Demanding justice for Bishop Bell

By Lord Carey

Over the last 12 months or so I have had a recurring disturbing worry. It is the ‘nightmare’ that in spite of a very happy and faithful marriage to the same woman for nearly 60 years some 50 or so years from the point of my death, rumours will circulate that I was an abuser of others.

The rumours will reach such a pitch that the Church to which I had given my life will capitulate, pay out money and believe the falsehoods. Who would defend me? This could happen to anyone of us – male or female.

It became a reality for one of the great giants of Anglicans, namely George Bell who died 70 years ago. I remember the time when I was Archbishop visiting Morton’s Tower in Lambeth Palace where Bell’s works were stored. I was amazed by the scale of his correspondence and work.

It expressed his energy, output and commitment to public affairs. He was never afraid to be unpopular because his commitment was to the gospel of Jesus Christ and its truth.

Before ecumenism became a fashionable word he had already embraced a deep commitment to other Christians and Churches. Whilst anti-Jewish hatred continued to change the face of Germany and western Europe, Bell instinctively turned his face against the ugliness of anti-Semitism. I read his correspondence with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and marvelled at their deep friendship and common faith.

At a time of understandable patriotism and jingoism on the part of the British people, Bell courageously argued against unacceptable retribution against Germany. Winston Churchill turned against him and, we understand, put paid to any prospect of Bell becoming Archbishop because of his opposition to carpetbombing.

But Bell was more than an energetic, courageous and knowledgeable public figure. He was a man rooted in prayer and worship; a high churchman who loved the order and beauty of liturgy. In his exceptionally busy life he was supported loyally, deeply and lovingly by his wife, Henrietta.

She was always alongside him, as were his chaplains who were there to take some of the burden of his high public office. And then, 57 years after his death, his own diocese which he served faithfully and greatly loved supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the House of Bishops – made an announcement that was likely to affect Bell’s reputation forever more.

The announcement was widely interpreted by press and public alike as an accusation that Bell had sexually abused a child between 1949 and 1953. Strangely, Church leaders deny that they have ever said that Bell was guilty of the abuse, but this is surely disingenuous.

In that initial announcement, very few details were given but it was clear that an unspecified sum of money had been given to the complainant.

The Church said it had decided to give this compensation on the basis of the ‘balance of probabilities’. But even on this evidential basis, arguments for the defence should have been heard. Previously, no other accusations – or even rumours – had ever been heard against Bell.

And on the basis of this one unproven, and probably unprovable allegation, his name was removed from buildings and institutions named after him. A recent detailed review of the case by Lord Carlile showed that no significant effort had been made by the Church to consider any evidence that might have supported Bell’s innocence. In particular, those investigating did not consult Bell’s biographer, Andrew Chandler, nor the living people who worked with him at that time.

It was a relief to us all when the Bishop of Chichester asked Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, a well-known independently minded human rights lawyer, to conduct an independent review, which he did thoroughly and authoritatively. His report concluded that the “core group” established by the Church to consider the claims “failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides”.

He added: “In my view, the Church concluded that the needs of a living complainant who, if truthful, was a victim of very serious criminal offences, were of considerably more importance than the damage done by a possibly false allegation to a person who was no longer alive.”

What then followed was to my mind more damaging to the Church than to George Bell. Instead of this logically leading to the rehabilitation of George Bell’s reputation, the Church compounded the problem further by apologising for the procedures that had been found wanting by the Carlile review, but nevertheless refused to retract its conclusion that George Bell was in all probability guilty of the abuse. In the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury a ‘significant cloud’ hangs over his name. The Archbishop bluntly added: ‘he is accused of great wickedness’.

What is deeply unsatisfactory is that no explanation is given and no evidence for these conclusions. If the Carlile report revealed how biased and unjust were the conclusions of the Core Group, how can the Archbishop, the Bishop of Chichester and Bishop of Bath and Wells continue to unblushingly assert that George Bell’s reputation remains under a cloud? Now, it gives me no pleasure to note that the Archbishop of Canterbury has received harsh criticism from a number of leading historians and theologians and, sadly, his response has been so far unsatisfactory.

Those of us still committed to the national Church remain horrified that not more has been done to explain his remark that ‘a cloud remains’. At the very least justice demands it. Perhaps an explanation lies in a further allegation which has come out of the blue, at the beginning of this year, before the Carlile review could be properly debated in General Synod.

But after the first core group debacle, can we really have confidence that the Church can investigate this competently itself? The Archbishop has rightly made mediation and reconciliation a major plank of his ministry, and I hope he will reach out to all those who are dismayed by this treatment of Bell and consider again his judgement of Bishop George Bell.

However, one of the matters I am most dismayed by is the silence over these concerns by the House of Bishops.

The Church of England has always been respected for scholarship, theological exploration and independent thought. George Bell stands out as a preeminent scholar-bishop of the 20th century who engaged in public debate within the church and nation – frequently disagreeing with his episcopal colleagues. So why the silence from the House of Bishops? Each member must know that he or she is implicated indirectly in this condemnation of Bell.

Only one bishop has distanced himself from the Archbishop’s conclusion, but I understand that at least six others disagree with him. Unity and collegiality are good things but never should they replace what is right and true. ‘Collegiality’ is not to be mistaken for ‘collective cabinet responsibility’ or ‘party discipline’.

If the bishops are at one with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s declaration that a ‘cloud hangs’ over George Bell’s reputation and that ‘he is accused of great wickedness’, let them say so in a collective declaration of support for the Archbishop’s view.

It is because we all make mistakes that we need a Church that preaches grace, forgiveness, repentance and new life. I see very little of grace in the way that the Church of England has handled allegations against George Bell. Indeed, it is shaming because it is unjust. We know we can do better. That is why this conference* talks about rebuilding bridges, and that is why many of us will continue to fight for justice for George Bell.

I believe the George Bell case and also the Peter Ball investigation makes the argument for outsourcing investigations in the case of accusations of sexual misconduct.

It is not because Archbishops and bishops can’t be trusted to have an important role in safeguarding, rather it is because we are too close to the clergy concerned and very likely to defend instinctively the institution, rather than actively promote an unbiased and independent approach. Secondly, George Bell was a man of the Church, passionate about its witness and unity. Here we are today with declining numbers of worshippers, with no clear evangelistic programme, and no apparent plan to reach the young.

The gap between Church and society is widening all the time. Yes, I know that great work is going on and not all churches are declining. It grieves us all that this major squabble is taking up so much time and energy when our gaze should be directed away from ourselves.

Let me close with George Bell’s own words: ‘To despair of being able to do anything, or refuse to do anything, is to be guilty of infidelity’.