The ringing of bells is one of the most essential elements of an Orthodox church. Church bells are rung to:
- Summon the faithful to services
- Express the triumphal joy of the Christian Church
- Announce important moments during the services both to those in church and to those who are not able to be physically present in the church, so that all may be united in prayer
- Strengthen Christians in piety and faith by its sound, which Orthodox Christians believe is "alloyed with divine grace to disperse and destroy the forces of cruelty and of demonic suggestion"
- Proclaim important events, such as the death of a member of the church; the arrival of an important person, such as the bishop or civil ruler; an emergency such as fire or flood; or victory in battle (as dramatically recreated in the triumphant conclusion of the 1812 Overture).
The use of bells is not only practical, but is also considered to be spiritual. Bells are sometimes referred to as "singing icons", because they establish the acoustic space of an Orthodox temple just as painted icons and hymnography define its visual and noetic space, respectively. Icons are considered "scripture in image" as bells are "scripture in sound".
There are several liturgical services which point out the importance of bells in the Russian Orthodox Church: Blessing the Foundation of a New Bell Tower, Blessing a New Bell Tower (after construction is completed), Blessing, Naming, and Chrismating a Bell. There is also a service for the blessing of a bell ringer.
Bells are blessed with a ritual containing many of the elements of the Rite of Baptism. The new bell is blessed with holy water and censed, both outside and inside, and the priest lays hands on the bell to bless it. During the rite, the bell is "named" (that is, consecrated in honour of a saint, whose icon has often been molded into the side of the bell when it was cast at the foundry—but though a bell may be called the "Gabriel" bell, it would never be called the "St. Gabriel" bell, because a bell is not a saint).
The bell is also anointed with chrism, just as an Orthodox Christian is at chrismation. The theological understanding of bells as "weapons" in spiritual warfare, and their role in the Christian life is emphasized during the rite by the scripture Numbers 10:1-10:
"And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Make for yourself two silver trumpets … And they shall be for you for the calling of the assembly … When you sound an alarm … And if you shall go forth to war … And in the days of your rejoicing …"
The use of bells is symbolic of the proclamation of the Gospel. Sometimes Orthodox churches and monasteries will combine the use of bells with the striking of a wooden or metal semantron, with the semantron being sounded first, then the bells being rung later. The quieter and simpler sound of the semantron is understood to symbolize the Old Testament prophets, for it is the symbol only of a coming event, whereas the ringing of the bells is spread far into the air symbolizing the annunciation of the Gospel throughout the world.