In an era in need of it, courage

by
07 October 2016

Jeremy Morris reviews a new study of the life of Bishop George Bell

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George Bell, Bishop of Chichester: Church, State and resistance in the age of dictatorship
Andrew Chandler
Eerdmans £26.99
(978-0-8028-7227-2)
Church Times Bookshop £24.30

 

 

GEORGE BELL, Bishop of Chichester for nearly 30 years until his death in 1958, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest leaders of the modern Church of England. But he has always divided opinion. To many, he epitomised a sane Christian commitment to peace and justice in the face of the Nazi tyranny, through his consistent opposition to Nazi policies, his criticism of the persecution of the Jews, and his defence of the German Confessing Church. But to others — Churchill included — he was naïve about saturation bombing and in thinking that modern war could be won by entirely honourable means.

Andrew Chandler’s new biography of Bell is a must-read climax to a lifelong interest. No one has a better claim to know Bell’s mind and his work. Beautifully written, it takes the reader further into the riches of the archive and the complexities of Bell’s career than anyone has gone before.

It is biography as confirmation and completion, however, and not as shock revelation. Bell, the son of a clergyman, had a conventional ecclesiastical upbringing before becoming Chaplain to Archbishop Randall Davidson, Dean of Canterbury, and then Bishop of Chichester. His strengths lay in his personal warmth and competence, and his assembling of an unrivalled network of contacts across the European Churches. He was not a great preacher, and not an original theologian. One surprise: he never mastered German.

But he had something many of his contemporaries lacked: a clear-headed and dogged consistency, with an extraordinary fearlessness about consequences. He grasped the real menace of Nazism long before others, and yet never assumed that all the German people were equally complicit in the regime’s crimes. He never ceased to emphasise the humanity and culture of the main stream of German history.

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If there are no surprising discoveries as such, there are, none the less, fresh elements to Chandler’s account. Two are touched on, but perhaps not explored as fully as some might wish: Bell’s interest in the arts, and his theological roots in Christian Socialism (Bell “inherited it all”, Chandler says).

More significantly, Chandler shows that Bell’s consistency and courage could take him far into positions baffling to his contemporaries, and forgotten since. Though an opponent of appeasement, he applauded Munich and advocated a negotiated peace long into the war. He was sceptical about war-crimes trials, especially those beyond the inner circle of Nazi leaders: he believed that Germany needed its experienced bureaucrats and military to rebuild itself in peace.

Chandler gives us, then, a mixed, nuanced, and rounded picture of the man, a new profile of Bell for today. Politics is always an exercise in judgement as well as in justice, and he reminds us that Bell, while exceptionally strong and clear-headed in both ways, was not always able to give equal rein to both. That, to my mind, serves only to underscore Bell’s essential humanity.

As this book was going to press, there emerged an allegation of child abuse against Bell, dating back to the late 1940s. This must have been a shock for Chandler, and he deals briefly with it in a Postlude. He doesn’t do — he presumably can’t do, for lack of independent evidence — a final moral reckoning on this allegation. It is clear where his own sympathies lie, though. He considers carefully the evidence in favour of seeing the allegation as anomalous. As he suggests, all Bell’s qualities of leadership and prophecy, and his achievements in ecumenical relations, in international cooperation, and in solidarity with the opposition to Nazism, cannot simply be set aside. That, of course, has nothing to do with how we might regard the allegation of abuse itself.

 

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