At National Cathedral, the bell tolls for 50

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time of the dedication ceremony. The chief justice was Earl Warren, not Warren Burger. This version has been corrected.


National Cathedral celebrates the birthday of its peal bells with some marathon ringing. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

There’s a strong breeze up in the central Gloria in Excelsis Tower of the National Cathedral, where bell ringers are having a reunion. Just sitting in on the session, says aficionado Margaret Shannon, “is so divine it’s like riding in an Austin Healey on the open road with the wind in your hair.”

Both the tower and its loudest bells turned 50 this month, and this weekend’s celebration of the milestone will include 16 hours of ringing by a rotating cast from all over the country. At Friday night’s two-hour practice session, they let the bells do most of the talking, standing in a circle and solemnly tugging ropes that sound the 10 giant bells housed on the floor above.

Before her turn comes, one member of the band, Amy Lam, a biochemist from New York, tries to explain the thrill of it all: “Do you do crosswords? You know how when you get a clue, you feel that little pat on the back? With ringing, if you get it right, it’s a small, subtle, ‘Oh, I got it right,’ but it’s every couple of seconds, so it’s oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.” (Oh!)

Boston meteorologist Danielle Morse, who usually rings at the Old North Church in her city’s North End, laughs and says, “I get to pretend I’m Paul Revere,’’ who was hired as a ringer at that church when he was 15. (Ringer lore holds that that’s how he had access to the tower years later, when he placed the “one if by land, two if by sea” lantern there during his midnight ride. )

Now, as then, the practice is both meditative and mentally challenging: “It’s as hard as you want it to be,’’ Morse says, “so I’ll be learning it for the rest of my life.” In fact, so much is going on as the ringers work the ropes that the untrained eye can’t catch it all.

The lightest of the bells is 607 pounds, and the heaviest 3,588, “so if you have a disagreement with the bell, the bell wins,’’ says Quilla Roth, who learned to ring a mere 491 / 2 years ago as a student at the National Cathedral School and is now a retired IT engineer and the cathedral’s ringmaster.

But the ever-changing sequences — both a team sport and a spiritual exercise, making noise for the glory of God — also requires finesse, she says: “Some people compare it to horseback riding,’’ because one has to pull the rope just hard enough to get the bell to swing exactly as far as it should. Coordination is sometimes accomplished with glances, just as flirtations were carried on in 17th-century England, where this kind of bell-ringing began.

The art of change-ringing these peal bells was almost dead in this country in the fall of 1963, when the cathedral’s new bells were delivered from England, where they had been cast and tuned. Oh, and there was no instruction manual.

Three small groups of ringers were still active in the United States, though, at the Groton and Kent schools in New England, and at the University of Chicago, and the dean of the National Cathedral at the time wanted to build on what they were doing. That dean, Francis B. Sayre Jr., who was Woodrow Wilson’s grandson, is better known as a fierce opponent of Joe McCarthy, segregation and the war in Vietnam.

But he was also an enthusiastic proponent of the English peal bells that he wanted to speak for the cathedral, and he sent his associate organist and choirmaster, Richard Wayne Dirksen, up to Groton to listen. Dirksen reported back that “a peal of bells in full cry is, in a sense, a re-creation of the ever-impending and imperious voice of the Church itself, compelling all believers to attention.”

“From Day One,’’ says one of Dirksen’s sons, Geoff Dirksen, some of the National Cathedral’s neighbors have found that voice a little too imperious, and the tradition of their complaints also continues this weekend.

Still, the dedication of the peal bells and tower in May 1964 began “a little Renaissance” of bell-ringing in this country and Canada, where there are now about 50 towers in regular use and some 500 active ringers.

“I’m going to be feeling it tomorrow,’’ Dirksen says after his first bell-ringing session in 40 years. Though as a boy he was one of the original ringers here, his career as a convention manager “didn’t allow for bell-ringing,’’ he says wistfully.

When another ringer asks how many people in the room can ring a Yorkshire Royal, Dirksen yells, “Snort!” and everybody laughs. When asked to translate his ringer bon mot, he explains that “it’s a notoriously hard method,’’ as peal-bell tunes are called.

“This was a good playground to grow up in,’’ he says, looking around the tower and remembering that first winter when there was no heat except a few space heaters, so the ropes froze. There was no elevator, either, because architect Philip Hubert Frohman was “such a Gothic purist he didn’t believe in them.”

Geoff’s older brother, Rick Dirksen, who was 20 when the bells were installed, took that year off from college to help his father, and went on to become the cathedral’s longtime ringmaster. That first band was mostly self-taught, Rick Dirksen says, though eventually a team of Englishmen came over to perform for the dedication — “thank goodness” — and the next fall, a nice retired English innkeeper named Fred Rice came and taught them for five months.

Ringers of all faiths and none — no, not all are Episcopalians — have “given voice to this amazing building” in the 50 years since boys in crew cuts and women in pillbox hats and gloves came to hear Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy introduce Chief Justice Earl Warren at the dedication ceremony. The voice of the cathedral is one of solidarity and of solace, of praise and sometimes of protest. And “what it means in this community,” Rick Dirksen says, “is a huge thing.”

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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