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Bishop who stood alone

02 October 2008

Alan Wilkinson reflects on Bishop George Bell of Chichester, an ecumenical pioneer, a patron of the arts, and a courageous opponent of war

Tribute: sketch of George Bell by David Goodman

Tribute: sketch of George Bell by David Goodman

THIS weekend, Chichester Cat­hed­­­ral marks the 50th anni­versary of the death of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester from 1929 to 1958, as well as the 900th anni­ver­sary of its consecra­tion. In his mem­ory, the Archbishop of Canter­bury is to dedi­cate George Bell House, a con­ference centre in the Close.

Bishop Bell has also been cele­brated by an international con­ference at the University of Chi­chester, and by a series of lectures and parish study-groups. A local cinema has even become involved, and is showing films on related themes.


The director of the inter­national George Bell Institute (founded in 1996) is now based at the University, and the Fellows of the Insti­tute endeavour to forward Bell’s interests as writers, ecumen­ists, artists, and cam­paigners against injustice.


As a diocesan bishop, Bell was inno­vative as well as pastoral. He appointed the first liturgical mis­sioner, and the first religious-drama adviser in the country. Yet the 368 volumes of his corre­spondence in Lambeth Palace Library reveal the huge variety of people and causes with which he involved himself. I select three: Bell was a passionate ecumenist, a cham­pion of the arts, and a coura­geous prophet.



DURING the First World War, Bell was chaplain to Randall Davidson, the Arch­bishop of Canterbury. Like David­son, he was pain­fully aware that the Churches’ witness was gravely weakened because Churches (like nations) were divided by ancient quar­rels. In 1915, at a time when nationalist hysteria was rife, Bell courageously wrote that the King­dom of God was a greater cause, deserving of a higher devotion, than home, nation, or Church.


From 1919, he worked tire­lessly to bring the world Church together into one fellowship. His vision was not simply that Chris­tians should be pleasant to one another while re­maining separate, but that all Chris­tians should share their gifts in one body. From 1933, he forged close links with anti-Nazi Christians in Ger­many.


His hatred of war made him a strong advo­cate of appeasement. In 1938, when Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy signed the Munich Agree­ment, he told his diocese: “We are bound to see the hand of God in this moment of rescue.”


During the war, he broadcast to Christians in Germany. At Christ­mas in 1941, he said: “I think of some of you in your homes in Marburg, Hanover, and Berlin. . . I rejoice to hear your voice, too, Bishop Wurm in Stuttgart, and yours, Bishop von Galen, in Münster. . . Your fellow Chris­tians every­where are by your side.”


In October 1945, it was Bell’s presence that made it possible for German Evan­gelical leaders to make a public declara­tion of peni­tence for the Church’s share of responsibility for what had happened. But they did not mention the Jews, and presented the Churches as victims of Nazism (as Bell believed) and guilty of inaction, not collaboration.


After the Nüremberg Trials, Bell argued against further prosecutions because he yearned for ecclesiastical and political reconci­liation. He always insisted on making a clear distinction be­tween the majority of Germans and Nazism.


For Bell, everyone was a neigh­bour: Gandhi came to stay with him, and goats were tethered outside the palace to supply milk. Thanks to Bell, the ecumenical movement not only survived, but was actually strength­ened by the war. In 1955, he made a pioneering visit to Milan for talks with Cardi­nal Montini (later Pope Paul VI).


At the Bell Conf­er­ence this sum­mer, a young German expressed her amazement that an English bishop should have had such heartfelt concern for an enemy country. His Christian faith leapt across national boundaries. Hence his deep friend­ship with the German Lutheran pastor and theolo­gian Dietrich Bon­hoeffer, who was executed in April 1945 for his part in the bomb plot against Hitler. It seems extraordinary now that a shy English bishop should support the assassi­nation of a European head of state.


Bonhoeffer’s final message was not for his family, nor his fiancée, but for 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 interests. . .”


IN HIS 1929 enthronement sermon, Bell said that the Church should be eager to seek the help of poets and artists, and should offer its blessing on their work. In a Christmas broadcast that same year, he said that the visible and invisible worlds were united on the first Christmas Day. He quoted the verse in Ecclesiasticus about crafts­men: “In the handiwork of their craft is their prayer.” The exercise of art, he felt, was a form of worship.


His champion­ship of the arts was particularly im­portant, as Britain was then considered to be philistine. In 1928, as Dean of Canterbury, he pio­neered the revival of plays in the Cathedral. He invited T. S. Eliot to write a play. Eliot chose Thomas Becket as his subject, and Murder in the Cathedral was the result.


In Chichester Cathed­ral, and in churches in the diocese, he inspired a revival of drama, mural painting, and sculpture, including work by Hans Feibusch, a German refu­gee. He also corre­spon­ded with patrons on behalf of artists in need of com­missions.


In Chichester Cathedral today can be seen an im­pressive collection of modern art — paintings, stained glass, murals, and sculpture — all carefully selected to contribute to the liturgical and spiri­tual life of the building and its worshippers. This is the tradition that Bell estab­lished and fos­tered. But art was not to be élitist. Everyone could exercise a craft.


He hoped that, by commis­sion­ing artists, ordinary parishioners would be inspired to contribute to the life of their community through making vestments and frontals, repairing the churches and stone­work, mending books, or printing magazines.


GEORGE BELL cared pas­sion­ately for social justice at home as well as abroad. He was in favour of trade-union rights for county-council workers, and sup­ported the protests of council tenants in Brighton whose rents were too high. He always travelled third-class.


At Canterbury, he fostered devo­tion to Thomas Becket, who had stood against the state. To use Martin Luther King’s image, Bell believed that the Church should be like a thermostat altering the temperature, not just a thermometer reflecting it. In Germany, it became dangerous to refer to “Chichester”, and so Bell was known as “Uncle George”.


He raised money to enable German refugees, particularly Chris­tians of Jewish origin, to flee to this country. But many British people were as hostile to refugees then as they are today, and it was hard work. To settle one particular refugee took him 127 letters.


At the Bell Conference there were members of two German-Jewish families he had rescued.


During the war, he reassured com­batants worried by what they were doing. In 1939, however, he declared that the Church was not “the state’s spiritual auxiliary”, but had an authority independent of it. So it should not hesitate to condemn the bombing of civilian populations.


In 1943, he condemned the sys­tem­­atic obliteration bombing of German cities, and as a result was excluded from his own Cathedral on Battle of Britain Sunday. In 1944, he repeated his condemnation, at length, in the House of Lords.


He knew at first hand that some British bomber-aircrew were agon­ised in conscience about what they were doing. Like Jeremiah, he paid a price for his dissent. He received regular hate-mail, and was regarded as a traitor. Once, when Bell gave the blessing, a woman shouted out: “Go back to Germany where you belong.”


In 1994, when Archbishop Carey preached about Bell at Chichester, he told how he had received an angry letter denouncing Bell as a traitor. Eden de­scribed him, in words once used about Becket, as a “pestilent priest”. Churchill and Eden blocked every attempt by the Church to elevate him to a more senior post, and rejected suggestions of a mark of national recognition from the King.


BELL ACTED according to the princi­ples of the Just War. His critics argue that in his con­demnation of the bombing, and in his arguments for a negotiated peace, he underestimated the need for Ger­many to be so thoroughly defeated that it could not find excuses for the defeat, as had happened after 1918, and that the bombing was a tragic necessity if ordinary Germans were to confront their guilt and make a clear break with the evil past. Archbishop Temple believed that the intensified bombing constituted “a penalty for German aggression”.


Bell was always asking: “Who is my neighbour?” His answer was: “My neigh­bour is a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, a Serbian Ortho­dox, a Hindu like Gandhi. My neigh­bour is a painter, sculptor, poet. And my neighbour is the Jewish refugee arriving without home or money; the Germans and British who are being bombed; and underpaid council workers.”


Ulrich Simon, a German refugee of Jewish parentage, and later an Angli­can priest, wrote of him: “Bell re-enacted for the modern age what martyrdom had meant in the glori­ous past. He manifested that glory which the world crushes, although it cannot live without it.”


Canon Wilkinson is an honorary priest at Portsmouth Cathed­ral and a Fellow of the George Bell Institute.



There will be a Cathedral Eucharist in Celebration of Bishop George Bell at Chichester Cathedral on Sunday. Cele­­brant: the Bishop of Chichester; prea­cher: the Archbishop of Canter­bury.


There will be an exhibition in the Queen’s Robing Room, House of Lords, from 6 to 24 October, recalling Bishop Bell’s life and career, and containing all known portraits of the Bishop and other memorabilia. Re­stricted entry.


A five-week group-study course by Rachel Moriarty, George Bell: A bishop to remember (Books, 15 February) discussing Bell’s signifi­cance as an internationalist and ecu­menist, patron of writers and artists, and author, is available free from the Chichester Cathedral website.





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