When I started seminary in the fall, I tried to take it slow with committing to new things. I like getting involved, but with moving to a new place to start a new program with a brand new marriage, I thought I’d try to take it slow. The one group I did join pretty quickly was the Guild of Chimers, which is possibly the lowest-commitment group on campus. It takes maybe half an hour a week of my time, I don’t really learn any transferable ministry skills, it’s not exactly résumé material…but it’s one of the best parts of my week.
The seminary chapel, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, has a bell tower, and the bell tower houses a set of carillon-esque chimes with a range of just over an octave, minus a few notes. Before our weekday evening services (Evensong or, on Tuesdays, Eucharist), before Thursday morning Eucharist, and sometimes for Sunday “concerts,” a couple of chimers climb a dizzyingly steep flight of steps partway up the chapel bell tower.
In the center of the room where we chime stands the console with its labeled hammers, beginning with middle C. Against the wall, a small bookshelf holds binders filled with sheet music—the songs of the Hymnal 1982 (the Episcopal Church’s main hymnal) transcribed for the chimes. A blizzard of multicolored Post-It flags mark the pages with favorite choices, and I expect each one of us has a unique method of choosing and marking the hymns we will play that day.
Ten minutes before the service, we begin by ringing the “Chelsea Changes.” Change ringing is “the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns called ‘changes’” (thanks, Wikipedia), and it’s popular in England (like a lot of the things Episcopalians do). Change ringing vs. other kinds of ringing often has to do with the type of bells. We have chimes that actually can play tunes (not just patterns), but we start with the Changes anyway. YOLO.
Then we play our hymn selection. We try to play tunes that are appropriate for the day and season. Right now, since we’re in Lent, we have to be extra-careful not to play anything that contains the a-word (er, that would be alleluia—shhh—for those of you now wondering just what is in the Episcopal hymnal, anyway). The cables that connect the batons to the hammers make a lot of noise, somewhat distorting the sound of the chimes, but the firm press and thud of the batons and subsequent resounding, booming chime make for an incredibly satisfying experience. Adding favorite beautiful hymns on top of that? It’s every bit as great as it sounds.
We wrap up when the folks downstairs let us know they’re ready to start the service by ringing a buzzer, and we chime the quarters (just like on a clock) and nine middle Cs. That’s it (except for careening back down the staircase of death). See? Low commitment. However, it is a sort of ministry—evangelism in a sense. The chimes are heard throughout the surrounding neighborhood (I expect a few neighbors are less than thrilled by this), and all across campus. They call students and community members to worship, and perhaps cause more distant listeners to take a few moments in a busy day to be still and reflect. Even what sometimes feels like a frivolous and pure fun activity just might be something more—and if you ask me, that’s pretty cool.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.