In Defence Of An Embattled Bishop

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, has enjoyed great posthumous respect — but now stands accused of child abuse

C.D.C. Armstrong

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.

In his personal devotions Bell used the Preces Privatae of Lancelot Andrewes (an admiration for whom he shared with Eliot); he also studied the life of St Thérèse of Lisieux (a more unlikely devotion for an Anglican bishop of his age). He was neither a theological modernist nor a liturgical reformer; as Chandler notes, the Book of Common Prayer pervades one of his early Visitation Charges.

While he was still Davidson’s chaplain Bell became involved with the nascent ecumenical movement at the start of the 1920s. Though not yet a bishop he dealt on equal terms with figures such as the Swedish Archbishop Söderblom. Ecumenism made him familiar with Germany in the decade following the end of the Great War, a conflict in which two of his brothers had died in action. Meetings with German theologians in the late 1920s and early 1930s showed Bell one Germany; the rise of Hitler confronted him with another. He was in Germany when the Nuremberg laws were passed; in 1934 he met the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer — their friendship was to become of great importance for both men. Urged on by Norman Bentwich, a British Jewish leader, Bell took up the cause of the non-Aryan Christians, the German-Jewish converts. He was the host in Chichester of one of the most prominent of those converts, the pastor and philosopher Hans Ehrenberg — a cousin and friend of Franz Rosenzweig and the uncle of Sir Geoffrey Elton. He urged that Jewish refugees should be resettled in Mandate Palestine and he helped to found the Council of Christians and Jews.

Bell was able therefore to assert in 1944 that he was “one of the most convinced and consistent anti-Nazis in Great Britain”. So he was; but his opposition to Nazism was combined with (and complicated by) his knowledge of that other Germany, the Germany of the dissidents and the Confessing Church, the Germany of Bonhoeffer. In Chandler’s words, he saw Nazism “as a fire which threatened to consume men and women he had come to know and love”. It was this knowledge of that other Germany, not any sneaking regard for Hitler, that led him to call for negotiations as late as 1941. He pursued resistance to Hitlerism in his own way.

In Stockholm in 1942 Bell met Bonhoeffer and Hans Schonfeld, another dissident pastor. Both told him about the internal German resistance; during this visit Bell was given the names of some of those who were to be involved two years later in the Bomb Plot. He passed on this information to the then Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who made no use of what he had been told. Bell’s condemnation of the area bombing strategy was not linked to pacifism or sympathy with dictatorship. Rather, he regarded the campaign as indiscriminate and as destructive of the good Germany along with the bad.

His opposition to area bombing cost Bell promotion. It was not he but Geoffrey Fisher who went to Canterbury when William Temple died in 1944. Bell remained at Chichester until not long before his own death in 1958. He continued to be an ecumenist and his political interests remained active. His support for the Schuman Plan was consistent with his long-standing internationalism. He opposed Suez in 1956 — as did Fisher — but he also condemned the Soviet suppression of Hungary.

George Bell has enjoyed great posthumous respect. But last autumn the Church of England issued a statement concerning allegations of child abuse committed by Bell after the Second World War. The complainant was anonymous and, initially, details both of the person’s age and gender were withheld. In more recent months the complainant has been revealed to be a woman in her seventies, known by the pseudonym “Carol”. Her testimony remains uncorroborated and no other accuser has emerged.

Criticism of the Church’s conduct has been constant and cogent in the months since the statement was issued. Both Charles Moore and Peter Hitchens have referred to the case repeatedly in their columns. The weight of opinion (at least so far as it has been expressed in the press) is on Bell’s side. It seems to have been newspaper criticism of the claims that led “Carol” to give a number of interviews in her defence earlier this year. She was obliged to withdraw her claim that her case had been ignored by Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury; her claim that her complaints had been neglected by Lord Williams, another former Archbishop, remains unsubstantiated.

On Palm Sunday this year the George Bell Support Group­ — a body in which Andrew Chandler is prominent — issued its Review of the Church’s treatment of the case. The document drew attention to problems with the procedure followed — Bell’s one surviving chaplain was not interviewed; his vast archive was at best given only a cursory examination. The Review also pointed to questionable aspects of claims made by the complainant. The George Bell Support Group’s paper was detailed in its examination of the evidence and cogent in its argumentation. The response of the Church has been confined to repeating earlier statements. The present Bishop of Chichester has not bothered to respond to the Review with a detailed or closely argument document of his own. “Carol” has stayed silent. The George Bell Support Group can claim a moral victory but the allegations have not been withdrawn.

Dr Chandler’s book was in its last stages of completion when the Church of England made its statement regarding the abuse claims. He was able therefore to respond to the allegations only in postlude to the book. His response is brief but convincing and a further vindication of Bell. His biography is a lucid and fluent work. Not all readers will finish this book convinced that Bell was always wise or realistic, but one hopes that few will believe that he lacked sanctity and integrity.

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