Living Out Faith & Hope
In 1973, when Laith Reynolds first called on the clergy of St Andrew’s Cathedral to suggest restoring the eight bells in the bell tower and converting them into a full swinging peal, he didn’t know that this would be his mission for the next 45 years. It was in 2018 that the Cathedral eventually decided to restore the eight bells, add four more bells to make a peal of 12, and install them for swinging through an arc of 360 degrees or more.
What does God’s purpose look like? How are faith and hope lived out in life? In this conversation with June Gwee, Laith speaks about his mission of serving God through the ministry of bells. Find out how Laith lives out his love, faith and hope for church bells.
JG: How did you first become involved with bells?
LR: My first connection with bells came through St George’s Cathedral in Perth, which has been my family church for generations. I was an apprentice in the two-way radio trade to a company in a street behind the Cathedral. I transferred from my local parish church to the Cathedral and joined the Anglican Youth Fellowship. I became an altar server. I was then invited to join the bell ringers, and quite quickly became the captain of the band.
We could see that the bells were intended to swing, but the wheels had been tied to the frame to stop them from swinging. Instead, they were chimed in a similar way as here (in Singapore) because the art of full swing ringing/change ringing had been lost in Perth - due to the Great Depression and the need for the church to use the money elsewhere.
I went East, to attend an Anglican Youth Conference some 4,000 km away, and I saw change ringing in parish churches in rural Victoria. This inspired me to go back and see how I could revive the bells in St George’s. We cleaned up the bells and bought books from the church bookshop which they ordered in for us. The Dean of the Cathedral gave permission for us to do so. We paid for new ropes and had the bells restored. We started to teach ourselves how to ring. I had been sent to another Youth Conference, a National Youth Conference, by the federal government, and I was taught to ring over a weekend.
JG: How old were you then?
LR: 20, 21.
JG: Why the bells? What made you interested in bells?
LR: These are great instruments, I found them quite fascinating. It was a challenge to try and get them swinging again. So, I’ve just picked up the challenge of helping repair bells within the Christian church. We had to teach ourselves. I had tithed myself to fund these repairs where churches could not.
In England, when a monarch visited a town, the bells were rung and still are. So here is a historic bond, symbolized by the bells, between Christ’s Church and the life of a city. Some people find that hard to understand but there’s a thousand years of history that puts that together. Bells were originally a Chinese art, adopted by the Christian church in both East and West. The Chinese founders worked out the ratio of 3 copper to 1 tin. Small bells were carried along the Silk Road. Bells are common in China and India, and throughout the Western world. We owe the science of bell founding to the early Chinese bell founders three, four thousand years ago.
JG: How did you first come to know about St Andrew’s bells?
LR: I was working with Philips in two-way radio. And in Philips, I was state manager with radio telecommunications in Australia. Philips International asked me to go to Indonesia to establish the two-way radio industry in there. While in transit, my family and I came to Singapore.
JG: When was this?
LR: In 1973. We came to the service here. I heard the bells, went up and saw what they were. I realised that they are cast to change ringing scale, and the bells in this huge tower were being chimed. So, I started talking to the clergy. There was an English priest here at that time, he might have been archdeacon, I’m not sure. He encouraged me to carry on with my mission because he had the typical English Anglican priest’s love for church bells. The bells are an outward ministry, they remind people that the church is here - that the cross above the church is not the cross above the grave but it is a live Christian community - and that has been one of my main motivations. He encouraged me to continue and I have done that. I said to him that this superb set of bells should be freed and sent back to England to be restored. It is feasible to do, but it does require a degree of faith and belief to do it, which is now, what has taken over.
That started things. I was based in Jakarta, coming backwards and forwards. In those days, anything medical had to be done in Singapore, so I was able to fly in and out quite often. But the Cathedral had other problems. I think there have been four major attempts to get the Cathedral to start work on the bells.
JG: Why didn’t the project go through on each of these attempts?
LR: The Cathedral had other problems. There were many other projects that had to be done. There was the tunnel – there were serious concerns about the East end when the subway went through. There was an attempt when one of the executives from Taylor Bells came out. They took digital sound recordings of the bells and said that they were in superb condition but in a strange scale in variation. They put up a report that was discussed. I was told: ‘Yes, it is a great scheme, but not at this moment’. The church talked about re-doing the air-conditioning. Of course, I kept coming and talking. And then, the last is this attempt now (in 2018).
JG: Why did you keep coming back?
LR: I’ve been through so many projects and I know that they always take time. I wasn’t shattered or disappointed - it is just another challenge. And I was determined to keep pointing out to people that there is a great instrument in that tower that had to be overhauled and improved. Regardless of whatever happens, the bells needed to be restored. There was some work done in the 1930s, but they were due for major overhaul. I felt that not just an overhaul was needed, but they should be rung in a preferred, superior manner. Now, I believe that when the time is come, things will happen. You just have to keep working away.
We have a long connection with Singapore. I’ve done business here since the 70s, and we still have a small family business here. My wife’s uncle was killed in Singapore by the Japanese in the hospital. My sister was a nurse here in the Royal Australian Airforce. Pretty well after Jakarta, it (Singapore) was the closest to our hearts. It is not an unrelated place. We have watched Singapore grow. When we first came in, there were New Zealand and Australian armed forces here. So, our connection has always been here. It is an easy place to come and do business, which we love as well. I’ve never felt a foreigner here.
JG: How are you connected to John Taylor & Co. Foundry, the foundry that cast the Cathedral’s first set of eight bells?
LR: John Taylor in Loughborough, after 400 years, went into administration. The Taylor family had died out and the firm had quietly collapsed. It took 10 to 15 years, maybe 20 years for it to happen, but it was a slow wind-down. Two other senior ringers and I watched what was happening, but we couldn’t afford to do anything about it because it would cost a fortune to pay out the staff. When it went into administration, the British government stepped in and we were able to restructure the company. I had done most of my work in the past with the Whitechapel foundry, in London. We wanted to keep two foundries working to have competition. Sadly, a year ago, Whitechapel was just closed. That left Taylor’s as the sole, complete bell foundry in the English-speaking world. All the other foundries in England and America have gone. There were maybe 10 foundries a century ago. There is just one left -Taylor’s. Bells and the church’s mission in bells have been a big part of my life. A lot of us have different missions. Mine just happens to have been the bells in English churches.
JG: What happened in this last attempt, before the Cathedral decided to go ahead with the project? What was different?
LR: After we took control of Taylor’s, my son, Andrew, became the general manager of John Taylor International based in Perth. We had some very big projects to restore bells in in New Zealand and Australia. When he took over, I asked him to come here and start the work. He and I re-initiated (the talks with the Cathedral) and this time, the Vicar picked up on it. It is just the right time, the right leadership, the right dedication and the Cathedral is ready to listen.
JG: Why are these eight Taylor bells so important to the St Andrew’s Cathedral, and to you?
LR: My view is that the bells of the Cathedral are the bells of the city, and the bells are tied to the history of Singapore. Captain Fraser’s family gave them to the Cathedral. Captain Fraser was a captain in the East India Company that ruled India at that time, and Raffles, who founded Singapore, was an officer of the East India Company. The bells are rooted back in the history of Singapore. They are not something that just floated in on a ship.
The bells are normally rung for church events and for civic occasions such as National Day, the inauguration of a president, our prime minister, bishop, and archbishop. They are a connection between the church and its community. I don’t believe the church is a Sunday-only event that has no relevance to the life of the city. The ringing of the great bells of the Cathedral are a connection to that.
JG: Looking back at this experience of pursuing St Andrew’s Cathedral bells, were there things that you would have done differently?
LR: No, I don’t think so. You really have to follow the ethos of the people you are dealing with, and their priorities. It may be high on my priority list but not necessarily in the life of the church. I’ve just stated the need that had to be restated some time. You really just have to learn to accept God’s will, people’s faith, and what is leading at that time. If you don’t, you become depressed and can’t really get yourself involved. You just have to keep coming back and back until the work is completed.
If you don’t have passion and faith, these things don’t happen. I view bell ringing or change ringing as part of the mission of the church. You have just got to live through opposition, discuss it, and give logical reasons why you want to achieve what you want to achieve. There are always fallacies around bells that are not being rung or swung. Everywhere I’ve been. I’ve worked in projects in New York, Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne. The only place where there was no opposition was the St Andrew’s Cathedral in Hawaii, they just jumped onto it. There were huge problems in New York. That project was nearly ready to go and then 911 happened, and the church was nearly destroyed. The church was filled with rubble, the bell tower was filled with dust from the buildings, so the project took a long time. But that’s man’s faith. Eventually, if you keep at it, when the time arrives, when the Lord’s clock is reached, it can happen. But if you lose heart, or give up, or go skiing when it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t happen.
To me, it is a great joy to see this underway. But I’ll counsel anyone to listen to the critics and to answer them quietly and peacefully. All the necessary work has been carried out before this project started. It’s just a matter of accepting - knowing what you can change and knowing what you can’t - and just keeping at it. This is one of the great projects of my life, and to see this happen.
JG: Thank you, Laith, for sharing your journey with us.
LR: Thank you.