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The Church and Humanity

The Life and Work of George Bell, 1883-1958


Edited by Andrew Chandler


Farnham: Ashgate, 2012

Hardcover. xvi+227 p. ISBN 978-1409425564. £55.00


Reviewed By Peter Raina

University of Oxford



This volume is a collection of essays to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bishop George Bell at the University of Chichester in 2008. The Church of England has produced many unique and great churchmen: George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, is perhaps one of the greatest. This will be the judgment of history, by now well secured by the scholarly studies which have so far appeared on Bishop Bell. And any fresh evidence that supports this judgment is naturally most welcome to us. The book under review here is not just “any” study. It is we believe a full portrait (except in one instance) of the man greatly honoured the world over, drawn by established scholars, and admirably edited by Andrew Chandler. In the introductory chapter, “The Church and Humanity : George Bell and the Life of the Church in the Twentieth Century”, Andrew Chandler summarises, in his usual elegant prose, the main features of Bell's dedication to the work of the Church in Britain and in the World. I should think Bell had more success than failures that Andrew is disposed to suggest.

In her scholarly essay “ ‘Fulfilling Christ’s Own Wish That WE Should Be One’ : The Early Ecumenical Work of George Bell as Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dean of Canterbury, 1914-29”, Charlotte Methuen gives us an accurate description of the young Chaplain's work during the period as the title suggests. These were the formative years, and Bell learnt a lot both as a chaplain to Randall Davidson and then as a Dean of Canterbury. This is one of Bell's richest periods. It goes to the credit of Charlotte Methuen that she has done a clever and beautiful job in explaining this fruitful time in Bell's life in the small space available to her.

Bell had already developed his taste for arts when he read classics at Oxford. He loved and wrote poetry, and in fact won the distinguished Newdigate Prize for his poem “Delphi” in 1904. It should have been no surprise then that he encouraged art and literature while as a chaplain or later as a bishop. Peter Webster, in his short but highly penetrating essay “George Bell, John Masefield and The Coming of Christ : Context and significance”, tells us why Bell commissioned John Masefield to write this play, which was both commended and criticised. Because of the controversy the play caused Bell could have withdrawn it, but he did not. He felt, and rightly so, that The Coming of Christ was indeed a classic in its own right. Mr Webster does not hesitate to admit it.

Joseph Muthuraj's chapter “An Indian Scholar Looks at Bishop George Bell” I find most fascinating and informative. It was generally known that while Churchill was publicly abusing Gandhi the great Mahatma was a highly welcome guest at Chichester. But Professor Muthuraj has dug deep into the Archives of Lambeth Palace. It is a great satisfaction to know how much Bell got himself involved in Gandhi's mission about Indian independence, and even how Bell tried to correct the ill conceptions about Gandhi prevalent among some British politicians. This aspect of Bell's relations with Gandhi has been overlooked by historians so far. Also Bell's contact with D.S. Radhakrishnan, the author of the monumental History of Indian Philosophy is new to me. Professor Muthuraj has further adorned Bell's rich legacy, and we are grateful to him for this.

George Bell was with all his energy involved with what was happening to Germany and her people. This involvement began first with his support for the Confessional Church, and later with his close association with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is not thus unexpected that the Bishop should have taken such a keen interest in the fate of German refugees in Britain, so ably described by Charmian Brinson in her well-documented essay, “Please Tell the Bishop of Chichester : George Bell and the Internment Crisis of 1940”. Bell left no stone unturned to make the life of these internees as tolerable as the circumstances allowed.

However, it turned out to be much more difficult for Bell to help the resistance movement in Germany. But he tried to assist it with all his heart and soul. The embarrassment lay not in the failure of what Bell desired to achieve, not even in the refusal of the British Government to meet Bell's wishes. The circumstances were such that Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, was not in a position to offer any help. It is easy for us, sitting now behind our desks, to criticise Eden for ignoring the call from Germany. But let us try to be fair. Eden could not have sensed the seriousness of this call. The course of events was much too complicated. And let us not even forget the fact that the 20 July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler was undertaken by the very Wehrmacht officers who had been until then the Führer´s loyal assistants. The suspicion also ran high that these officers were merely acting out of fear that the Red Army would soon be at their door, and that they hoped they might still save the ensuing fate of Germany by negotiating a peace settlement with the Western Allies. This of course was an illusion. Andrew Chandler in his very valuable piece, “The Patronage of Resistance : George Bell and the Other Germany during the Second World War”, gives us the highlights of Bell´s efforts and his disappointments.

Bell fundamentally opposed the division of the world, and more so the division of Europe in ideological blocs. He refused to admit that Europe with her common heritage, common civilisation and common Christian values should break up after the war. It also pained him that Germans should be divided into two separate states because of ideological reasons. And he rightly diagnosed that the Western Powers as well as the Soviet Union were responsible for this mishap. We have an excellent analysis of Bell's hopes, his views, and of his anxieties with regard to the future of Europe in Philip Coupland's “George Bell, the Question of Germany and the Cause of European Unity, 1939-1950”.

Tom Lawson's chapter, “Bishop Bell and the Trial of German Criminals : A Moral History” entirely lacks in taste and integrity. The author suggests that his text represents “a self-consciously moral history”. In essence the text is a study in misinterpretation of facts. There is little scholarship in this essay. Besides, there is one major defect in the author's methodology. Any historian who claims to be moral and ethical should once for all understand that the history of the Second World War is not the history of the Holocaust alone. The Holocaust is just a part of it. Holocaust historians seem to forget it again and again. And if you remind them of their mistake you are at once accused of being an antisemite. This is false. Mr Lawson does not exactly call Bell an antisemite, but he implies it. Mr Lawson wrongly accuses Bell of condoning certain War Criminals. This is a highly inaccurate judgement. What Bell was really asking for was not that these criminals should not be tried but that they should receive a fair trial, and perhaps in British courts. And Bell had very important reasons to argue that none of the criminals should be tried in the Soviet Union. How could a State conduct fair trials if this State had itself committed war crimes? Were the Katyn murders not a war crime? Were innocent Poles any worse than innocent Jews? And if the Soviet “innocence” was until recently defended by the British Government itself I suppose Bell could have every reason even to doubt the fairness of the British Government. What Bell wanted was fairness for all, even for the barbarians. Now if the German Luftwaffe was barbaric, did it mean the Royal Air Force were justified in making a massacre of thousands of unarmed, innocent, civilians in Dresden? Or perhaps Mr Lawson does think that these civilians were responsible for the Holocaust, and thus deserved the punishment. This Holocaust syndrome is totally harmful in the exercise of reaching balanced historical judgements. In any case Mr Lawson's conclusions, we must sadly note, are an insult to Bell's whole legacy.

Dianne Kirby has by now established herself as a distinguished analyst of the link between the Church and the Cold War. It is thus natural that she should have given us a clear overview of how Bell reacted to the effects of the Cold War in her well documented “George Bell and the Cold War”. Bell was disgusted by the very appearance of the Cold War. And he sincerely believed that it was the responsibility of the Church to harmonise the conflicting political ideologies. Dianne Kirby explains this. But we strongly reject her assertion that Bell contributed to the prolongation of the Cold War because the Bishop disapproved of the Soviet-type authoritarian rule. Bell remained consistent in his criticism of every kind of authoritarian system, which, he rightly thought, was un-Christian.

Bell's invaluable work in the Ecumenical Movement has been brilliantly dealt with by Gerhard Besier in his extremely valuable essay: “ ‘Intimately Associated for many Years’: The Common Life-Work of George Bell and Willem A. Visser't Hooft in the Service of the Universal Church”. Indeed Bell devoted his entire life to the Ecumenical Movement. The vast amount of literature on this aspect of Bell's work now available sufficiently proves this fact. We are happy and grateful to Professor Besier that he should have now considerably updated Bell's contribution to this movement.

We are equally indebted to Jaakko Rusama for telling us more about the cooperation between the Church of England and the Church of Finland in “George Bell and the Promotion of Anglican-Lutheran Relations”. It is true, as Professor Rusama ably explains, that Lutheran traditions vary. These are not the same in, say, Germany, or in the Baltic Lutheran churches. But then a definite identity is not lacking. Here Bell's teaching has been helpful. This teaching, or Bell's moral thoughts, to be more accurate, have been closely analysed in a separate, and splendid volume by Jaakko Rusama published several years ago.

We now come to the last chapter of the book under review, “A Church of the Nation, or a Church for the Nation? Bishop George Bell and the Church of England”, by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and currently Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Rowan Williams is a great Churchman of our times. He has become a shining authority, not only on Theology. He is also a literary giant. But it is his moral stand, his adverse judgement of those who violate Christian ethics, or transgress the codes of international law that has won Lord Williams a place of supreme distinction. The way the Master of Magdalene puts together all the various characteristics of Bell and his work is superb. Bell was above all a man of, and from the Church; a politically active man, but not a “pure politician”. Bell sponsored art in a Christian context, and as a Christian he felt responsible to build a moral society. Bell's notion of an established Church went far beyond its local or native responsibilities. The Church has to have a theology that guarantees a wide horizon, and be able to answer “why it is there at all”. It has to be “able to propound and defend a view of what is due to human beings as such, that is independent of a merely local or national loyalty or even of an international ideological loyalty”. This in brief was Bell´s credo, which he worked to realise throughout his life. This beautiful essay, written with such candour, has given us great pleasure, and it is fitting that it should end the volume. Our thanks to the editor.


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