Bishop George Bell
University of Chichester, Bishop George Bell lecture
Saturday 4th October 2008
A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury given at the University of Chichester, 4 October 2008, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bishop George Bell, Bishop of Chichester 1929—58.
The Archbishop answered questions at the end of the lecture – click here to go directly to the question & answer section, or read it at the end of the lecture.
A Church of the nation or a Church for the nation? Bishop George Bell and the Church of England
In the first of a series of commemorative lectures earlier this year, Dr Andrew Chandler spoke with great insight about Bell as a man whose greatest commitments seem to have been doomed to failure. His steady belief in negotiation and arbitration in international conflict, his consistent refusal to allow that modern technological warfare might dispense with traditional moral boundaries – we could add too his passionate optimism about the possible convergence of the Christian faith with the artist’s imagination, and his lifelong devotion to ecumenism: all this surely represents a set of aspirations that now look to many people sadly unrealistic, overtaken by the onset not only of a Cold War but of a sort of ice age in corporate social vision or imagination.
My aim will not be to argue against this judgement, though Dr Anthony Harvey’s excellent tracing (in a later lecture this year) of the growth of some sort of organised moral and institutional awareness of the claims of international law might well be set in the balance against a superficial verdict of failure overall. It is rather to ask some questions about the motivation of such commitments as rooted in a particular sense of what the Church in general, and the Church of England in particular, might be. Bell was a politically active and experienced man, but not a pure politician; so we shouldn’t assume for a moment that practical failure would have made very much difference to what he thought worth working for. I want to suggest that his beliefs about the Church of England, as revealed in his actual priorities, offer an account of what might still be a reasonable ground for identifying the moral priorities of any Christian community, ice age or no ice age; and that therefore the celebration of Bell’s memory is by no means a wistful exercise.
I shall be focusing on two areas of Bell’s varied and tireless labours – his sponsorship of the arts in a Christian context and his interventions in public debate about the conduct of war. And what I hope to draw out is Bell’s acceptance of Christian witness as shaped by a twofold responsibility – responsibility to the culture in which the Christian community is located and responsibility for it. On the one hand, Christians are ‘answerable’ to the ambient culture in the sense that they are there not to dictate but to serve; the Church is not a body that arbitrarily sets the agenda for society at large, but seeks to discern what needs it must meet. It therefore has to develop a degree of attention to the culture in which it lives, if only so that it doesn’t find itself (as has often been said) answering questions that no-one is asking. On the other hand, with the Jewish prophetic tradition much in mind and the New Testament imagery of the believing community as salt, leaven and light, Christians are answerable to God for the integrity and justice of their society; they may not be setting an agenda but they are discerning what is destructive and warning against it – and the refusal to utter such a warning leaves the believer exposed to judgement.
The balance is a difficult one, and very few individuals or particular Churches get it right for long. Answerability to the culture can produce a lack of confidence within the Church in its own distinctive gifts, and at worst an uncritical reproduction of the culture’s attitudes with a faint pious gloss. Answerability for the culture can generate obsessional confrontation, something like paranoia about cultural and moral decline and a weddedness to the luxuries of a permanent minority position which allows criticism without practical engagement. What is impressive about Bell is not only his ability to hold the tension, with an apparent lack of self-consciousness that is remarkable, but also the way in which the two concerns appear in his biography as intricately interwoven. A supreme ‘insider’, in both ecclesiastical and social terms, Bell uses the rather ambivalent authority of his position both to serve and to re-shape his environment.
Bell and the Imagination of Society
Kenneth Pickering, in his delightful book, Drama in the Cathedral,[i] has chronicled the history of the plays performed in Canterbury Cathedral in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century; and Bell’s role in prompting this history is fully acknowledged. It was he who, as Dean of Canterbury, invited John Masefield to write The Coming of Christ for performance in the Cathedral nave in 1928 and who commissioned music from Holst and designs from Ricketts for this historic event. Pickering stresses [ii] Bell’s refusal to censor Masefield’s text, despite the strong political meat contained in some of the shepherds’ speeches, where the experiences of the Great War and the General Strike are given pretty explicit voice: ‘Bell was prepared to face the consequences of the anti-war sentiments expressed in the play.’ [iii] And if we recall the coolness or even hostility towards the entire project from some in the Cathedral establishment in Canterbury and the lukewarmness of the Archbishop, it is clear that Bell’s distinctive but undramatic moral courage was already in evidence. For most modern readers, Masefield is an unadventurous poet, and quite a lot of the text of this particular drama does now sounds the flat and artificial note of the mere pageant; but it is important that the moments where something much more passionate and challenging is allowed to come through are among the parts that Bell most wanted to preserve.
In other words, Bell’s welcoming attitude to the arts of his day was not simply a matter of encouraging decorative uplift: Masefield, Holst and Ricketts were none of them at the time uncontroversial figures, or indeed conventionally religious ones (Charles Ricketts was a robust unbeliever, much amused by the invitation to design a nativity play in a cathedral.) If the history of the Canterbury plays now seems less exciting in terms of engagement with the more complex areas of modern literary development than seemed to be the case at the time, we should make due allowance for the advantages of hindsight. Bell’s personal taste was largely (not exclusively) conservative, but in comparison with most of his ecclesiastical contemporaries he was notably adventurous, and, above all, he was determined to allow artists themselves to set the standards of excellence and acceptability. In this alone, his stature is evident. The later evolution of the Canterbury plays, the involvement of Martin Browne, the recruitment of T S Eliot to the project and the formation in 1930 of the Religious Drama Society with Bell as President, all this is quite well-known. Although Bell left Canterbury in 1929, his personal imprint on this notable rediscovery of the possibilities of religious drama continued undiluted. Eliot could even dream of every cathedral having its own drama company, [iv] not as an aspect of ‘religious revival’ but as a way of the Church meeting people’s appetite for serious theatre. And Bell himself, as his approach to Masefield’s text suggests, looked to drama to address the major public issues of the day; in 1932, he enthusiastically supported a play on disarmament as setting an agenda for the Geneva Conference of that year.
In fact, the more one looks at Bell’s involvement with the religious drama revival, the more the connections with the rest of his concerns become clear. Being ‘answerable’ to the culture meant, in this context, something like ‘giving permission’ – as we’d now say – to the artist to raise issues, to give room for voices that might otherwise be suppressed. Answerability is not about giving a generic blessing to the culture and its corporate imagination, not even about trying to identify in it some encouraging echoes of Christian aspirations; it is helping the properly critical voice of art to find an audience. It is, we could say, serving the seriousness of society, not accepting its own account of what entertains or reassures it. Masefield’s Coming of Christ is, of course, a mediaeval pastiche, lapsing constantly into sententious poeticism; yet it was doing something quite fresh, and that freshness could not have been there without Bell. It was using the cathedral as a platform for public seriousness, not bound to but still grounded in the confession of faith.
The language of ‘seriousness’ may recall Philip Larkin’s famous ‘Churchgoing’ poem; but I think there is a difference between Larkin’s seriousness, essentially a mood of rather sombre individual reflection strongly connected with the remembrance of death, and the seriousness of an art that invites its culture to self-examination and a degree of shared productive discomfort. Bell clearly believed that if the Church was going to be responsive to the arts, it had to let them be what they would. In another of this year’s commemorative lectures, Christopher Frayling expertly dissected some of Bell’s assumptions about aesthetics and identified the residual presence of Ruskin and other Victorians (Bell was in so many ways very much a belated Victorian) in shaping what we are bound to see as an overoptimistic sense of convergence between creativity and faith. Indeed; yet his practice is, in this as in other areas, perhaps more complex and nuanced than his actual words. The world of the visual arts has been much disenchanted since Bell’s heyday, and Professor Frayling lays out authoritatively why re-enchantment is a long job, if it is possible at all. We have no common iconographical vocabulary, no symbols we all recognise even if we are doing new or subversive things with them. To imagine a simple convergence of visual art and theological understanding is fantasy. Yet, if my reading of Bell’s engagement with drama is right, there is a little more to be said: even in an artistic atmosphere dominated by individualism or abstract formalism, where the whole notion of a ‘commission’ from an institution like the Church is suspect, is it still true that art can work for public seriousness? And if so, is it still possible for the Church to assist in letting such voices be heard or images be seen?
I hope that by now it will be clear that what I’ve called answerability to the culture was not, for Bell, any kind of easy compliance: it was an attentive and sometimes risky strategy of seeking to give a hearing to those voices in the corporate imagination that were pushing the boundaries of what made obvious sense, that were moving beyond a simple consensus, whether of taste or of ethical sensitivity. It would have been relatively simple in 1928 for a religious drama to elide the painful realities of war and economic privation; Bell refused that simplicity and enabled at least some of the later Canterbury plays to address some of these same realities, and the related ethical knots of propaganda, complicity and raison d’état, the political rationalisation of violence, that surface in the most famous of all the Canterbury dramas – Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, in whose commissioning Bell had played a part. More generally, though, what is implied here about the Church overall is of great significance. Bell had written in 1930, in his Brief Sketch of the Church of England, [v] that a national church was one in which ‘everybody has an interest of some kind’; [vi] and on its own, this could have been the recipe for a bland and narrowly pastoral account of the Church’s service to the society around. Bell’s practice suggests, in contrast, that a national church is one which can help to orchestrate a fuller argument in and about society than might otherwise happen, partly by offering a platform for certain otherwise inaudible or unwelcome voices. Precisely in its careful attention to what is actually being said and imagined in the creative arts, it becomes more than a pious mirror for one or another kind of dominant discourse. It helps to sustain within the nation’s culture a critical distance from the practices of power.
Bell and the Morality of Society
Hence the interweaving of Bell’s involvement with art and culture and his advocacy for those without voice in the international as well as the national context. It was an advocacy conducted unashamedly within the geography of the English establishment; Bell was out to persuade national decision-makers to decide differently, and he acted accordingly, in the Lords, in the correspondence columns of the mainstream press and by navigating that complex delta of mingling private relationships and affinities that composed the governing class of the interwar years. He was not a grandstanding prophet, unconcerned with how national decisions are made; his extraordinary network of personal contacts across Europe, largely born out of his ecumenical labours, meant that too many situations in the Europe of the thirties were of direct personal concern for him ever to be content with generalities. He wanted to save particular lives, not only to secure better outcomes for large numbers.
And this meant creating routes into the establishment for those with no obvious leverage or access. It is eternally to his credit that he – unlike rather too many of his colleagues in the Church of England – recognised almost instantly the nature of the threat posed by the Third Reich to Christian and civilised tradition, and the scope of the much more crude and direct threat to the Jewish people. (Among the English bishops of the day, only the proverbially brave and independent Henson of Durham fully shared this clarity.) When the mixture of covert anti-Semitism and a presupposition in favour of order and the combat with Bolshevism had blinded even relatively liberal and compassionate public commentators and politicians in Britain, he seems to have had no doubts of where the demands of truth lay. And this clarity was evident not only in Britain but in the wider ecumenical scene. In April 1934, Bonhoeffer, still at that point a pastor in the German church in Sydenham, wrote to Bell, quoting a letter from a friend in Germany about the crisis in the church there: ‘in the present moment there depends everything, absolutely everything on the attitude of the Bishop of Chichester’.[vii] An extravagant testimony, but one that shows how completely Bell was relied upon as the voice of the European Christian conscience, through his position in the Council for Life and Work; as the most important force in animating solidarity for a persecuted Christian minority in Germany, convinced (not without reason) that Christians elsewhere had only the dimmest notion of what was at stake for them.
It was the start of a long and costly involvement for Bell in the protection of all the victims of the Third Reich – increasingly in his pressure for the British Government to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, in his practical support for famine relief in Europe in the early years of the war, and, in a different register, in his consistent opposition to the pattern bombing of German cities – recognising that German civilians too were victims of the Reich, hostages of the Reich, and that the indiscriminate slaughter of such people was to adopt some of the enemy’s own callousness towards their own people. But both before and during the Second World War, there is a consistency also in what Bell wanted for the nation to which he belonged. In pressing for a responsible and moral stance towards refugees and in condemning methods in warfare that compromised the claim to be fighting ‘justly’, he was reminding his fellow-countrymen that the nation is not an entity whose interests can be thought about in isolation from an ethic extending across national boundaries. What is good for the United Kingdom cannot be defined in abstraction from what is good for those who look to the United Kingdom for generosity and integrity. We cannot call ourselves good if we betray what others expect from us in the light of that claim. A moral society is one that is strong enough to expose itself to the judgement of others, to hold itself accountable to more than its own immediate interests. Significantly, it was a point that Bell was still making in the 1950s, when the presenting issue was economic justice for the poorer nations and continents.
So we could say that responsibility ‘for’ the nation was something to do with the belief that the nation needed itself to be reminded of its own responsibility, its answerability to what is expected of it in a global moral context. Like many another tormented patriot in the modern age, Bell attacked an immoral consensus in his own society not out of a lack of commitment to the nation and its interests but out of a depth of commitment to the ‘imagined nation’ evoked in the most serious (to use the word again) elements in that nation’s traditional self-descriptions. The question Bell puts is essentially one which all public moralists must sooner or later, in one form of words or another, articulate: ‘Do we as a society actually want what we say we want?’
A national church in which everybody has an interest: standing alone, that is a potentially complacent account of what Bell believed about the Established Church; but in the context of his actions, it’s a definition that provokes deeper questions. Bell acted as though the Church were in some sense the guardian of the ‘interests’ of the nation insofar as the nation was a morally coherent society. It is not so much that society at large looks after the interest of the Church, but that society recognises that in the absence of the Church its own interests are gravely compromised. That recognition requires the nation to believe that its interests are not served by automatic self-defensiveness; that its flourishing may be in its exemplifying better some of the elements that its national mythology prizes – legal equity, the welcome of strangers, the willingness to take risks for a wider good (as, for example, in the abolition of the slave trade). The analogy with the prophet in ancient Israel here acquires some force: here is a voice that recalls the community to its basic self-images and self-understandings – assuming that the national community does indeed have a ‘myth’ about itself rather than just a commitment to its collective self-interest.
So Bell’s twofold witness comes to be essentially about challenging the society in which he works as to whether it has any shared sense of its worth, of what it is that its social forms and practices communicate about its vision of human flourishing. For Bell, as, again, for any public moralist, what matters about this or that society is whether it has anything to say about what’s good, interesting, life-giving for human beings in general, not just for this society or nation in isolation. This is never to reduce the particularities of a nation to moral generalities, variations on a cultural Esperanto whose local expressions are of no substantive concern. And it is precisely at this point that the specifics of a local culture come into play – the history and heritage of creativity in a particular language and ethos. Part of the Church’s responsibility to and for the nation at large is discharged by its readiness to nurture and support voices of questioning within the culture, voices that themselves challenge a society about what it considers to be of worth and meaning. Certainly, we are in a situation where even the residual optimism of Bell about the possible convergence of artist and churchman (and yes, I do mean churchman in this context) is not available. Yet this doesn’t mean that the Church today is spared the task of approaching the art of its day ready to listen and discern, and to try and see where it speaks to and at the level of seriousness that will pose the necessary questions for society. Bell’s engagement with the arts, whatever its limitations in retrospect, was emphatically of a piece with his later challenges to the moral self-image of Britain in a darkening Europe and a destructive war.
Bell and the Church in Society
For Bell himself, this was all undoubtedly bound up with his understanding of what an established church should be doing. Yet at the same time as his perspectives on these matters were maturing so impressively, the Established Church was going through a crisis of unprecedented severity. The year before Bell became a bishop, Parliament had for the second time rejected the Revised Prayer Book. Bell himself is one of the most punctilious chroniclers of the crisis in his biography of Archbishop Davidson; and his critical friend and intermittent ally, Hensley Henson, had, as a result of the Prayer Book debacle, abandoned his commitment to establishment. Were Bell’s own convictions shaken? It seems not; in 1930 he joined a Commission on Church and State (along with William Temple) set up by the bishops, which was more or less designed to sidetrack any talk of disestablishment.[viii] But to understand exactly what was involved at this moment, we need to grasp that what the Prayer Book crisis did for some was not to precipitate them into the arms of the disestablishers but to reinforce a sense that establishment needed to be sharply distinguished from subjection to state authority. As Matthew Grimley notes in his excellent monograph, a deep division had opened up between those like Bell and Temple who valued establishment as a vehicle for the kind of critical moral debate we have been reflecting on, and those in both the Modernist and the Conservative Evangelical camps at the time who looked to the authority of the state to protect them from both superstition and ecclesiastical hierarchy.[ix]
The salient point is that, as Grimley puts it,[x] ‘Most Evangelicals and modernists denied that the Church had an inherent right, as an association or as a divine society, to settle its own doctrine.’ This was completely antithetical to what Bell believed. If the Evangelical/Modernist position were to be accepted, there would never really be grounds for the Church, as a body of people committed to a specific revelation, to question what the state determines about ‘the orientation of the religious life of the nation’ (the phrase comes from the Evangelical paper, the Record, in 1927). And this was, of course, to be the issue at the heart of the German Church Struggle; Bell could not have spoken or acted as he did in regard to Germany if he had not been clear about the principles and limits of establishment in England. The Modernists and Evangelicals of 1927/8 cannot, of course, be blamed for not foreseeing where the German situation would end up within a few years, and some made due amends; likewise, we should have to acknowledge that some of the most embarrassing examples of collusion with the Nazi-influenced German Christian programme came from British churchmen with a quite different background (Hoskyns and Headlam, for example). But the central issue of 1927/8 must have done something to shape Bell’s thinking, not least as it was the painful nemesis of his patron and lodestar, Archbishop Randall Davidson.[xi]
For an established church to do its work on Bell’s presuppositions, it has to be more than just an established church; it has to have a theology that guarantees a wider horizon than the national. This, of course, has a great deal to do with the perspective Bell acquired through the ecumenical movement, but it is not simply an appeal to an international instead of a national Christian consensus. Bell evidently believed that the Church has to be able to give an account of why it is there at all, as a community that is not simply identical with the political community, however deeply it sees the destiny and health of that community as linked with its own life. The Church has to be able to propound and defend a view of what is due to human beings as such that is independent of a merely local or national loyalty or even of an international ideological loyalty. In short, the Church exercises its responsibility to and for the nation and its culture precisely by being itself responsible to more than the nation and its culture. In other words, Bell’s twofold concern with the arts and the political morality of government illustrates not the virtues of a Church embedded in its cultural environment in the most obvious way, but the essential importance of both transnational and theologically grounded interests in its life. The Church is ‘serious’ because it is in some degree strange to its environment as well as committed to understand and serve that environment. And an openness to the life of the imagination is simply one way in which that strangeness can be refreshed and strengthened: the culture of a nation is not a matter of repetition and self-reinforcement but of that ‘continuity of conflict’ that Alasdair Macintyre has identified as central to the vitality of any tradition. The Church has no business being less strange and challenging than the best of the artistic life of its society.
A Church whose roots lie in the event of the Incarnation cannot be other than strange to its society. It embodies the conviction that the uncontainable creative energy that undergirds all reality is uniquely and uninterruptedly at work in a human life at a particular juncture in history, so that this human life communicates possibilities that human history left to itself could never generate. Among those possibilities, crucially, is the vision of an interdependent and universal human fellowship, living by mutual gift rather than mutual rivalry. And in any imaginable human situation, this will produce tensions with the specific loyalties and priorities that are assumed by fellow-citizens or kinsfolk. At a time when it is easy to be weighed down with anxiety about the degree to which we are satisfactorily adjusted to our cultural context, it does no harm to have a reminder that the ‘legitimacy’ of the Church is not based on the permission of a social authority: it answers to something other than the dominant structures of the day.
Yet, it is the same incarnational theology that reminds us that God has spoken in a particular dialect and a particular body, and not in generalities or abstract principles. The Church speaks the languages of its environment, and one of its most distinctive features – to pick up a point developed elsewhere[xii] – is that it assumes its Scriptures can and must be translated, over and over again. It is heavily invested in the deeper discovery of what is given to it in revelation through the encounter with new and diverse contexts. It may be strange, but it cannot be simply alien and incomprehensible; it is always seeking to understand itself in the endlessly varied exchanges of cultural life within and between societies.
What I have been arguing is simply that Bell instinctively understood this essential duality in the character of the Church (and in the character of a Christ described in the orthodox formulations as complete in both his unfathomable divinity and his familiar humanity). And if there is a vital role to be played these days by what is fashionably called ‘narrative theology’ (granted all the reservations and criticisms that may be made, criticisms brilliantly developed in Francesca Murphy’s recent book on the subject), we could reasonably say that telling Bell’s story is one way of elucidating what might have seemed abstract doctrinal statements about the nature of Christ and his Church. Stories that present the Church as struggling to hold the tension between the two responsibilities I sketched at the beginning of this lecture are an essential tool for maintaining the Church in a proper and critical self-awareness. Neglecting theology may be an attractive course for the practically-minded, but some at least of the narratives of the twentieth century present rather sharply the practically disastrous results of this, when the absence of a clear self-understanding on the part of the Church leads to an abrogation of responsibility. Laying out the narrative becomes part of the theological education we need – which is, once again, why remembering Bell is not an exercise in nostalgia.
He does not give us a simple answer to the conundrum of how to understand and work with the residue of establishment in England today; but in gently pushing us towards a recognition of the critical possibilities in this historical situation, he also reminds us that what there is of moral and spiritual substance in our legacy is not primarily about any power to direct and control the social process or about a guaranteed security for the privileges of a particular ecclesial organisation. It is something to do with the opportunities of engaging with some very tough and complex questions about how a society scrutinises itself in the light of what lies beyond its political fashions and immediate interests. And it will do that most honestly, of course, if it is itself ready to confront its own reality, its weaknesses and its gifts, with clarity.
Establishment can be the nurse of an over-ambitious sense of what ‘the Church’ means in society. In a very characteristic passage, the late Donald MacKinnon sets Bell’s descriptions of Archbishop Davidson at work alongside the contemporary struggles, the passionate quarrels and plottings of those who were forging a revolutionary future in Russia – Lenin and his friends and enemies. The conjunction is almost, but not quite, comical – not quite when you consider the scale and cost of what emerged from the latter. ‘No one,’ writes MacKinnon, ‘can read Bell’s great life of that most considerable of twentieth-century primates [Davidson], without being made aware that here was a man of great wisdom and unquestionable goodness, who saw his role in part at least as that of being the very effective instrument of an informed Christian presence at the heart and centre of British life in the very heyday of Britain’s imperial power’.[xiii] Yet where were the forces that in fact were moulding the greatest social changes of the world in the first decades of the last century? Not in the well-mannered corridors of power familiar to Davidson. Establishment, MacKinnon goes on, is defended because it ‘assures that a Christian voice is heard in the places where great decisions are made. But what places are these?’[xiv]
Bell’s dual sensitivity to art and politics constituted one factor which kept him from settling down with a merely conventional answer to that devastating question; one factor which made him in some ways a greater man than Davidson. If my reading of certain aspects of Bell’s life here has been at all accurate, he retained a rare capacity to see the Church’s responsibility as related to those whose voices did not find an easy hearing in the ‘heart and centre of British life’ as normally conceived, and to understand that the calling of an established church had something to do with this. An established church can only do what it is meant to if it is a great deal more than an established church; if it is coherently aware both of the larger global context in which its national society lives, and, above all, of the ultimate context of the Church’s existence in the initiative of the strange and transcendent God. Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Eliot, describes a weekend in December 1930 at the Palace in Chichester where Eliot read ‘Ash Wednesday’ to a mixed group of guests, receiving a somewhat baffled reception. Ackroyd comments that Eliot’s ‘was not the kind of religion at home in bishops’ palaces’.[xv] You can see his point; but it is actually a slightly off-key observation about this particular bishop’s palace. Bell, rather like Temple, can give the impression of someone whose Anglican and Christian identity was fundamentally untroubled, despite the apocalyptic character of the events through which he lived; but, if my reading is correct, then, whatever Bell’s private state of feeling, he (more than Temple?) knew that cultural or political cosiness was a temptation to be strenuously resisted as the most insidious temptation for an ‘insider’ in the British establishment; and he knew that if the insider failed to use his patronage and leverage for the voices that the establishment as not eager to hear, then there was a serious moral issue about that established status. For that knowledge alone, Bell deserves to be heard and rediscovered by Anglicans and, no doubt, by other British Christians, generation by generation.
© Rowan Williams 2008
[i] Second edition (Colwall, 2001)
[vii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works – London, 1933—1935 (Minneapolis, 2007), vol. xiii, p.128
[viii] See Matthew Grimley: Citizenship, Community and the Church of England (Oxford, 2004), pp.148f
[xi] Archbishop of Canterbury 1903—28, whom Bell served as chaplain 1914—24
[xiii] Explorations in Theology (London 1979), p.19
[xv] Peter Ackroyd: T S Eliot (London, 1984), p.181
The Archbishop received a large number of written questions after his University of Chichester lecture, which he grouped and answered as follows:
‘If Bell were alive today what do you think his reaction would have been to the selection of a German as Pope?’ and ‘Would it have been a good thing if Bishop George Bell had become archbishop?’
I think Bell would have been rather delighted by the election of a German Pope. I think it would have vindicated his very clear sense that Germany was not a monolithic ‘lump’ of evil in the European heartland, that Germany was a mixed, complex society in which people struggle to find ways of living with integrity (as anywhere else). He consistently refused to demonise Germany overall. I think he would have been very interested in the present Pope’s European vision. I think they would have had a lot to talk to each other about.
And ‘Would it have been a good thing if George Bell had become Archbishop?’ Opinion is divided, but actually I still think it would. I think that Bell would have been far less competent an administrator than Geoffrey Fisher, and we would have had to wait a little bit longer for the Church of England’s Canon Law, which was Fisher’s great enterprise. But then I suspect that that might not have been absolutely the first priority in terms of the Kingdom of God, during the late Forties and Fifties! So yes, I rather think so, but then that’s partly because Donald McKinnon was one of my teachers and I believed most of what he said, and he certainly thought that.
How does the Church avoid being drawn into ideological propaganda? The more the Church engages in the issues of the day, isn’t there a risk that the Church may find itself voicing the propaganda or interest of some section or issue group?
I think the only answer to that is that the Church needs constantly to pray, to be faithful to what makes it distinctive: constantly to be reflecting on itself and its own integrity in terms of its foundation documents and its basic practices. I think a Church whose unity and focus is simply ideals, especially ideals of justice and progress and so forth, that’s fine: but if they’re not rooted in the ‘strangeness’ of revelation, then I think it all dries up, and the Church does become easily just another voice in the ideological debate. And as the questioner notes, there have been some rather unpleasant examples of that in the twentieth century: and as Bell knew very well indeed, the Church could be very effectively conscripted into the service of the ideology of Nazism.
How in today’s Church may we continue to maintain the dialogue about Niebuhr’s insights: Christ above culture, within culture, against culture and beyond culture?
For those who don’t know Reinhold Niebuhr’s great book on Christ and Culture: those are the categories that this very distinguished German-American theologian proposes for understanding the relations between Christ and culture: the Church can work from within, it can work against, it can have an oppositional minority stance, it can seek to penetrate the structures of its society. And as chance would have it, I’ve just been reading a very interesting American book which questions the whole basis on which Niebuhr’s analysis works and says that it’s too artificial and slanted towards Niebuhr’s own preferred conclusions, unsurprisingly. So I think that we probably need to step back a bit from too many generalizations about it and say that it’s not so much about Christ and culture, it’s about the community of Christ in its distinctiveness and worshipping practice and its study of the Bible, Eucharist and Baptism: that kind of community, relating to a variety of cultural institutions, with no such thing as culture in general, but cultures, with the question always in the Church’s mind, ‘How does our engagement with this particular context , this kind of politics, this kind of art, advance the Kingdom of God in some ways?’ How do we in our encounter with whatever our society throws at us, seek to set forward that kind of humanity which God wills as his purpose for us all?
Representations of religion are still a significant part of the ‘heritage’ business. Is this a valuable commodity or potentially damaging?
The answer I think, is both. You can end up with the impression that religion is one of those quaint things that people ‘used to do’ and you can – as frequently happens in fiction and drama these days – paint amazingly unreal pictures of religious practice and language in other ages, because you’ve no sense of how it really worked. Although it would be invidious to mention any one instance, there is that recent, astonishing television series on ‘The Tudors’ (so called): a very marked example of a kind of breathtaking illiteracy about the past. The past becomes twenty-first century soap opera in fancy dress, and religion goes with it. You know you’ve got to have it because ‘there were archbishops in the sixteenth century, weren’t there?’ so you’ve got to have them around: but how they worked, what they thought, what they felt, what it was like? There’s no interest at all! So, I’m wary about the heritage industry and the presence of a kind of ‘soft-focus’ and rather inaccurate version of religion within that. On the other hand, anything that does remind us that once there were archbishops of Canterbury and ‘where have they all gone?’ isn’t a bad point just to start a conversation going in the twenty-first century! So there are opportunities there. And I think what we’ve discovered in the last ten years, is that the presence and impact of churches and cathedrals within the heritage world and tourism isn’t necessarily trivial. People find that these are places where you can ‘put the bits of your humanity that won’t go anywhere else’. And the Dean in his sermon last night in the Cathedral said some very powerful things about how that plays out here in Chichester Cathedral: where do people go with certain sorts of experience or crisis? And the presence of Christian images and places in the heritage world is just a reminder that there is somewhere where these things can be taken: that’s not trivial.
Thinkers tend to be marginalized in our society. What happens about leading academics at the heart of our society?
I wouldn’t necessarily consign the government of this country to academics, but I do worry occasionally that, while the appetite in many quarters for serious debate about what matters for human beings is there, we’re pushing up hill rather, against a very short-term mentality, a very quick-fix mentality, and a mentality that doesn’t much like the reality of continuing debate. It’s as if people want to say ‘That’s it, now we move on’. So insofar as the Church is part of what the great Raymond Williams called ‘the long revolution’ of keeping the thinking going, critically, then the Church’s voice is not going to be all that popular or welcome in that environment. And we just have a hard job, and I don’t think that anything I say is going to make that easier.
But it’s related to a number of these other questions about what’s happening at the moment: how does the established Church respond to the prophetic voice and present-day secular society? And here’s a question about what ethical guidance can be credibly given to the financial community at the moment.
On the economic crisis at the moment: I think the Church has got to be incredibly modest about offering specific solutions. A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of having dinner with a very significant and sophisticated financial journalist who said he had twelve points he was recommending the government to adopt to solve the financial crisis. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m glad somebody has, but actually that’s not the Church’s job and twelve points arriving from Lambeth Palace on the Chancellor’s desk to solve the financial crisis would, quite rightly, be written off! But the Church can keep ‘needling’ at some of the fundamental attitudes (just how did we get here, to a situation in which the unreality of a lot of our financial life simply spirals out of control?) How did we get to a situation where we no longer ask some basic questions about trust? Now, that doesn’t provide the instant answer to the specific critical question: it does say that everyone involved in this (and that means all of us as investors) needs some scrutiny of themselves, and in so many contexts what the Church has to say is, ‘Look at yourself, and take the time that needs’.
And responding to the prophetic voice: the catch about prophecy is that on the whole you don’t know that this is prophecy at the moment. Somebody gets up in a social situation and says, ‘The judgement of God on this society is X, Y and Z’. Now, do you believe them? Well you may or may not and later on you may find that they were right and you were wrong. You may hitch your wagon to it and say, ‘This is right’, and feel a complete fool the other way round, but that’s prophecy. Even in the Old Testament it’s quite clear that when prophets get up and speak, it’s very seldom the case that everybody then says, ‘How true’. The only case of that recorded in the Old Testament is in the book of Jonah. Jonah walks into the middle of Nineveh and says, ‘Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed: repent!’ And the Ninevites say with one voice, ‘Oh, alright then!’ Which is why—a little-known fact—Jonah is the comic masterpiece of the Old Testament: a very deliberate fantasy on prophetic themes meant to remind us that sometimes the people who are absolutely outside the Covenant, the complete outsiders who inhabit Nineveh, are more likely to respond to the word of God than some of the people who ought to! But on the whole prophecy doesn’t work like that and that’s why discernment is so hard and protracted a job. Trying to listen into the heart of what’s said to find God in it or not, knowing the risk of it and knowing that either a yes or a no can be very problematic in the long run. But when you hear a voice which is prophetic in the sense of being very fundamentally critical of you, of the society or the Church – the first question is not to ask how to get this tiresome person out of sight and sound, it’s to ask if God is saying something to me that I have got to hear for my health. Start there and see what follows: talk to your friends: pray.
And sort of apropos really, here’s a question about Philip Pullman’s work; asking if it is an important contemporary expression of what Bell mean by public seriousness?
Absolutely: I think Philip Pullman is globally and dramatically wrong about God and the Universe, and on his way to that ‘global wrongness’ he says so many things that are so interesting and so engaging and challenging that it would be a fool that would write him off as ‘just another atheist’. Work through, see what he has and hasn’t understood about Christianity. Just let your mind be enlarged by the beautiful, imaginative world he takes you into. But don’t lose your head either. Keep asking the questions. And Pullman is just one example of a number of very different writers who, by portraying a very different world from the one Christians usually inhabit, have the capacity to enlarge and deepen. When I think of very professedly anti-religious writers (an example I sometimes use is Ian McEwan, when you’ve read one of his novels, again you might think that it’s not quite the world you inhabit) I’m grateful for having been taken there, and there’s something more that emerges at the end of it all. I think that’s how we should constantly be approaching the arts.
If Bell were alive today what issues would he be pursuing?
I think on the basis of what we know of him, he would have been profoundly concerned about how we treat asylum-seekers and detainees in this country. He would have known, as we all know that it’s not a simple question to sort it out. He would have known also that there are some aspects of that system, especially as it affects children and young people, which are intolerable. He would have focused quite a bit on that. I ask myself where he would have been on the question of the Iraq war and I don’t know that I’m sure of the answer. Bell wasn’t a pacifist: he believed that sometimes force was a necessary evil in international affairs and he believed, actually, that the Second World War was a just war. But precisely for that reason of course, he believed that taking it forward unjustly undermined your own initial case, and he might have said ‘Well let’s see how the war in Iraq was actually prosecuted,’ what the scale of civilian casualties actually was and how far it could be explained away. I’m not sure he’d have come to a terribly positive conclusion about that, but it’s an open question to me.
How does the Church present a coherent voice when individual bishops and priests say such different things?
Well, in the Church — because its leaders are fallible and sinful men (and occasionally women) just like everybody else – it’s actually rather unusual for the Church to speak with one voice on certain matters. Sometimes when bishops are in conflict over what seem to be rather major or fundamental matters, it can be an embarrassment. But it’s the kind of embarrassment that can only be avoided if you only have one voice for the Church. And I think not even the most orthodox Roman Catholic would believe you ought to have just one voice for the Church. So it’s a risk that you run. The discernment always has to be: testing what any bishop or what anyone else says in the light of that bishop’s place in the whole scheme of Christian tradition and understanding. It can’t be just how I feel or how the vicar feels or how my best friend feels or the fact that I don’t like the bishop’s face on television or whatever: just put what’s being said into that wider context; test it with other Christians; work at it.
How can the Church manage its task of serving and reshaping culture, given the violence and immorality in populist drama, without the Church being denounced for liberalism or being dismissed as a modern-day Mary Whitehouse?
For anybody in the public life of the Church there is a level at which you just have to admit that you’re going to look stupid quite a lot of the time. Because in our world of celebrity and saturation communication part of the interest of all that keeps that going is to make public figures look silly a lot of the time. Sometimes they are silly; sometimes they’re not so silly (and naturally I think I’m never silly!) but it’s one of the prices that have to be paid. It’s quite important to realize that the place where the difference is made may not be the House of Lords but it may not be the editorial conference of a newspaper either. The differences are still made by the face-to-face relations of people, by bishop or a church leader actually being there with their people; actually communicating directly – and that, remarkably, does survive a good deal of media distortion. The Church is fundamentally committed to the face-to-face: which is its weakness and its strength. In a media-obsessed culture it can feel like a weakness: in the long term, it’s a strength. It means that the vision, the priorities, the sense of value in the Church moves not just according to fashion or what people tell you to think, but steadily through the relations of actual human beings worshipping together, thinking together and listening together. So I don’t worry too much about that.
Here is a question about Bell and the visual arts.
I read Prof Christopher Frayling’s earlier lecture on this and it is a spectacularly interesting account of Bell’s work with the visual arts. I think again his taste was often conservative, but he encouraged risk and the role of Walter Hussey, under Bell’s encouragement and patronage (here in Chichester as Dean) is part of a very interesting and good story about the Church and the arts.
A couple of quick answers to general questions: Do you agree with Thomas Carlyle that wonder is the basis of worship? If so, do atheists lack a sense of wonder and thus imagination?
I do agree with Thomas Carlyle on this at least. And one of the interesting things of course is that an atheist like Philip Pullman quite clearly can evoke a sense of wonder and deliver an imaginative world of huge richness. It’s connecting that wonder to love that’s the particular Christian extra – not just that I wonder at the glory and splendour and mystery of the world, but that that wonder first leads me into the sense of being the recipient of a loving gift and then that gift being drawn out of myself in a relationship. That’s where worship is – not only wonder (though it can’t happen without it); and where the atheist who has a great sense of wonder is I believe still be losing out on something.
A question about public seriousness: is it possible? And is it possible when the strangeness is factored in?
Well, I don’t know but I think it’s worth working for. I said at the beginning of the lecture that Bell had been described as someone whose many commitments didn’t succeed, but even if he’d known this, he’d still have got on with them. Public seriousness is something that’s worth fighting for whether or not we manage to deliver it.
A question from someone writing a PhD on the future of the Church in Southampton: What compelling aspiration do you hope that the deanery should achieve over the next five to ten years?
The aspiration of any deanery or local church ought to be twofold. It ought to be constantly re-shaping itself as a learning church, a church that believes it’s possible to grow into the understanding of God; and it ought to be seeking always to be credible and to have integrity and plausibility in the eyes of its neighbours, through what it does with them and for them.
Why do you believe in Christianity and not any other religion? Have you ever had times of not believing in God?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a time of not believing in God. As I said in a recent interview, there have been times when I’m not at all sure what I’ve been believing in when I’ve been believing in God and I can’t see my way at all clearly. But I’ve never felt the bottom has completely dropped out of that.
But why do I stick to Christianity (having been brought up in it) and not any other religion? (It’s not as if one ever comes to religions as a shelf full of products.) Because I believe that Christianity in its commitment to the absolute centrality of relation within God and gift: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, bestowing-life into each other, eternally. That is an absolutely unique revolutionary insight which transforms how we see personal reality, being itself, and the possibilities for this world. I don’t think any other faith has that vision at the heart of it and that’s the vision I want to give my allegiance to.
© Rowan Williams 2008