john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Ringing the good news on St Petroc's Day

    Okehampton Deanery Ringers Association
    Ringing competition 4/6/2011

    It's lovely to be hosting this competition today here at St Petroc's, particularly because today is St Petroc's Day, and what better way to mark the occasion than to have the bells of that Saint's church rung out so well and for so long...

    Now some saints are remembered for their character or for works of great generosity or devotion; others are known as martyrs for their faith. Petroc comes into another category: in common with many of the saints of the peripheral and peninsular lands of the British Isles Petroc is remembered in the placenames of the Christian settlements which he founded - he was a wandering missionary, of Welsh origin, who after studying in Ireland, travelled to Cornwall and established monasteries at Padstow and Bodmin, set up other churches in the region, and allegedly even converted the king of the South-West, Constantine of Dumnonia, to Christianity. After taking a pilgrimage to Rome by way of Brittany, Petroc returned via Devon, establishing around seventeen churches in the county, compared to Cornwall's five. St Petroc's missionary endeavours are evoked in the names of Petrockstowe and Newton St Petroc; and the newly-established green, white and black flag of Devon is dedicated to him too: a saint we share with Cornwall, if we're feeling generous, or claim as our own if we're not.

    They call them the peregrini, the wandering missionaries of the early Celtic church, devoted to their task of heralding the gospel of Jesus Christ, welcomed into the homes of those they visited sharing their message. They were committed individuals who enjoyed a solitary life - travelling alone. Petroc was known as a hermit - but he must have also valued community and the discipline of working and worshipping together with others in a structured pattern of life. Spiritual disciplinarians: mathematicians of the faith, coming out of their monastic cells precisely seven times a day for prayers. Physical men: wearing out shoe leather walking the land for their passion. The peregrini: responding to the call of a God who inspired them; ringing changes in their lives and the lives of those they encountered on their way.

    Now I was trying to find a link between St Petroc and bellringing, and discovered that change-ringers have a number of saints already associated with them. My brief internet trawl revealed that St Anthony, St Dunstan, St Barbara and St Agatha have each been called the patron saint of bellringers, for reasons strange and obscure: St Anthony presumably because of the legend that when he died, all the church bells rang of their own accord; St Dunstan because he was a metalworker who crafted bells and vessels for the church; St Barbara presumably because she spent a lot of her time in a tower - imprisoned by her heathen father - and is also the patron saint of mathematicians; and the terrible tale of St Agatha, whose symbol was adopted by many early bellringers Guilds because it looked rather like two little bells sitting on a plate. The gruesome truth, which you probably already know, is that when she was being martyred Agatha had her breasts cut off, and medieval pictures of Agatha portray her displaying these on a platter: not bells at all, but breasts, an awful vision which tells the same story as the crucifixion: of how we humans make victims of the innocent, and how the gospel proclaims restoration, resurrection.

    With these astonishing characters already in place there's no need to offer Petroc as another candidate for patron saint of bellringers. But Christian people can learn from bellringers, similar things to what Saint Petroc teaches us:

    About being travellers - going from tower to tower to ring out the sounds which herald the presence of Christ in each community; about being welcoming to those (from other clubs or guilds) who visit; about being people who embrace a positive discipline, in the very precise art of change-ringing; about being individuals, each focussed on your own particular task but at the same time being part of a group, committed to working together with others, for it is the combined sound of all those individual bell strokes which produces the sounds which thrill the ears of those who hear them, the sound of England coming to prayer, coming to celebrate, marking a life or death or historic occasion.
    'Dartmoor bells and bellringing [is] an activity so ancient and so familiar that we take it for granted'; so says local historian Tom Greeves. '[It is a] diverse sonorous, beautiful and ancient practice, methodical and mathematical, evocative and located.'
    Call-change ringing marks out Dartmoor and Devon ringing as distinctive - something else we share with Cornwall - and as Petroc responded to the voice who guided and directed him to keep on travelling and heralding the good news of Jesus Christ, long may you keep hearing the call and responding to it, so that our church towers will continue to ring out the resurrection faith for all to hear and to be drawn into, for many many years to come. Happy St Petroc's Day!

    [1] Saints references from their relevant Wikipedia pages.
    [2] Bellringing references from Central Council of Church Bell Ringers website; Devon and Cornwall's distinctive call-change ringing is described at the Devon Association of Ringers site.
    [3] Tom Greeves quote from Dartmoor Changes project publicity.