I first encountered the name of Bishop George Bell more than 40 years ago when working on Churchill’s official papers. His stand against the area bombing of Dresden and other German cities in 1944 was a valiant example of Christian witness at a personal cost; when Archbishop Temple died, Bell was not considered for the post. When I heard that my friend Andrew Chandler was writing his biography, I was pleased that Bell would once more be brought into the public eye.
But as Andrew was completing the book, Bell’s name came to the fore in a way no one could have predicted. In October 2015 it was announced that the Diocese of Chichester had paid compensation to an alleged victim who had, as a child, been abused by Bell. In a phrase which would come back to haunt him and the Church of England, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said: “I am committed to ensuring that the past is handled with honesty and transparency.”
There were no details of how the case had been investigated, or what the evidence was. In a style which would soon become common, an institution would announce it was committed to “transparency”, condemn the named individual, and then anyone connected with that person would disown them. Thus, buildings and other places named after Bell dropped his name.
A group of Bell’s admirers, refusing to accept the only argument offered – which was that if the Church said it was so, it was so – was formed, and as the George Bell Group, campaigned for a review of the proceedings. Despite the disgraceful allegation that this meant we were in some way denigrating the woman who alleged abuse (we were not), we pressed our case. There was no sign that the inquiry had done any historical investigation, and there were surviving witnesses who should, at the very least, have been seen. The Church had, it seemed, proceeded on the basis of guilty until proven innocent, and made no attempt to try the evidence.
Our statement was released to the press in March 2016, and the Church, eventually, in December of that year, asked Lord Carlile to review the evidence. By October of 2017 we knew the report was complete, and we pressed the Church to release it. It is important to note that, by its very constitution, the report was prevented from pronouncing on the issue of guilt or innocence.
On December 15 it was released. Its thorough review of the processes revealed that we had been right: they were inadequate to the point of carelessness. In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, issued a statement which continues to rankle: “The complaint about Bishop Bell does not diminish the importance of his great achievement. We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name.”
As the theologian Gavin Ashenden and the blogger “Archbishop Cranmer” have pointed out, this statement is utterly without foundation. For the Archbishop to say that the report did not find Bell innocent, when that was outside its remit, is to take sophistry to new depths; it is astonishing that he imagines anyone with any respect for historical evidence could be taken in by it.
On January 17, the Daily Telegraph published a letter from myself and other historians asking the Archbishop to reconsider his ill-judged statement. We argued that “The allegation is not only wholly uncorroborated but is contradicted by all the considerable, and available, circumstantial material which any historian would consider credible.” It may be significant that in the most recent statements, as in the initial one, the Church of England insists on naming Bell in the same breath as Bishop Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Gloucester who was convicted of child abuse; it is unclear why.
Peter Hitchens, who has been admirably tenacious on this issue, spoke for many of us in expressing astonishment at the Archbishop’s statement: “Perhaps Justin Welby thought that his refusal to change his and therefore the Church’s official position would be an end of the matter. If so, he underestimated the passion and concern for the truth that so many people felt.”
There is no reliable evidence that Bell abused anyone. That is admitted by everyone except the Archbishop and his spokesmen. That he has made this an issue of his own integrity is, as Gavin Ashenden has pointed out, another mistake. “At some point, he seems to have conflated what he thinks is right, with the notion of his integrity,” he writes. “He has convinced himself that, since what he thinks is right must be right, it is his ‘integrity’ that is at stake when he is challenged.”
There is no “integrity” in defending a position which has been shown to be erroneous, only a demonstration of spiritual pride. How hard can it be for a Christian to repent? It is not too late.
Professor John Charmley is Pro Vice-Chancellor for Academic Strategy at St Mary’s University, Twickenham