Nicholas Reade on Bishop Bell – Extracts from “Rarely Ordinary Time – Some Memoirs” [Rother 2019]
As well as being Chairman of the Liturgical Commission, Dr. Jasper was an historian, and, a few years previously, had written the life of Arthur Cayley Headlam of Gloucester. At that time, we were all awaiting the publication of his biography of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester [1929-58], one of the greatest bishops ever produced by the Church of England, who many expected to become the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1943, when William Temple died suddenly.
Bishop Bell was a courageous church leader, who had helped Jews and others to escape from Nazi Germany, and spoken out in the House of Lords against the indiscriminate bombing of German cities in the Second World War. He was a great ecumenist, theologian, and patron of the arts and a much-loved pastor. Christine had spent her previous summer holidays working on the index of this long-awaited biography.
Dr. Jasper was always very humble and modest about his work and scholarship, and would seldom initiate conversation about what he had achieved. As I became more involved with the family, I sensed that Bishop Bell had almost become part of the household, so the revelation fifty-seven years after his death that the Church had made an apology to one complainant, on the grounds that the Bishop had abused her between sixty-five and seventy-five years ago, seemed utterly unbelievable.
While the Church has been careful not to say that the Bishop is guilty, it has ruined his reputation. Originally, no information was given as to the process by which the Church had come to this conclusion, other than the statement that ‘experts’ had been involved. Such secrecy was hard to countenance in an age of ‘transparency’. As a family, and in common many others, we expressed our concern in the church press, and have continued to do so. In 2017, the Core Group Report was seriously criticised by Lord Carlile QC in his review into the Church’s handling of the complaint.
Of course, it is right and proper that the Church investigates thoroughly every complaint made against every person and however famous and respected – and however ancient. Given, from the beginning, how shaky and questionable the allegation against Bishop Bell appeared to be, what has greatly concerned me is that the bishops of the Church of England, who, certainly in the past, had a fine reputation for standing against injustice and for being unafraid of making themselves unpopular, have expressed not one word of concern at the destruction of Bishop Bell – with the exception of the Bishop of Peterborough, in a speech in the House of Lords, and, more recently, the Bishop of Chester. A couple of retired bishops have voiced our concerns and given support to the George Bell Group, but our view carries little weight.
An allegation is made against him around sixty-five years later; he is tried by, frankly, what looks like a kangaroo court – with nobody to speak up for him, as Lord Carlile pointed out. Not a single bishop was prepared to query publicly what was being said, and how it was being dealt with. The left-leaning newspapers, always eager to campaign on miscarriages of justice, have given scant support to those of us concerned concerned at the traducing of Bell’s reputation.
It has been left to The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday to write powerfully about the basic principles of justice being ignored by the Church. The Church is the Sacrament of the Kingdom, and becomes what she is meant to be in the celebration of the Eucharist – this keeps me going. It is the institutional church that gets so much wrong (as I know, also, from my own mistakes). I can therefore understand the anger and the real disappointment of the person who told me that ‘the whole episode’ of the church’s handling of the Bishop Bell situation ‘puts you off church-going’.
My first concern as a bishop has always been for the survivor (even though I am aware of falling short some twenty-two years ago, when measured alongside today’s strict and excellent standards); but until it can be proven beyond all reasonable doubt that Bishop Bell abused a child, I will continue to call upon George Bell within the Communion of Saints to pray with me and for me. Meanwhile, I continue to treasure on my bookshelves Bishop Bell’s copy of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, given to himon 7 October 1957.
Much has changed concerning Bishop Bell’s reputation following further enquiries, and the long awaited report of the Right Worshipful Timothy Briden, Vicar-General of Canterbury. What will not change, is the inadequate original investigation, and that George Bell, one of the ‘saints’ of the Church of England, who is commemorated every year (3rd Oct) in our liturgical calendar as bishop, ecumenist, and peacemaker (1958), should for the last four years have been cast into the wilderness by the Church he served with love and the greatest distinction.
Page 88 & 89
I was sorry, also, to say farewell to Bishop Kenneth Skelton, the Diocesan Bishop. I admired him in many ways; he took time to get to know his clergy and was generous with the time and encouragement he gave to me as a young incumbent. Although he came across as shy initially, I found him very easy – and it helped that he could always see the humour in situations. He had the gift of drawing out the best in people. He was a truly pastoral bishop, who worked collaboratively and strategically. This remarkably gifted man, whose leadership was prophetic, appears to have been forgotten about in the Church of Rngland – possibly because he was a very humble person.
Kenneth had served as Bishop of Matabeleland from 1962 to 1970 in western Rhodesia, where he was deeply respected as a pastor and theologian, and where he championed the cause of the black majority, inevitably clashing with many politicians. he wrote a gripping account of his ministry in Matabeleland, ‘Bishop in Smith’s Rhodesia’ (Mambo Press, 1985). The Law and Order Minister called him ‘The Devil’s Advocate’, and stated that the government was watching him.
He was also dubbed ‘Red Skelton’, after the American comedian. Some commented that Kenneth could best be compared in the Church of England with Bishop George Bell, for both worked tirelessly for social justice and were fearless in speaking out.
As with the four other parishes I had worked in, I lost no time in getting down to work – but this was a somewhat larger area and responsibility than I had experienced before; there was a huge in-tray demanding my attention. Every day new issues would hit my desk.
On my first day, I visited Bishop Bell School – now called St. Catherine’s College – the large Church of England secondary school in the Langney area of Eastbourne, opened by H.R.H. Princess Margaret in 1958 and dedicated by Bishop Bell. This was his last act after twenty-nine years as bishop, and he was to die shortly afterwards. He had specifically requested that the school be built in a less affluent and expanding area of Eastbourne. Whenever I entered that building, which also housed his mitre and crozier. I never felt that this courageous and truly great bishop was far away.
17. You have a great respect for Bishop George Bell and have expressed concerns about how the allegation made against him has been handled by the Church of England.
Yes indeed – and I am joined in this by many from around the world. Others much better qualified than me to make a judgement have taken the view, from the earliest stages of the allegation, that the evidence was not compelling. I have yet to meet anyone, anywhere, who has looked at the facts available and believes that the handling of this allegation reflects credit on the Church. One comment was ‘what a circus’ – which would be amusing if the case were not so serious. It has of course been extremely difficult to find out much about it, because of the lack of transparency.
To be fair to those who have dealt with this, and in the light of the public reaction, Lord Carlile QC was invited to review how the Church handled the whole matter. His report leaves the Church with the very difficult task of ensuring that we will never again allow such an injustice to occur. I am surprised the Church did not understand that any institution seeking to act as investigator, accuser, judge and jury cannot deliver justice.
I came across a memo, and I cannot remember where it came from, of what Lord Woolton said to Bishop George Bell on 9 February 1944, just before he made his courageous speech against the indiscriminate bombing of German cities: ‘George, there isn’t a soul in this House who doesn’t wish you wouldn’t make the speech you are going to make…you must know that. But I also want to tell you that there isn’t a soul who doesn’t know that the only reason why you make it, is because you believe it is your duty to make it as a Christian priest’.
That is the Bishop Bell we will all remember, along with his many other heroic deeds. It is tragic, as the Bell Group Press Release of 15 December 2017 argued, that the institutional church today deprived this bishop, who has been dead for over sixty years, of the presumption of innocence or of due process…
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Chichester have faced severe criticism for the way in which this whole matter has been handled, and tendered their apologies for it.
Lord Carlile QC, who conducted the 2017 independent investigation into the Bishop Bell allegations, forwarded a Statement to be read out at the Bell Society meeting on 4 February 2019, in the building that used to be called George Bell House, Chichester. It contained the following words:
“I hope that this event will add to the clamour for the Church to admit the awful mistakes it has made in dealing with unsubstantiated allegations against Bishop Bell. His name should never have been publicised before allegations were investigated. The Church should now accept that my recommendations should be accepted in full, and that after due process, however delayed, George Bell should be declared by the Church to be innocent of the allegations made against him”
With the dedication of the Bishop Bell statue in Canterbury Cathedral (where he served as Dean between 1924 and 1929), it is to be hoped that a line may be drawn under this sad episode, banishing any shadow over Bishop Bell’s good name – for surely, his character and all he achieved by the grace of God are conjoined.