Martyn Percy and the Bell Altar
The Bell Altar and Cross
This altar and cross commemorate George Bell (1883-1958), an Englishman who served in several positions during his lifetime, among them Dean of Canterbury, Bishop of Chichester, member of the House of Lords, President of the World Council of Churches, and tutor at Christ Church. But this artwork pays particular homage to the role he played during and after World War II: as a supporter of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church, a critic of England’s wartime policies, and an advocate for post-war reconciliation.
Bell was close friends with the German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the founding member of the Confessing Church, an international group of Christians who condemned pro-Nazi German Christianity as false and heretical. As such, he helped make known to the European and American public what was really going on in Germany and was active in the campaign to provide aid and asylum to German refugees and conscientious objectors.
As much as he hated Hitler and all that he stood for, Bell insisted that a firm distinction be made between the Nazi regime and the German people—only the former is the enemy, he said, not the latter. Because he didn’t want to punish an entire country for the crimes of its few, he very passionately condemned Britain’s (and the other Allies’) practice of area bombing—the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, which Bell called shameful, barbarian, and illegal. He wrote letters of protest to The (London) Times and tried to persuade the House of Lords to resist the War Cabinet’s decision for such a strategy, in direct opposition to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He urged churches throughout Europe to likewise remain critical of their countries’ ways of waging war. In November 1939 Bell published an article in the Fortnightly Review stating that the church in wartime should not hesitate
to condemn the infliction of reprisals, or the bombing of civilian populations, by the military forces of its own nation. It should set itself against the propaganda of lies and hatred. It should be ready to encourage the resumption of friendly relations with the enemy nation. It should set its face against any war of extermination or enslavement, and any measures directly aimed to destroy the morale of a population.
After the war ended, Bell took a lead in rebuilding the relationships between German churches and those in other countries, and in calling all people to forgiveness and reconciliation. In a post-war broadcast to Germany in 1945, he stated, “No nation, no church, no individual is guiltless. Without repentance and without forgiveness, there can be no regeneration.” These words form the inscription on the stone tile at the altar’s base, carved by John Neilson.
Jim Partridge is the one who created the ACE award-winning altar and cross, from a four-hundred-year-old oak tree from Windsor Great Park. He actually carved the cross out of the base of the altar—to evoke the idea of origin and return, according to the cathedral’s website. (To see a photo of the work in progress, click here.) Given the inscription and the legacy of the altar’s dedicatee, I imagine the pair of carvings to represent the void that was left by the war, a void that begs to be fitted with something. That something is Christ, symbolized here by the cross; it is he who will restore the block of humanity, make us solid again.
If Christ forgave his enemies even as they were attacking him, then surely we should forgive our enemies too. And because Christ has gifted us with his very Spirit, such forgiveness is made possible.
The color of the wood is black because Partridge scorched it—a reminder of the black days of war and the damage wrought by bombs. Yet despite the feelings of sorrow it evokes, its message is ultimately one of hope. World War II may have cast a dark shadow over the church, as have other wars since, but Christ is alive and active, rebuilding what man has destroyed.
It may seem an odd subject for a piece commissioned to mark the new millennium. Why hark back to an event that has had little impact on today’s generation? I would argue, though, that the subject is perfectly appropriate for the twenty-first century. On this side of eternity, there will always be an enemy. There will always be war and violence and prejudice. There will always be sadness and anger and bitterness and distrust. Some of the dividing lines have shifted since the 1940s, but the universal need for repentance, forgiveness, and regeneration—to use Bell’s words—has not.
I appreciate Christ Church Cathedral for honoring the life and work of George Bell. He spoke with conviction against an unjust English government practice, making him very politically unpopular. He was shouted off the House floor when he tried to launch resolutions and was constantly accused of undermining the war effort. For love of his nation, he spoke out against her, just as the Jewish prophets did in Old Testament times. May God give us the courage to follow Bell’s example whenever our governments err.
Though Bell didn’t have many supporters in his time, the Church of England (and the Episcopal Church in the USA) now honors him with a feast day on October 3. In addition to being known for his outspokenness and relief efforts during war, he is also famous for his pioneering role in the ecumenical movement. He worked tirelessly in to unify all Christian denominations around a common set of values—and more than that, to incorporate those from other faiths into this unity.
If you look at other photos of the Bell Altar and Cross—for example, on the website of its artist, Jim Partridge, or from Art and Christianity Inquiry—you will notice that the cross appears in different positions inside the church. In my photos the cross is lying on its side, its base beside the altar, the bulk of it slanting upward toward the crib of Phillips’s piece. The organization that voted it Best Commissioned Artwork in an Ecclesiastical Space in 2003, however, shows the cross flipped around, pointing toward the altar instead. In an even more drastic change of placement, the cross appears on the artist’s website standing upright under a niche behind the altar. I can only assume this means that Christ Church Cathedral rearranges the cross periodically to provide worshippers with new ways to engage with the piece. (Update, 7/18/13: A staff member at the church responded to my query this morning, saying that the cross was moved beside the altar very early on and was laid on its side simply to make it more stable.)
It communicates meaningfully with Rita Phillips’s Madonna and Child, which the Visitor’s Officer tells me was installed sometime around 2003. The cross foreshadows Jesus’s death, but also gives his birth meaning. The incarnation and the passion are key phases of the same mission, and here they are shown reinforcing each other. Also, by sharing space, an association is forged—at least in my mind—between Mary and all mothers who have lost children to acts of violence. I already quoted Phillips on the iconographical similarities between the subjects of the Madonna and Child (the baby Jesus in his mother’s arms) and the Pietà (the dead Jesus in his mother’s arms); here we see a cross, like a missile, pointing right toward the new mother, and we know she knows what’s coming. As Simeon prophesied to Mary at Jesus’s dedication in the temple, “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). A similar piercing was felt by countless German mothers whose sons and daughters were killed in civilian attacks during the war.
So that you get an idea of the space these pieces inhabit, here are a few photos that my husband took from the central aisle. If you’re looking at the first photo, the two pieces I discussed are located in a side chapel just through the farmost arch to the left.
To see some of the other art I encountered during my recent trip to England, check out “Christian art at the Ashmolean Museum,” “Two ivory panels from the V&A,” and “A Hidden Gem in Oxford: Holywell Cemetery.”