake as described in Psalm 98:4. Secondly, these blessed bells were also employed for their apotropaic powers, or the power to ward off evil spirits and were seen as tools to be used to avert dangers to Aaron before he entered the Holiest of Holies, while focusing the people on the High Priest, an Old Testament picture of Christ Himself, as he sprinkled blood on the Mercy Seat for the people’s sins.
Bells were also used to signify sanctification and devotion to God’s worship during early times, as shown in Zechariah 14:20:
“And on that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, 'Holy to the Lord.' And the pots in the house of the Lord shall be as the bowls before the altar.”
The ancient cymbals mentioned in Psalm 150:5-6 are said to have resembled water pitchers with wide open necks, similar to the bells of today, creating a symbolic linkage to Holy Baptism and the Rock that followed Moses in the desert:
“Praise Him with sounding cymbals; praise Him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”
The use of bells in the Christian Church is dated by many sources back to the fifth century, although their use is far more ancient and is easily traced to the Hebrew church via Holy Scripture. By the ninth century the use of bells had spread to even the small parish churches of the western Roman Empire. The English Church was the first to bring the bells inside the nave and sanctuary--a move many times credited to Venerable Bede, an English saint. When the English Church embraced the Protestant Reformation, unlike many churches, we retained many of the ancient devotions, including this one.
Notably, in the East, many censers (thuribles) have either twelve or thirteen bells attached to their support chains that sound when the censer is swung. The twelve bells represent the twelve apostles. (In some cases a thirteenth bell, one that is incapable of producing a sound, is added to represent Judas Iscariot.) The sound of the censer bells, in addition to making a "joyful noise", also helps to draw the congregation's attention to the activity at the altar and is similar in usage to Sanctus Bells, and links the Old Testament usage of the bells with the incense the high priest used to approach the Holy of Holies.
In an era where a tragically large number of Christians no longer believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, the ringing of Sanctus Bells (and the use of incense) can underscore the miracle that takes place upon the altar and inescapable ties to the Day of Atonement Christ, as our High Priest, made for us all. Ringing the bells also continues to create a joyful noise to the Lord, and one cannot discount the effect the bells have on the faithful.
As with any devotion, however, God is most interested in our hearts open and focused on Him. That’s the real ticket. The bells are just a tool to that end.
Soli Deo Gloria!