More than pounds 3m in lottery grants has been allocated to churches to upgrade their bells and frames - some of which are more than 500 years old - in time for ringing at midnight on New Year's Eve. But the project is now in jeopardy after English Heritage, the Government's advisory body on historic buildings, said the risk of damage to the medieval bells was too great.
English Heritage has no direct control over lottery grants, but it can veto improvements if the buildings are listed or if it believes the bells are priceless antiques. If the bells are too valuable to be repaired without risk of damage, it argues they should remain silent and that ancient but rotten frames be retained.
The stance has infuriated bell-ringers and vicars who believe the bells should be used as intended. Many churches which had planned to refurbish creaking frames and restore and retune discordant bells have now called off the attempts.
The bells of St Mary in Gissing, Norfolk, will be silent this New Year's Eve after English Heritage turned down parishioners' plans to restore five bells in the 11th-century round tower. The bells had not been rung since 1832 when a botched frame was built. The 280 villagers raised pounds 20,000 towards the pounds 60,000 needed to fix the frame and buy a second-hand sixth bell.
"We can chime the bells but can't roll them round," said the Rev Des Whale. "We wanted to put in a new frame so the bells could be pealed properly but we couldn't get English Heritage to agree with our structural engineer. It was a question of differing professional opinions; since English Heritage held the purse strings theirs was correct."
A similar deadlock has struck the bell-ringers of St Peter and St Paul in Cranfield, Bedfordshire, where plans to replace the bells and their unsafe frame have been scuppered by English Heritage. "The question is whether we conserve the old wood, which is redundant, or preserve the living tradition of skills," said the Rev Hugh Symes-Thompson.
The Central Council of Church Bell-Ringers, whose project manager, John Cunnington, is responsible for implementing the whole scheme, has some sympathy for the churches. "There's a lot of conflict with heritage and conservation," he said. "We see the bell as a musical instrument rather than part of the fabric of the building, and if it's sitting there as a museum piece it's not any good to anybody."
English Heritage says it supports plans to "ring in" the millennium but is bound by rules on listed buildings. "We do want to keep historic bells in beneficial use," said a spokeswoman. "But a lot of these churches are listed buildings and changes to their structure need consent."
The Council for the Care of Churches acknowledges a stand-off exists between the conservation groups and bell-ringers. "There is a bit of tension," said Dr Thomas Cocke, chief executive of the council. "The trouble is that we are often dealing with 15th-century bits of metal, and if you want to use them you have to be a bit violent in hitting them."