Review of Andrew Chandler, ed., The Church and Humanity: The Life and Work of George Bell, 1883-1958

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 18, Number 4 (December 2012)

Review of Andrew Chandler, ed., The Church and Humanity: The Life and Work of George Bell, 1883-1958. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2012), Pp. xvi + 227, ISBN 978-14094-25564.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester on England’s south coast from 1929 to 1958, has long enjoyed recognition as one of the outstanding figures in the Church of England during the first half of the last century. He championed consistently and relentlessly two major aspects of church life, namely the cause of church unity and the search for international peace and justice. Bell’s achievement was to advocate these ideals with effectiveness and tenacity even against the vocal opposition of many of his episcopal colleagues, his laity, and the wider conservative public. The result was that in many cases he appeared a lonely contender for failed causes. But this corresponded with his style of leadership. He was not a team player, had no oratorical gifts, and was an ineffective chairman of committees. His strength was seen best in one-to-one conversations, and his persuasiveness in such encounters was enhanced by his genuine interest and humanity, as is well recorded in his extensive correspondence, fortunately now preserved in Lambeth Palace library. Above all, he set the sights for Christian witness at the highest level, and tirelessly sought to challenge any lesser, more parochial views for both the church and the nation.

It is for these qualities that Bell will be remembered. To help this task, a memorial conference was held in 2008, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The result is this collection of essays in his honour, elegantly edited and introduced by Andrew, Chandler, the Director of the George Bell Institute in Chichester. Among the distinguished contributors is the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, whose penetrating tribute closes the volume. Also included are essays about various aspects of Bell’s ministry.
Gerhard Besier of Dresden gives us an informative piece about Bell’s efforts to promote the cause of church unity on the international level, in collaboration with Visser ‘t Hooft, the first General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. In the inter-war years, this mainly Protestant ecumenical movement owed much to Bell’s careful but enthusiastic involvement, which pulled together the separate strands of Life and Work, along with Faith and Order. When the World Council was finally established in 1948, it was fitting that Bell should be Chairman of its Executive and later one of its Presidents.

These rise of Nazism to power in Germany and the attempts by one section of the German Protestant churches to oppose its ideological goals aroused Bell’s close interest, and his efforts to support the Confessing Church’s resistance to Nazism are touched on in several of these essays . Chandler himself contributes a chapter entitled “The Patronage of Resistance,” outlining Bell’s unwavering encouragement of “the other Germany” by drawing a clear distinction between the Nazi regime and the German people. To many people in Britain, especially during war-time, this seemed a perverse or at least naive view. Bell persevered, however, and was determined to create conditions after the war in which this “better” Germany could rise again. After his well-known meeting with Bonhoeffer in Sweden in 1942, Bell sought to get the British government’s approval of some gesture of assistance to the German Resistance. This only earned him the scorn of the politicians who saw him as a “turbulent priest,” out of touch with mainstream British opinion.

Even more controversial were Bell’s outspoken protests in the House of Lords against the Royal Air Force’s bombing of German cities and civilians. As some have supposed, this principled stance against his own government’s policies led to his being passed over when the Archbishopric of Canterbury fell vacant in 1944. Less well known, but equally a part of Bell’s humanitarian concerns, were his efforts on behalf of the German refugees in war-time Britain, as described by Charmian Brinson. In 1940 the British government ordered whole-scale internment of such refugees, even though many of them were Jews expelled by the Nazis who had sought refuge across the Channel. Nonetheless, many of them were deported to Canada and Australia on the flimsiest of pretexts. Bell spent much time in attempts to mitigate their position through his dedicated engagement, especially for the group of 37 “non-aryan” pastors from Germany whom he had personally sponsored to come to England in 1938-9. This was a noble if unpopular task, but Bell did not flinch from doing what he believed was his duty.

After Nazism was overthrown, Bell turned his energies to the reconstruction, reconciliation and hoped-for re-Christianization of Europe. Predictably, as Philip Coupland describes, he showed empathy for the German people, and resolved to do what he could to assist the churches there in rebuilding their devastated church life. He strenuously avoided any talk of collective guilt and was openly critical of aspects of the war crimes trials and the ‘de-nazification’ process. But in the view of Tom Lawson, in the only essay in the book critical of Bell’s tactics, this was a moral blunder, since Bell became associated with the perpetrators of the most reprehensible crimes, for whom he pleaded leniency, allegedly in the interests of healing the war’s wounds.

Certainly Bell was fully persuaded that Christian values would be vital in fashioning the new Europe. Hence he was all the more alarmed by the growing threat of Soviet Bolshevism. His remedy was for a federal United States of Europe, but the onset of the Cold War doomed such a prospect. The political division of Germany between the victors was a bitter blow. So too was the British Government’s reluctance to seek a closer unity even in western Europe. On the other hand, as Dianne Kirby makes clear in her contribution on George Bell and the Cold War, Bell was a welcome ally for the British Foreign Office’s propaganda campaigns. He exercised a moral influence through many circles of the establishment and kept at bay those who still believed in the good-heartedness of the Soviet Union. Seeking to combat Communism by the teaching of a better religion and a truer philosophy, Bell alerted people to the Communist threat and reinforced with religious arguments the level of popular anti-Communism. At the same time, though, Bell was appalled by the development of nuclear weapons, the use of which he considered incompatible with Christian international morality . The inherent contradictions in such views remained unresolved. So too the Cold War split rather than united Europe’s churches. Bell’s pastoral and political legacy is therefore a mixed one. Yet he remained a striking voice calling on the Church to rise above temporary loyalties or immediate interests, and instead to place the needs of suffering humanity in the forefront of Christian responsibility and obligation.