Alistair Lexden: Condemned in secret by persons unknown. The Church of England’s scandalous treatment of Bishop Bell
By Alistair Lexden
March 28, 2016
Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.
Until a few months ago, the formidable reputation of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester for nearly 30 years and runner-up for the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1944, seemed totally secure. Within the Church of England he had long been revered as one of its greatest bishops, learned, devout and inspiring. More widely, he was famous for his courageous stands in international affairs. Before 1939 .no one did more to sustain and defend German Christian leaders and Jews of all kinds in the face of Nazi persecution. During the Second World War, he led the protests against the bombing of entire German cities which killed so many civilians. This brought him much criticism to which Churchill contributed richly, but no one questioned his deep Christian integrity. “The Church”, he said in 1943,” has still a special duty to be a watchman for humanity, and to plead the cause of the suffering, whether Jew or Gentile”.
On 22 October last year, everything changed. The Church of England’s media centre issued a statement announcing that, under an out of court settlement, compensation (later revealed to be £15,000) had been paid to an unnamed individual who had claimed to have suffered sexual abuse at Bishop Bell’s hands in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, said “we face with shame a story of abuse of a child”. Yet neither he, nor anyone else among the Church authorities, has divulged any information about the nature of the alleged uncorroborated abuse, where exactly it is supposed to have taken place, the manner in which investigations were conducted or the expertise possessed by the anonymous individuals who examined the undisclosed evidence and apparently found it convincing.
George Bell has been condemned in secret by processes whose character is totally unknown. Today’s Church authorities have denied natural justice to one of the most eminent of their predecessors.
They themselves have now been made subject to the rigorous independent scrutiny which they failed to apply In Bishop Bell’s case. A detailed review of the Church’s conduct was recently completed by a group of lawyers, academics, politicians and open-minded senior Church figures, chaired by Frank Field. The group, of which I am a member, published its conclusions on March 20. Our report exposes the astonishing inadequacy of the procedures through which the Church authorities reached their verdict. In a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury accompanying the report, we stressed that “the processes which have produced such a public denigration of Bishop Bell should now be the subject of a thorough investigation”.
Unsurprisingly, the Church authorities have never felt any need to consult today’s leading authority on Bell’s life and times. Over the last twenty years Dr Andrew Chandler, a well-known Church historian, has published a number of studies on aspects of Bell’s career, for which he drew on Bell’s voluminous papers and diaries in the Lambeth Palace archives. He has now produced a most timely new biography.
It is unlikely to be given the attention it deserves by those who have sought to destroy Bell’s reputation over the child abuse allegation. They have not even bothered to see if Bell’s papers and diaries throw any light on the single complaint brought against him, even though they are right under their episcopal noses at Lambeth.
Chandler was putting the finishing touches to this outstanding biography—the first for nearly fifty years—when the Church issued its shattering statement last October. Nothing in the abundant records that he had consulted prepared him for the shock. He writes in a postlude to his book: “ for Bell the piety of a bishop was not simply a state of mind. It was a craft and a discipline, and one that he exercised with a rigour that was, even in his own day, conspicuous”. His daily life was an open book. A world-famous figure, he travelled a great deal to advance major Christian causes. At home in Chichester, “Bell worked alone in his study, but the door was always open so that his secretary could be in earshot”. His chaplain during some of the years of alleged abuse is adamant that “no child or young teenager ever entered” the Palace at Chichester, apart from the large numbers who came together for an annual Christmas party given by Bell and his wife.
It is perhaps as well that Chandler did not know what was coming when he drafted his account of Bell’s life. He was able to concentrate entirely on the task of explaining how Bell became “one of the very few Church leaders of the twentieth century to achieve a genuine significance in international history”. He was a lifelong ecumenist, striking up a close friendship with Cardinal Hinsley of Westminster (after a long conversation with him Bell wrote “I felt a richer man, richer spiritually as well as richer in wisdom”). A founding father of the World Council of Churches, he was the clerical counterpart of those idealistic statesmen from 1918 onwards who believed in the need for institutions that would bind nations together in the cause of peace.
In this work, the German problem was for him always the most acute. He sought ways of overcoming it in association with many peace-loving Germans, including two of Hitler’s leading Christian opponents, Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The last thing that Bonhoeffer did before his execution in April 1945 was to send a message to Bell: “ tell him that for me this is the end, but also the beginning – with him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national hatreds”.
Chandler recounts the life of this remarkable man of high ideals in just under 200 incisive, elegantly written pages. He is careful not exaggerate the extent of Bell’s influence . The bishop delivered many well argued speeches in the House of Lords during the twenty years he was a proud member of it. Lord Woolton, the Tories’ most successful Party Chairman, remarked that the House “held him in the greatest respect, in complete disagreement”.
At the most famous trial in history, held in public and relived each year in Holy Week, Pontius Pilate declared, according to St Luke’s Gospel, “I find no fault in this man”. Why should one of Christ’s greatest twentieth-century servants be condemned without proper forensic scrutiny of the single, uncorroborated allegation laid against him?