Bishop Bell: a reputation restored

George Bell (1883-1958), Bishop of Chichester from 1929 until shortly before his death, was one of the greatest figures that the Church of England has ever produced. He achieved a world-wide reputation as a theologian and humanitarian, speaking out against the brutal treatment of Christians and Jews in Nazi Germany and helping those who sought refuge in other countries.

During the war he criticised the carpet bombing of German cities. Why, he asked, should innocent civilians suffer a terrible fate? The controversy that such comments aroused almost certainly cost him the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1944.

Two years ago the Church of England accepted the uncorroborated claim of a woman who said that she had been sexually abused as a child by Bishop Bell, and paid her compensation.

A number of politicians, academics, churchmen and lawyers came together to challenge that decision, forming the George Bell Group. As a member of the Group, Alistair Lexden raised the issue in the House of Lords on a number of occasions. In June 2016 he introduced a debate which led the Church to announce an independent review of the secret, internal processes which led to the besmirching of Bell’s reputation.

The results of the review, conducted by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, were published by the Church on 15 December. In a statement reacting to it, the George Bell Group said: “A close reading of the detail of Lord Carlile’s report can only lead to the conclusion that he has vindicated the reputation of a man revered for his integrity across the Christian Church.”

The Church itself must acknowledge that vindication. The George Bell Group’s statement continued: “the time has now come for the Church of England to redress, without hesitation or qualification, the immense damage done to the fine reputation of a man who served it for so long and with such courage and devotion. Those institutions which summarily removed Bell’s name from their titles should now fully restore it”.

Sadly, the Archbishop of Canterbury failed to give the lead expected of him in his initial reaction to the Carlile report.