Lord Lexden’s Review of “George Bell, Bishop of Chichester” by Andrew Chandler – The House Magazine – 8 July 2016 – www.politicshome.com

photo
Bishop George Bell and his wife Henrietta

In just under 200 ‘incisive, elegantly
written pages’, Andrew Chandler’s
biography of George Bell recounts the
remarkable life of a man of high ideals,
writes Lord Lexden

George Bell, Bishop of
Chichester
By Andrew Chandler
Wm. B.Eerdmans
Publishing Co.

Until a few months ago the formidable
reputation of George Bell (1883-
1958), Bishop of Chichester for
nearly thirty years and runner-up for the
Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1944,
seemed totally secure. Within the Church
of England he had long been revered as
one of its greatest bishops, learned, devout
and inspiring. More widely he was famous
for his courageous stands in international

affairs. Before 1939 no one did more to
sustain and defend German Christian
leaders and Jews of all kinds in the face of
Nazi persecution.
During the Second World War he
led the protests against the bombing of
entire German cities which killed so many
blameless civilians. This brought him much
criticism to which Churchill contributed
richly, but no one questioned his deep
Christian integrity. “The Church”, he
said in 1943,” has still a special duty to be
a watchman for humanity, and to plead
the cause of the suffering, whether Jew or
Gentile”.
On 22 October last year everything
changed. The Church of England’s media
centre issued a statement announcing that,
under an out of court settlement in a civil
case, compensation (later revealed to be
£15,000) had been paid to an unnamed
individual, subsequently given the
pseudonym “Carol”, who had claimed to
have suffered sexual abuse at Bishop Bell’s
hands in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The current Bishop of Chichester,
Martin Warner, said “we face with shame a
story of abuse of a child”. Yet neither he, nor
anyone else among the Church authorities,
has divulged any information about the
nature of the alleged uncorroborated abuse,
where exactly it is supposed to have taken
place, the manner in which investigations
were conducted or the expertise possessed
by the anonymous individuals who
examined the undisclosed evidence and
apparently found it convincing.
George Bell was condemned in secret
by processes whose character is totally
unknown. Today’s Church leaders have
denied natural justice to one of the most
eminent of their predecessors.
They themselves were subsequently
made subject to the rigorous independent
scrutiny which they failed to apply In
Bishop Bell’s case. A detailed review of
the Church’s conduct was carried out by
a group of lawyers (two of them QCs),
academics, members of both Houses and

open-minded senior Church figures, chaired
by Frank Field. The group, of which I am
a member, published its conclusions on
March 20.
Our report [http://www.
georgebellgroup.org] exposes the
astonishing inadequacy of the procedures
through which the Church authorities
reached their verdict. In a letter to the
Archbishop of Canterbury accompanying
the report, we stressed that “the processes
and the evidence which have produced
such a public denigration of Bishop Bell
should now be the subject of a thorough
investigation”.
On June 28, just two days before a debate
on historical child sex abuse in the Lords
which I introduced, the Church announced
an independent review of the Bishop Bell
case. It seems clear that the review will be
extremely limited in scope. Speaking in
my debate, the Bishop of Chelmsford said
“it is a review of the process, which will
enable us to learn lessons for future cases”.
No indication has been given that the
substantial evidence assembled by the Bell
group will be taken into account. A review
that does not examine whether a miscarriage
of justice has taken place will not be a proper
review at all.
Unsurprisingly, the Church authorities
have never felt any need to consult today’s
leading authority on Bell’s life and times.
Over the last twenty years Dr Andrew
Chandler, a well-known Church historian,
has published a number of studies on
aspects of Bell’s career, for which he drew
on Bell’s voluminous papers and diaries in
the Lambeth Palace archives. He has now
produced a most timely new biography.

Chandler was putting the finishing
touches to this outstanding biography –
the first for nearly fifty years – when the
Church issued its shattering statement last
October. Nothing in the abundant records
that he had consulted prepared him for
the shock. He writes in a postlude to his
book: “For Bell the piety of a bishop was
not simply a state of mind. It was a craft
and a discipline, and one that he exercised
with a rigour that was, even in his own day,
conspicuous.”
Bell’s daily life was an open book. A
world famous figure, he travelled a great
deal in a glare of publicity to advance major
Christian causes. At home in Chichester,
Bell “worked alone in his study, but the
door was always open so that his secretary
could be in earshot”. His chaplain during
some of the years of alleged abuse( whom
the Church has not bothered to consult) is
adamant that “no child or young teenager
ever entered” the Palace at Chichester,
apart from the large numbers who came
together for an annual Christmas party
given by Bell and his wife.
It is perhaps as well that Chandler
did not know what was coming when he
drafted his account of Bell’s life. He was
able to concentrate entirely on the task of
explaining how Bell became “one of the
very few Church leaders of the twentieth
century to achieve a genuine significance
in international history”. He was a lifelong
ecumenist, striking up a close friendship
with Cardinal Hinsley of Westminster
(after a long conversation with him Bell
wrote “I felt a richer man, richer spiritually
as well as richer in wisdom.”)
A founding father of the World Council
of Churches, he was the clerical counterpart
of those idealistic statesmen from 1918
onwards who believed in the need for
institutions that would bind nations
together in the cause of peace.
In this work the German problem was
for him always the most acute. He sought
ways of overcoming it in association with
many peace-loving Germans including two
of Hitler’s leading Christian opponents,
Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The last thing that Bonhoeffer did
before his execution in April 1945 was to
send a message to Bell: “Tell him that for
me this is the end, but also the beginning
– with him I believe in the principle of our
universal Christian brotherhood which
rises above all national hatreds.”
Chandler recounts the life of this
remarkable man of high ideals in just under
200 incisive, elegantly written pages. He is
careful not exaggerate the extent of Bell’s
influence. The bishop delivered many well
argued speeches in the House of Lords
during the twenty years he was a proud
member of it. Lord Woolton, the Tories’
most successful Party Chairman, remarked
that the House “held him in the greatest
respect, in complete disagreement”.
At the most famous trial in history, held
in public and relived each year in Holy Week,
Pontius Pilate declared, according to St
Luke’s Gospel, “I find no fault in this man”.
Why should the reputation of one of
Christ’s greatest twentieth-century servants
be destroyed without proper forensic
scrutiny of the single, uncorroborated
allegation laid against him?
Lord Lexden is a Conservative peer
and historian

This review first appeared on TotalPolitics.com
42 | THE HOUSE MAGAZINE | 8 July 2016 http://www.politicshome.com

 

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