Archbishop Justin Welby and Mrs Barbara Whitley
Peter Hitchens: Does Archbishop Welby‘s pride matter more than an elderly lady‘s pain?
This Christmas I would like you to think of the plight of a 94-year-old woman, who has been atrociously mistreated by the Archbishop of Canterbury
This I would like you to think of the plight of a 94-year-old woman, who has been atrociously mistreated by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Her name is Mrs Barbara Whitley. More than three years ago, the Church of England publicly accused her beloved long-dead uncle of the filthy crime of child sex abuse.
The charge was based on the word of a single accuser, more than half a century after the supposed offence. The Church had presumed his guilt and made no serious effort to discover the truth. Key living witnesses were neither sought, found nor interviewed. A senior bishop admitted soon afterwards that they were actually not convinced the claim was true. Yet by some mysterious process, a number of newspapers and stations, all on the same day, felt safe in confidently pronouncing that Barbara’s uncle had been a disgusting paedophile. No ifs or buts. Who told them?
A later inquiry would show that this miserable episode was based on nothing more than a chaotic, sloppy kangaroo court. One of this country’s most distinguished lawyers, Lord Carlile, tore the case against Barbara’s uncle to shreds. He said there would have been no chance of a conviction on the evidence available, and made mincemeat of the shambolic committee that had published the original allegation.
After delaying the release of this inquiry for weeks, Justin Welby’s church eventually published it. But did it admit its mistake and restore the reputation of Barbara Whitley’s wrongly defamed uncle?
Nope. Mr Welby, in defiance of all the rules of British justice, sulkily insisted that a ‘significant cloud’ still hung over the name of Barbara’s uncle. Thus, just as she might have been able to rejoice that her relative’s name had at last been cleared, the Head of the Established Church made it his personal business to prevent this.
And then, a few weeks later, another supposed allegation against her uncle was said to have been made. Why then? What was it? Who had made it? Nobody would say, but it served to stifle potential criticism of Mr Welby at the General Synod of the Church of England, which was about to begin. Details of the second allegation remain a secret. After nearly a year, Mr Welby’s church (which has a bad record of sitting on reports that it doesn’t like) still hasn’t come up with its conclusions [See Briden Report for conclusions – Ed]. Yet Sussex Police, given the same information, dropped their investigations into the matter after a few short weeks.
It all looks a bit as if someone is trying to save someone’s face. But the cruelty to Barbara Whitley, who was 91 when this horrible saga began, is appalling. Who cares about some prelate’s pride (a sin in any case) when Mrs Whitley could be spared any more pain?
Because the cruelty to Mrs Whitley seems to me to be so shocking in a supposedly Christian organisation, I have deliberately left till last that the object of these accusations is the late Bishop of Chichester, George Bell. Bell was, as people who knew him have told me, a kind, scrupulously honest, courageous man. He was, most notably, a beloved friend of the German Christians who fought against Hitler and a brave critic of the cruelty of war. I sometimes wonder if modern bishops and archbishops are afraid of being compared with him. They have reason to be. In the meantime, Mr Welby’s church should end Mrs Whitley’s agony.
Does anyone really doubt that, if the archbishop wanted to, he could end the whole business today?
[This article previously appeared in the Mail on Sunday – December 16 2018]
COMMENTS AND RESPONSES
“Of course it does!” – Rev Peter Mullen
Seventy-five years ago on Saturday, the July plot failed. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg placed a bomb in a briefcase next to Hitler in the conference room of the Wolf’s Lair, but someone moved the briefcase a little. When the bomb detonated, the heavy conference table shielded Hitler from the blast. Stauffenberg and many other conspirators were caught. He was executed early the next morning.
This Friday, in Christ Church, Oxford, a special service will commemorate the plot [Stauffenberg’s failed attempt to kill Hitler 75 years ago], and all those who resisted Nazism in Germany. It will centre on the altar dedicated to George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, and the main external supporter of German Christian resistance to Hitler.
In Sweden in May 1942, Bell met a young German pastor called Hans Schoünfeld [Schonfeld] and the famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would later be executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp. The former disclosed to him the extent of the resisters’ plot to overthrow Hitler, giving him many of the key names. Charged with this information, Bell went to see Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary. Could the Allies help, with assurances that they would negotiate a settlement with a new German state that renounced aggression and embraced Christian principles? Writing to Eden afterwards, Bell asked: ‘If there are men in Germany also ready to wage war against the monstrous tyranny of the Nazis from within, is it right to discourage or ignore them?’ Eden was suspicious that the moves by the churchmen might be untrustworthy ‘peace-feelers’, which Hitler’s spies were bound to know about. Besides, the Allies were edging towards the doctrine of unconditional surrender. Bell’s efforts came to nothing. The July plotters acted without exterior help. They failed, and died horribly.
Controversy about this will never cease. It is easy to sympathise both with the pleading of the Bishop and with the scepticism of the foreign secretary. But one has to be impressed by Bell’s striking way of putting it: ‘Germany was the first country in Europe to be occupied by the Nazis’, and so its people needed liberation as much as any other. At the service will be read out the words of Helmuth James von Moltke, a resister to the Nazis who opposed the assassination of Hitler on the grounds that this would make him a martyr, but was executed for treason all the same. In his farewell letter to his wife, von Moltke wrote: ‘In the last analysis, the dramatic thing about the trial was this … what we had discussed were questions of the practical-ethical demands of Christianity. Nothing more; it is for this, and this alone, that we have been condemned …Your husband … stood … not as a Protestant, not as a landed proprietor, not as a nobleman, not as a Prussian, not as a German — but as a Christian and as nothing else…’
Faithful readers will know that this column has defended Bishop Bell from a charge of child abuse which the Church of England chose to accept as true 70 years after the alleged acts. A full inquiry by Lord Carlile proved that the processes used to investigate this claim had been worthless. The Church was forced to accept this. It refused, however, to pursue the logic of Carlile’s finding and declare Bell innocent until proved guilty. The Archbishop of Canterbury stated that a ‘significant cloud’ still hangs over Bell; but the cloud is not evidenced. By chance, I was in Chichester for a family gathering last weekend. We stayed at 4 Canon Lane, a guesthouse which was, until the accusation, called George Bell House. His name was then painted out. I was sorely tempted to paint it back again, but realised this would upset the blameless staff, so contented myself with expressing my thoughts in the visitors’ book. I also reminded myself of the geography of the Bishop’s Palace. ‘Carol’, Bell’s accuser, alleged that Bell would collect her from his kitchen and take her upstairs to his study, where he abused her. In fact, the kitchen she mentioned belonged to the theological college next door, and Bell had no access. His study was elsewhere.
On the crenellations which surround the cathedral’s impressive Victorian spire, we spotted three peregrines looking dramatic against the evening sun. The return of birds of prey is an attractive feature of modern times. The downside is that more raptors means fewer songbirds.
THE TABLET – LETTERS – MARCH 16 2019 – “PIUS XII WAS NO FRIEND TO HITLER”
In his article “Unsealing the secrets of the wartime pope” (9 March), John Cornwell writes: “The central accusation is undeniable: that … Pius neither condemned Hitler and the Nazis by name, nor mentioned the victims – the Jews – by name.”
The end of the ‘Hitler’s Pope’ myth
It has scarcely been noticed in Britain, but a remarkable development has recently taken place in Holocaust studies. Nearly two years ago, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a historical research institute, set out on “a modest project”. It wanted to mark “Houses of Life” – places where Jews were sheltered during the war – with memorial plaques. It found more than 500 such houses in Italy, France, Hungary, Belgium and Poland. Eduardo Eurnekian, chairman of the foundation, wrote that “to our surprise, we have learned that the overwhelming majority of Houses of Life were institutions related to the Catholic Church, including convents, monasteries, boarding schools, hospitals, etc”.
In Rome alone, some 4,500 people found refuge in churches, convents, monasteries and boarding schools. In Warsaw, All Saints Church sheltered Jews. This was remarkable, because the penalty for Poles for rescuing Jews was the death camp or, more likely, instant execution.
It is appropriate that a foundation named after Raoul Wallenberg should find such an extensive Catholic contribution to saving Jewish lives. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Budapest during the war. He and Angelo Rotta, the papal nuncio, saved 120,000 out of the city’s 150,000 Jews. Wallenberg was arrested by the Red Army and never seen again.
The news about the Houses of Life is only surprising because the truth about the Church and the Jewish people in the Second World War has been suppressed. Several aides of the wartime pope, Pius XII, acknowledged that they had worked to rescue Jews on his direct instructions. They included two future popes – Mgr Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII) and Mgr Giovanni Battista Montini (Paul VI). Pius XII himself sheltered Jews both in the Vatican itself and at Castel Gandolfo.
This is a good moment to mark the Church’s witness against Nazism. Eighty years ago, on March 14, 1937, Pope Pius XI issued Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Anxiety”), an encyclical, pointedly written in German, condemning Nazism. “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, and divinises them to an idolatrous level, perverts an order of the world created by God,” the pope wrote.
Pius XI’s secretary of state was Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pius XII. He distributed the text, which he had helped to draft, secretly within Germany. Four years earlier, in 1933, he had negotiated a concordat between the Holy See and Germany, not to appease Nazism but to have some means of holding the Nazis to account through an international treaty. The regime referred to him as “Jew loving”: he had made more than 50 protests against Nazi policy, the earliest coming just days after the passing of the Enabling Act, which granted Hitler the power to enact laws without Reichstag approval. Pacelli was regarded as so anti-Nazi that the Third Reich attempted to prevent his election as pope in 1939.
Pacelli’s personal story is important. He was a Germanophile – and, equally, a philosemite – from his youth. As nuncio in Bavaria during the brief 1919 communist republic he showed high personal courage, remaining at his post. His sympathy and friendship with Jews, including the great conductor Bruno Walter, was well known, and he gave discreet help to many. At Walter’s request, he gained the freedom of a musician, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, arrested in a pogrom while Bavaria was under communist rule. Safe in America, Gabrilowitsch became the founding musical director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Walter himself later became a Catholic.
Before the war, Pacelli took extraordinary risks to help the German opposition. He knew which generals were preparing to act against Hitler, and made sure news of their intentions reached the British government.
In a situation of huge difficulty, Pius XII did what no one else did to save Jewish lives during the war. He knew quite early on what was really happening to the Jewish people. At the time, too many were in denial, including a British diplomat who wrote of “these whining Jews”. Neither Britain nor America made it easy for Jews to escape into exile – the Kindertransport was a blessed exception.
In the war years, Pius XII acted directly in Italy and through papal diplomats in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly given the circumstances, there is no firm number for those saved by the pope and the Church in one way or another. It was perhaps between 500,000 and 860,000.
Pius XII’s statements both before and during the war were unmistakably hostile to Nazism. The Allies may have wanted more, but the price would have been the ending of all the good the pope could do. The Nazis understood his meaning very well. A plan to kidnap Pius in 1944 was only averted by the unlikely intervention of SS General Karl Wolff.
The pope was also utterly clear about the evils of communism and vicious Stalinist religious persecution. But he said nothing about it during the war. Allied diplomats in the Vatican understood this, realising that it was only the pope’s preservation of the Holy See’s neutrality which enabled him to give refuge to thousands of Jews in religious houses in Italy and the Vatican itself. It also allowed him to provide contacts so that information about prisoners of war and the Holocaust could reach the Allied powers.
All this was acknowledged during and after the war, not least by Jews. Albert Einstein, who had escaped Nazi Germany, said in 1940: “Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth … I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”
Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, and Isaac Herzog, chief rabbi of Israel, paid similarly generous tributes. Israel Zolli, Rome’s chief rabbi, became a Catholic and took the pope’s Christian name, Eugenio, in tribute to him. After Pius’s death in 1958, Golda Meir, then Israeli foreign minister, wrote: “We mourn a great servant of peace.”
The Nazis hated the Church. Thousands of Catholic priests were imprisoned, especially in Dachau, the “priests’ camp”. It is true that some bishops followed a policy of appeasement: Cardinal Adolf Bertram of Breslau supposedly ordered a Requiem Mass for Hitler in 1945. Some Catholics betrayed Jews and even, as in Jedwabne in 1941, massacred them. But others, notably Bishop Clemens August von Galen of Münster and Bishop Konrad von Preysing of Berlin, did all they could to resist Nazism. Preysing’s agent, Bernhard Lichtenberg, the provost of Berlin cathedral, was judicially murdered and is now recognised as a martyr.
Yet in the nearly 60 years since Pius XII’s death, his reputation has been traduced. One recent example was the BBC’s report that the silent prayer of Pope Francis at Auschwitz was in reparation for the silence of the Catholic Church. The corporation was simply repeating what had become the received view of Pius XII and of the Church’s record during the war.
Lord Alton of Liverpool immediately protested, and together he and I made a formal complaint to the BBC. A considerable correspondence ensued. In early December, the complaint was upheld. Fraser Steel, head of the editorial complaints unit, wrote: “This did not give due weight to public statements by successive popes or the efforts made on the instructions of Pius XII to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution, and perpetuated a view which is at odds with the balance of evidence.”
The negative view of Pius marked an astonishing reversal of reputation. In 1963, a previously unknown German, Rolf Hochhuth, published a play called The Deputy which blamed Pius XII for the Holocaust. Hochhuth claimed it was historically accurate. The play was premiered in West Berlin and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and America.
The provenance of Hochhuth’s play, and the degree of communist support, aroused suspicion. The USSR had a strong interest in destroying the moral authority of the pope and the Catholic Church. As Khrushchev, a mass murderer in his own right, said at the time, dead men cannot defend themselves.
Confirmation of these suspicions came only in 1998, with the publication of the memoirs of Ion Mihai Pacepa, a Romanian three-star general in the Securitate who defected in 1978. According to Pacepa, the project, known as Seat 12, originated in Moscow with Khrushchev. From 1959, Pacepa had directed his spies, posing as priests, to pilfer Vatican archives. They found nothing they could use, but Ivan Agayants, the KGB’s disinformation chief, had been able to feed Hochhuth with false information, which he was only too ready to use. The Soviets’ aim was to discredit Pope Pius and wreck the growing understanding between the Church and Judaism.
The American writer Ronald Rychlak, who has done the most detailed work on the story, concludes that Hochhuth was heavily dependent on such Soviet disinformation. Not that Hochhuth was the only author: his play was rewritten and heavily abridged by Erwin Piscator, a famous producer and communist agent of influence.
In 1964, Blessed Paul VI commissioned detailed research, eventually published in 1981, which showed the degree of papal and Catholic support for the Jewish people during the war. This should have been the end of the matter. It was not. A number of Jewish scholars, such as Daniel Goldhagen, publishing in the 1990s, endorsed the accusations. This had its effect. The distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert wrote that he repeatedly received applications for support for PhD study which usually included a reference to the “silent” or even “anti-Semitic” Pius XII.
John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope, published in 1999, was seriously misleading. He implied that Pacelli held “stereotypical” anti-Semitic views. This was based on, among other things, mistranslating, misconstruing and selectively quoting a long letter written by Pacelli in 1919, reporting on a meeting with the chairman of the Bolshevik administration in Munich. Cornwell’s book was overdependent on the understandably embittered recollections of Heinrich Brüning, the exiled former German Chancellor. Hitler’s Pope was really part of a campaign against St John Paul II. But that is a different argument and has no business in an evaluation of Pius XII.
Cornwell’s book had wide circulation and favourable reviews from the liberal media. It and others in a similar vein have been savaged by knowledgeable critics, such as Rychlak, Gilbert and Rabbi David Dalin. Together they provide detailed evidence of misquotation, misrepresentation and even malice in these books. The media have found little space for these corrections. So the lie remains the received story. But the example of the BBC suggests that this may be changing.
Three steps would do much to right the wrongs against Pius.
First, the BBC should prepare a major documentary on the pope who was responsible for saving thousands of Jewish lives. I am advised that the corporation will consider this. The BBC has acknowledged that there should be closer scrutiny. Which of course there already has been: the question is whether minds are open.
Secondly, the critical statements about Pope Pius at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, should be substantially revised. Many of the pope’s helpers have now been named Righteous among the Nations. It is time that Pius was recognised himself as among the Righteous. He needs not a tree, but a whole forest planted in his memory. The story of the Houses of Life adds further weight to the evidence for his bravery.
Thirdly, Pius’s beatification should proceed without delay. Rome has already recognised his heroic virtue, paving the way for him to be declared Blessed.
Let the last word be with Pius himself. In 1943, he wrote: “The time will come when unpublished documents about this terrible war will be made public. Then the foolishness of all accusations will become obvious in clear daylight. Their origin is not ignorance but contempt of the Church.” At that time he was referring to Nazi propaganda. His words apply equally to the malicious libels of the past 60 years.
The Very Rev Fr Leo Chamberlain osb is a former headmaster of Ampleforth College. He is parish priest of St John the Evangelist, Easingwold in North Yorkshire
This article first appeared in the March 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences – Servant of God Pius XII
IN DEFENSE OF GEORGE BELL
George Bell, Bishop of Chichester: Church, State, and Resistance in the Age of Dictatorship
by andrew chandler
eerdmans, 224 pages, $35
The best way to get a belly laugh from a Roman Catholic is to mention the words “Anglican” and “principle” in the same breath. It is easy to see why.
The current leaders of the American Episcopalians and their English mother church are wedded firmly to the spirit of the age. And as William Inge, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London warned long ago, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” So it has proved, and so it will continue to prove. The leaders of this rather interesting version of Christianity mistook its breadth and openness for a benevolent, politicized vagueness. They adopted social democratic politics and economics in England, and 1960s liberationism in the U.S. They then waited for the kingdom of heaven to arrive as their churches grew emptier and their voices fainter and shriller.
And yet there were exceptions. The British radical politician Tony Benn was fond of saying that there were two types of public figure: weathervanes that revolved, squeaking, in the prevailing wind, and signposts that grimly continued to point the way, often to an oblivious multitude, which missed the straight and narrow and surged instead on to the winding primrose path. George Bell, bishop of Chichester in the middle part of the twentieth century, was one such signpost. By a single action he asserted the primacy of the Christian conscience above all considerations of power, popularity, and convenience. Yet by this same action he gravely damaged himself. I have a slight suspicion that the merciless attacks being made on his reputation today are part of the reaction to this singular act, an attempt to tear down an example to which we cannot rise.
After much study of his life, I am convinced that I would not have liked George Bell if I had met him, and that he would not have thought much of me. This is surely a good thing. Bishops are not supposed to be likeable. They are supposed to be stern, set apart from the world, and ready to put up with some unpopularity. In the seventeenth-century consecration service which Bell would have undergone, he had to assent to the following question: “Will you deny all ungodliness and worldly lusts, and live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world; that you may show yourself in all things an example of good works unto others, that the adversary may be ashamed, having nothing to say against you?”
One of several sons of a parson (two of his three brothers died in the last bitter months of the First World War), Bell was academically bright, but not brilliant. He had, it is necessary to say, a poor speaking voice. He had an unlikely early friendship with Oliver St. John Gogarty, a bohemian Irish republican whom he defeated in the battle for an Oxford poetry prize. He had little in the way of social life outside his work. He was identified early in life as one destined for high position, and spent several years as an aide-de-camp to Randall Davidson, the archbishop of Canterbury. He loved poetry, wrote it competently, and was one of the earliest to recognize the genius of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Without his encouragement, T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral might never have been written, or performed in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral. He showed similar friendship and encouragement to the composer Gustav Holst. He was austere and painfully honest in personal dealings, traveling third-class by train and pursuing the railway company with offers of payment (often for tiny fares) if by any chance he had failed to buy a ticket for some rural journey. But his own trusting nature meant he was sometimes embarrassingly wrong, continuing (for instance) to harbor hopes of peace with Hitler’s Germany after the outbreak of war in 1939, and intervening mistakenly on behalf of some Germans who were later shown beyond doubt to have been war criminals.
I state the case against him because I am currently being told (by Bell’s modern accusers) that I refuse to accept that he had faults because of my admiration for his good deeds. On the contrary, I have long believed that there are no great men, only great deeds. And yet it takes exceptional men and women to do such deeds, and Bell was exceptional. What were his great deeds? Many of them are easy to admire. He strove to comfort and rescue those persecuted by Hitler, recognizing the wickedness of the National Socialist state earlier than most. Several owed their lives to his efforts. He was a constant support to that giant, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who sent a last message of gratitude and comradeship to him from his cell. He intervened (this took some courage) to secure the release of undoubted anti-Nazis interned alongside actual Nazis thanks to a Churchillian invasion panic, just when Britain needed their skills and commitment to fight Germany more effectively. He supported the resistance to Hitler, and in 1942 tried to interest the British Foreign Office in early German plans for the overthrow of Hitler, of which he had been told in a meeting in Stockholm. Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, would not get involved. He probably knew that any talk of peace with Germany, even one cleansed of Hitler, was impossible once we were allied with Stalin. Bell, still clinging to ideals of just war and hoping to save Europe from a prolonged fight to the end, could not see this. Was he wrong? Probably. Britain had by then lost control of the war and was a helpless, bankrupt client of Moscow and Washington. And it seemed possible then that he was being used, though in fact this was not so.
But this is just a preliminary to the one thing about which Bell was wholly right, the thing which marks him out from his generation of English Christians, and the thing for which we all owe him a great debt till the end of time. One righteous man can save a city and cancel out the unrighteousness of millions. And this is what he did.
After long preparation and study, Bell publicly condemned the deliberate bombing of German civilians in their homes, which had by then become Britain’s main contribution to the war in Europe. For this purpose he used the House of Lords, in which a small number of senior bishops sit by right. They must always speak there clad in their priestly robes of plain and puritan black and white, to remind everyone that they are not politicians or their placemen. The privilege has never been used better. To this day, few really understand the issue. Many still believe that Britain accidentally killed German civilians while aiming at oil refineries and munitions factories. Or they think that Bishop Bell was protesting against the notorious bombing of the city of Dresden in 1945, so frightful that even supporters of the policy had their doubts about it. In fact, his speech, delivered on February 9, 1944, was a protest against years of deliberate warfare against defenseless women and children. Few now realize that British forces did this, and even to this day, debates about it in Britain can degenerate into fury and abuse, combined with simple refusal to acknowledge recorded fact. Those interested in the full, grisly story should read Richard Overy’s The Bombing War, Max Hastings’s Bomber Command, and A. C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities.
These are the facts: In November 1941, Sir Richard Peirse, then commander in chief of RAF Bomber Command, declared in a semi-public speech that his planes had for nearly a year been attacking “the people themselves,” intentionally. He said, “I mention this because for a long time the Government for excellent reasons has preferred the world to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the humanitarians are pleased to call Military Targets. . . . I can assure you, gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples.” Senior government officials knew of the policy but preferred the truth of it not to be widely known in case “false and misleading deductions” were made. An Air Staff memorandum stated that towns should be made “physically uninhabitable” and the people in them must be “conscious of constant personal danger.” The aim was to produce “destruction” and “the fear of death.” This is not chivalry.
Supported by the military historian Basil Liddell Hart and his own long-standing anti-Nazi credentials, Bell challenged this. These words of his speech echo right down to our own time: “It is common experience in the history of warfare that not only wars, but actions taken in war as military necessities, are often supported at the time by a class of arguments which, after the war is over, people find are arguments to which they never should have listened.”
The speech, which infuriated Winston Churchill and his friends, probably ensured that George Bell did not become archbishop of Canterbury. And yet the speech showed that the broad, reasonable church of Cranmer, Hooker, and Andrewes still possessed a backbone of righteousness, such as it had not shown since it defied the despotic King James II in 1688, and so helped save liberty for posterity. It was the culmination of a life of thought, prayer, love, dedication, and Edwardian high seriousness, just as notable in its way as all the other thousands of stories of physical heroism in the same generation. Bell’s example ought not to be forgotten, and Andrew Chandler’s new biography will help ensure that it will not be. This is a very different book from Ronald Jasper’s rather flat earlier biography, which gave the facts but lacked the personal sympathy with Bell’s intense seriousness of purpose and self-discipline, and also lacked the deep knowledge of Bell’s archive that Chandler demonstrates—especially in his account of Bell’s work with the German resistance.
Yet it is a sad story, and its ending—if such stories ever end—is sadder still. Bell himself, writing of a dead colleague, once adapted Richard Hooker’s words to say, “Ministers of good things are like torches, a light to others, waste and destruction to themselves.” Bell’s life did not really end very happily or completely, perhaps because he was kept from the high position he deserved. He was confined to a second-rank bishopric when his mind, distinction, and experience should have taken him to the Archbishoprics of York or Canterbury, or to the almost-as-significant See of London. His great energy had less and less of an outlet. He had been consumed by his work during his life, and so had little to fall back on as retirement approached. Like so many of his generation, he began to be forgotten by a modern age that regards the past as a storehouse of mistakes, best left locked. And then he was remembered, because of a solitary, ancient, uncorroborated anonymous accusation that he had long ago sexually abused a little girl.
What was his church to do about this charge? Reasonably and understandably, it offered sympathy and money to the unnamed accuser. Given the length of time (more than sixty years ago) and the shortage of witnesses—though it failed to look for at least one such witness, who worked closely with George Bell at the time and says the allegation is absurd—this was a kind and decent thing to do. Less reasonably, it publicized the allegation in such a way as to allow several major London newspapers and the BBC to behave as if the charge were proven. Yet it bears, as Chandler says, no relation to anything else in his well-documented life. Indeed, it contradicts the personal testimony of Canon Adrian Carey, a decorated naval veteran now in his nineties but absolutely lucid, who was Bell’s personal chaplain during the years covered by the accusations, and who has said the events described by the accuser are impossible to match with his own close experience of Bell’s daily life. Yet Canon Carey, who actually lived and shared meals with Bell and his wife during this era, was neither contacted nor consulted by the church authorities, who claimed to have “found no reason to doubt” the accusations.
Why were his successors so willing to toss his reputation into this stinking pit of ultimate shame? Was it because they did not value it, and had forgotten who he was, if they had ever known? Or was it because, when they did understand the great thing he had done, they did not much like it, not being men of his sort? As I think I may have said at the beginning, principle and the Church of England do not always mix very well, and it is not only Roman Catholics who think this. And yet, whatever they do, there is still the collect for the twentieth Sunday after Trinity: “O Almighty and most merciful God, of thy bountiful goodness keep us, we beseech thee, from all things that may hurt us; that we, being ready both in body and soul, may cheerfully accomplish those things that thou wouldest have done.” George Bell would have known those words, said them many times, and, I believe, meant them.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.