LONDON — At midday on Jan 1, 2000, bell ringers in more than 16,000 churches around Britain will start tugging at the ends of ropes in what is being called the Peal of the Millennium.
In the belfry of the church of St. Mary Magdalen, at Windmill Hill, near London, Peter Rossiter and his wife, Janet, will be doing their bit to ring in the new century.
"We're just a tiny part of a huge enterprise," says Mr. Rossiter, who has spent the past year or more training a band of a dozen ringers (the youngest is age 9) to take part.
"Bell-ringing is part of our national tradition," he says. "But it's a worldwide activity. Everywhere the British went, they took the art of ringing with them."
As well as ringing out - as the practice is known - on New Year's day in British cities, towns, and villages, peals of bells will sound in places as far away as Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and several US cities.
In Boston, the Old North Church and the Church of the Advent both have belfries equipped with similar carillons and will sound their bells on Jan. 1.
Rossiter says St. Mary Magdalen has just forged its own close connection with the US. "Our original bells were too heavy for our belfry, which was a bit rickety," he says. "So we sold our set of eight to Grace Church in Charleston, S.C., and purchased a new set for ourselves."
Last March, when Grace Church dedicated its new bells, Peter's son Stephen flew to Charleston to help with the ringing.
Bell ringing, British style, is not a simple pursuit.
In continental Europe, church bells are rung, but some proud Brits say the process doesn't require much skill. Bells are struck with a mechanical hammer, or are swung on a cradle until the clapper hits the side. That is called "chiming."
In British churches, trained ringers, each at the end of a rope attached to a single bell that is tuned to produce a specific note in the scale, tug in a set sequence and in a fixed rhythm.
This is known as change-ringing - hence the term "ringing the changes."
Using ropes up to 40 feet long, ringers must learn to control, through 360 degrees, bells that can be the size of a family hatchback.
"The permutations that can be theoretically achieved with change-ringing are breathtaking," says Tina Stoecklin, editor of Ringing World, a weekly newspaper published in London for bell-ringers around Britain.
The six notes in a six-bell tower can be arranged in 720 permutations. In an eight-bell tower, the number rises to more than 40,000. "On twelve bells," says Ms. Stoecklin, "a band could ring for 90 years without repeating the same sequence."
Change-ringing has had a long and sometimes bumpy history.
In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Puritans, banned churches from ringing more than two bells. He considered it frivolous.
After the English civil war, (1642-8) bells began returning to belfries. Experimenting ringers found that if a bell was hung on a complete wheel, it was possible to control it. "From that point," says David Kelly, a leading British campanologist, "change-ringing really took off."
Neighboring villages would compete with each other by installing more and better bells in their churches, and devising increasingly complex changes. Parishioners would compete for the honor of being a member of their church's ringing band. Local landowners would stump up cash to pay for bells.
The Millennial Peal would not be possible without 3 million ($5 million) made available to churches from the national lottery. The lottery money acted as a stimulus for activity all around the country.
Two years ago there were thought to be about 40,000 church bells in Britain, but only 28,000 people to ring them. Now, thanks to a nationwide effort, the gap has been closed. Hundreds of churches have refurbished or replaced their bells.
"Bell-ringing used to be in decline, but now it's back with a vengeance," says Rossiter. "And on New Year's Day, when all those churches ring in the millennium, the whole country will be made aware of it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society