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George Bell: Lauded in life, now accused of abuse (©Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)


Few Anglican luminaries of the last century or more have been as widely esteemed as George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (1883-1958). Bell was a patron and friend of (among other creative figures) John Masefield, T.S. Eliot and Gustav Holst; he was one of the first and foremost leaders of the ecumenical movement after the Great War; he inspired the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer; he achieved both fame and opprobrium as a critic of area bombing during the Second World War. His range of interests and the extent of his influence are un-equalled among leaders of the Church of England in the 20th century.

His career has attracted much attention since his death. R.C.D. Jasper’s substantial official biography appeared in 1967 and was followed swiftly by shorter works by two Methodists, the ecumenist Kenneth Slack and the historian Gordon Rupp. Monographs on various aspects of his life have appeared. But no scholar has given more time to the study of Bell and his extensive private archive than Dr Andrew Chandler. The author of a Cambridge doctorate on the Church of England and Nazi Germany, Dr Chandler has also edited both a collection of documents on the Anglican response to the persecution of German Christians and a volume of essays on Bell. This latest work, brief though it is, represents a further stage in his efforts to understand and explain the bishop; endorsements on the back cover from two knighted historians, Professors Kershaw and MacCulloch, give an indication of the book’s intellectual substance.

George Bell’s background was conventional: a vicarage child, he was educated at Westminster (where A.A. Milne was a contemporary) and Christ Church, Oxford. Ordination soon followed graduation and election to a Studentship of the House. Only a friendship with the now almost forgotten Irish litterateur Oliver St John Gogarty gave the young Bell’s life a faint tinge of exoticism. Both entered for the Newdigate but it was Bell who won the prize; the subject of his poem was Delphi — a place he was to visit only in old age.

After a brief curacy Bell became chaplain to Randall Davidson, the longest-serving Archbishop of Canterbury since the Reformation and a sometime confidant of Queen Victoria; in due course he became his master’s biographer. As Dr Chandler writes, “A combination of background endeavours and public authority appeared to suit him perfectly.” Certainly his years at Lambeth gave Bell a training in administration and ecclesiastical diplomacy which served him well; his ability to work relentlessly was to last to his life’s end.

From Lambeth Bell was promoted to the Deanery of Canterbury in 1924 (aged only 41); advancement to Chichester came just five years later. On becoming a bishop Bell declared that “one of the most monstrous offences against religion is to regard Christianity as utterly unrelated to present-day life.” At Chichester he took an interest in trade unionism and (in 1931) he invited Gandhi to his palace. It would be easy therefore to think of Bell as someone who was merely fashionable in his outlook: a covert secularist in a chimere, an inter-war Bishop Spacely-Trellis, an ideologue rather than a man of faith. That would be easy­­ — and it would also be wrong. One of the great merits of Chandler’s biography is that it reveals the interior Bell as well as the exterior.

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