Opinion & Features

A national controversy based on whispers

Bishop Bell (centre) with German pastors Martin Niemoeller and Otto Dibelius (AP Photo)

Those of us who have long admired Bishop George Bell will welcome a new biography – the first written with access to the archives. There was much to admire about Bell, Bishop of Chichester from 1929 to 1958. He was one of the earliest churchmen to denounce Nazism as utterly incompatible with the Christian faith, and his long connection with the German Confessing churches and their anti-Nazi activities secured him an honoured place as a fierce and consistent opponent of fascism. The last letter the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote was to Bishop Bell.

But he was a turbulent priest, quite prepared to criticise his own government in public for its area bombing and the destruction of Dresden – actions which almost certainly cost him promotion to Canterbury on the early death of William Temple in 1944.

But no matter, because though, as Andrew Chandler’s excellent biography (George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, Wm. B. Eerdmans) shows, Bell was no politician, he was something far more important, a witness to the Christian faith.

The Church of England has recognised him in its liturgical calendar, and named an institute at the University of Chichester after him. It was entirely appropriate that Dr Chandler, its director, should be the author of this long-awaited work.
What should have been welcomed as the definitive study of a great man instead made its way into the world amidst a national controversy. Just as Chandler was finishing his book, the Diocese of Chichester issued a statement which said it had paid compensation to a woman whose complaint – that Bell had molested her when she was a little girl – had not been previously dealt with in a satisfactory manner. All Chandler could do in his manuscript was to note what had happened. But he, like Bell’s other admirers, soon became concerned at the way the Church of England had reacted to the complaint, which included removing memorial plaques to Bell and erasing his name from buildings named after him.

Since the Savile scandal, the authorities seem to have moved from a position of scepticism about claims of abuse and an unwillingness to act on them, to one almost of over-reaction – as we have seen with recent police investigations. But one thing remains unchanged: the insistence of the authorities that we trust their pro-cesses. Here, the diocese said there had been a ‘‘thorough’’ and ‘‘objective’’ in-vestigation by experts, and it expected to close the case. In this it reckoned without Chandler and others of Bell’s admirers.

Used to the processes of historical research, they did some investigation of their own, finding that Bell’s papers had not been examined and that none of the few surviving potential eyewitnesses had been interviewed. Had, as was claimed, the girl been read bedtime stories by Bell, it seemed improbable that his staff would not have been aware of someone staying overnight in the Bishop’s Palace.
Charles Moore, Peter Hitchens and Giles Fraser waded into the fray, with articles questioning both the manner in which the diocese had proceeded and what looked like its willingness to throw Bell under the bus to save its own reputation. They set up the George Bell Group, which produced its own report (georgebellgroup. org/review/) supporting the verdict of the BBC: that the original diocesan report was ‘‘astonishingly inadequate’’.

TS Eliot had described Bell as a man of ‘‘dauntless integrity’’, while Owen Chadwick called him ‘‘the most Christian bishop of his age’’. Chandler’s book does a splendid job of explaining to our age why Bell mattered – and matters still. It is not, of course, impossible that Bell was guilty of the allegations made against him, but as Chandler points out, we are being asked to set aside all we know about Bell on the basis of ‘‘slender evidence, sloppily investigated’’.

If the diocese thought it could rid itself of an embarrassing problem swiftly, it has now been disabused of that idea. The Bell Group held a vigil outside Chichester Cathedral last Sunday, and its supporters are not going to be fobbed off with assurances from a bureaucracy that has shown no reason why we should have faith in it.

If Bell is to be condemned, it should come only after an investigation of all the available evidence. The dead cannot be libelled, but they can have their reputations destroyed – with no redress. It is some indication of Bell’s stature that his admirers are not prepared to let this happen. For now, we are left with the paradox that Justin Welby can say that Bell is ‘‘the greatest hero that most of us have’’, whilst also defending an inadequate investigation which condemns
him as a child abuser. In the words of Peter Hitchens: ‘‘I’ve heard of a broad Church, but this is ridiculous. One or the other. Not both.’’

Professor John Charmley is head of the Interdisciplinary Institute at the UEA