George Bell (bishop)

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George Bell
Bishop of Chichester
George Bell 1931 cropped.jpg
Painting of George Bell by Philip de László in 1931
Province Canterbury
Diocese Chichester
Installed11 June 1929
Term ended3 October 1958
Predecessor Winfrid Burrows
Successor Roger Wilson
Other posts Dean of Canterbury
Member, House of Lords
Ordination1907 (deacon)
Consecrationc. 1929
Personal details
Born(1883-02-04)4 February 1883
Hayling Island, Hampshire, England
Died3 October 1958(1958-10-03) (aged 75)
Buried Chichester Cathedral
Denomination Anglican
ParentsJames Allen Bell
Sarah Georgina Megaw
SpouseHenrietta Livingstone
(married 1918)
Alma mater Christ Church, Oxford
Wells Theological College

George Kennedy Allen Bell (4 February 1883 – 3 October 1958) was an Anglican theologian, Dean of Canterbury, Bishop of Chichester, member of the House of Lords and a pioneer of the ecumenical movement.


Early career

Born in Hayling Island, Hampshire, as the eldest child of Sarah Georgina Megaw and her husband James Allen Bell (the vicar of the Island and later a canon at Norwich Cathedral), Bell was elected as a Queen's Scholar at Westminster School in 1896. From there he was elected to a scholarship at Christ Church, Oxford, where he gained a First in Classical Moderations in 1903 and a Second in Literae Humaniores ('Greats') in 1905. [1] He won the Newdigate Prize for English verse in 1904 for his poem, 'Delphi'. [2]

After Oxford he attended Wells Theological College (first being influenced by ecumenism at the latter) and was ordained deacon at Ripon Cathedral in 1907. He went on to work as a curate for three years in the industrial slums of Leeds. His role there was the Christian mission to industrial workers, a third of whom were Indians and Africans from the British Empire.[ citation needed ] During his time there he learned much from the Methodists, whose connection between personal creed and social engagement he saw as an example to the Church of England.

In 1910 Bell returned to Christ Church, Oxford, as a student minister and as lecturer in Classics and English, 1910–14; he was a Student (Fellow), 1911-14. [3] Here too he was socially engaged, as one of the founders of a cooperative for students and university members and sitting on the board of settlements and worker-development through the Workers' Educational Association (WEA).

Bell's early career was shaped by his appointment in 1914 as chaplain to Archbishop Randall Davidson, one of the key figures in twentieth century church history. Bell subsequently wrote the standard biography of Davidson. Bell received a special commission for international and inter-denominational relations. In this office he ensured in 1915 that the Lutheran Indians be allowed to continue the work of the Leipzig - and the Goßner missions in Chota Nagpur in India, after the missions' German missionaries had been interned. Until the end of the First World War, he also worked for the Order of Saint John, a supra-confessional group working to help those orphaned by the war and - together with the Swedish Lutheran archbishop Nathan Söderblom, one of his closest lifelong friends - for the exchange of prisoners of war. In this work, he came to see internal Protestant divisions as more and more insignificant.

Inter-war years

Memorial, Chichester Cathedral George Kennedy Allen Bell (1883-1958) memorial, Chichester Cathedral, July 2015 01.jpg
Memorial, Chichester Cathedral

After the war, Bell became an initiator and promoter of the still-young ecumenical movement. In 1919, at the first postwar meeting of the World Council of Churches in the Netherlands, he successfully encouraged the establishment of a commission for religious and national minorities. At the world churches conference in Stockholm in 1925, he helped in the realisation of the "ecumenical advice for practical Christianity (Life and Work)".

External images
Searchtool.svg [4] George Bell as Dean of Canterbury Cathedral.
Searchtool.svg [5] George Bell as Bishop of Chichester.

From 1925 to 1929, Bell was Dean of Canterbury. During this time, he initiated the Canterbury Festival of the arts, with guest artists such as John Masefield, Gustav Holst, Dorothy L. Sayers and T. S. Eliot (whose 1935 drama Murder in the Cathedral was commissioned by Bell for the festival). Later Bell also received Mahatma Gandhi at Canterbury.

In 1929 Bell was appointed Bishop of Chichester. In this role he organised links between his diocese and of workers affected by the Great Depression. He also took part in the meetings of the National Union of Public Employees, where he was welcomed as "brother Bell".

Ally of the Confessing Church

From 1932 to 1934 he was the president of "Life and Work" at the ecumenical council in Geneva, at whose Berlin conference at the start of February 1933 he witnessed the Nazis' seizure of power at first hand.

After 1933, Bell became the most important international ally of the Confessing Church in Germany. In April 1933 he publicly expressed the international church's worries over the beginnings of the Nazis' antisemitic campaign in Germany, and in September that year carried a resolution protesting against the "Aryan paragraph" and its acceptance by parts of the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche, or DEK). In November 1933 he first met Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was in London for two years as representative of the foreign churches - the two became close friends, and Bonhoeffer often informed Bell of what was going on in Germany. Bell then made this information (and thus what was really happening in Germany) known to the public of Europe and America, for example through letters to The Times .

On 1 June 1934 he signed the Barmen Declaration, the foundational manifesto of the Confessing Church - it proclaimed that Christian belief and National Socialism were incompatible, and condemned pro-Nazi German Christianity as "false teaching", or heresy. Bell reported on 6 June to a gathering of the bishops of the Church of England and clarified the difference between confessing and rejecting, and the separation between a lawful and an illegitimate calling on Jesus Christ. This was the first reaction to the Declaration from the international church.

From 1934 Bell functioned as a president of "Life and Work", when Bonhoeffer and Karl Koch as praeses of the synod of the old-Prussian Ecclesiastical province of Westphalia were invited as representatives of the Confessing Church to the world ecumenical conference in Fanø. As a selected youth secretary, Bonhoeffer was responsible for the related world youth conference. At one morning service, he addressed world Christianity as an "ecumenical council" and called on it to rise against the threatened war. On Bell's suggestion and against protests from the representatives of the pro-Nazi DEK, the world conference expressed solidarity with the Confessing Church and its struggle and again exposed the Nazis' policies, including the concentration camps.

In 1936 Bell received the chair of the International Christian Committee for German Refugees, and in that role he especially supported Jewish Christians, who at that time were supported by neither Jewish nor Christian organizations. In order to help them to emigrate, he dispatched his sister-in-law Laura Livingstone to Berlin and Hamburg and occasionally let exiles live in his own home. In the same year, he printed a prayer in his diocesan newsletter for Jewish and "non-Aryan" Christians:

Bell used his authority as a leader in the Ecumenical Movement and since 1938 as Lord Spiritual to influence public opinion in Britain and the Nazi authorities in Berlin, and back those persecuted by the Nazi regime. His public support is said to have contributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller's survival by making his imprisonment in Sachsenhausen in February 1938 (and later in Dachau) widely known in the British press and branded as an example of the Nazi regime's persecution of the church. Thus Hitler backed off from Niemöller's planned execution in 1938.

In winter 1938/39 he helped 90 persons, mainly pastors' families (e.g. Hans Ehrenberg from the Christuskirche at Bochum), to emigrate from Germany to Great Britain who were in danger from the regime and the 'official' church because they had Jewish ancestors or were opponents of the Nazi regime.

Second World War

During the war, Bell was involved in helping not only displaced persons and refugees who had fled the continent to England, but also interned Germans and British conscientious objectors. In 1940 he met with ecumenical friends in the Netherlands to unite the churches ready for a joint peace initiative after victory over Nazi Germany had been won. During the 1930s and 1940s, Bell encouraged engagement between the church and the arts. This included supporting the creation of murals by the German refugee and artist Hans Feibusch at St Elisabeth's Eastbourne and Bloomsbury Group members Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant at Berwick, East Sussex.

Opponent of area bombing

During the Second World War, Bell repeatedly condemned the Allied practice of area bombing. As a member of the House of Lords, he was a consistent parliamentary critic of area bombing along with Richard Stokes and Alfred Salter, Labour Party Members of Parliament in the House of Commons.

Even as early as 1939, he stated that the church should not be allowed to become simply a spiritual help to the state, but instead should be an advocate of peaceful international relations and make a stand against expulsion, enslavement and the destruction of morality. It should not be allowed to abandon these principles, ever ready to criticise retaliatory attacks or the bombing of civil populations. He also urged the European churches to remain critical of their own countries' ways of waging war. In November 1939 he published an article stating that the Church in wartime should not hesitate

In 1941 in a letter to The Times , he called the bombing of unarmed women and children "barbarian" which would destroy the just cause for the war, thus openly criticising the Prime Minister's advocacy of such a bombing strategy. On 14 February 1943 - two years ahead of the Dresden raids - he urged the House of Lords to resist the War Cabinet's decision for area bombing, stating that it called into question all the humane and democratic values for which Britain had gone to war. In 1944, during debate, he again demanded the House of Lords to stop British area bombing of German cities such as Hamburg and Berlin as a disproportionate and illegal "policy of annihilation" and a crime against humanity, asking:

He did not have the support of senior bishops. The Archbishop of York replied to him in Parliament "it is a lesser evil to bomb the war-loving Germans than to sacrifice the lives of our fellow countrymen..., or to delay the delivery of many now held in slavery". [8]

Supporter of the German resistance

As a close friend of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer Bell knew precise details of German plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler. On 1 June 1942, Bell met Bonhoeffer in neutral Sweden, where the latter was acting as a secret courier for information on the German resistance. This information included the names of the participants from the armed forces in the planned assassination attempt on Hitler and coup against the Nazi regime.

On his return, Bell passed this information on the German resistance movement on to Anthony Eden and tried to gain British government support for them. Bell also asked Eden, at the conspirators' request "to emphatically and publicly explain that the British government and its allies have no wish to enslave Germany, but only to remove Hitler, Himmler and their accessories" - in other words, to make a public declaration that the British would make a distinction between the Nazi regime and German people, so as the conspirators would be able to negotiate an armistice if they were successful. Yet after a month-long silence, Bell received a rough rebuttal, for the allies had concluded at the Casablanca conference to wage war until the unconditional surrender of Germany and to initiate area bombing. Such moves made Bell unpopular in some quarters. Noël Coward's 1943 song "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans", which expressed hostility to any distinction between the Germans and the Nazis, commented "We might send [the Germans] out some Bishops as a form of lease and lend".

After the failure of the first attempt on Hitler's life and the arrest of some of the conspirators, Bell in vain tried to bring about a change in government attitudes to the German resistance. When the final failure came on 20 July 1944, Bell harshly criticised the British government as having made this failure a foregone conclusion, and reproached Eden for not sending help to the plotters in time despite having full knowledge of the plot.

Considered as Archbishop of Canterbury

In 1944 the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, died after only two years in the post. Bell was considered a leading possibility to succeed him, [9] but it was Geoffrey Fisher, Bishop of London, who was appointed. [9] Bishops of the Church of England are chosen, ultimately, by the British prime minister and it is known that Winston Churchill strongly disapproved of Bell's speeches against bombing. [10] It has been asserted that Bell would otherwise have been appointed, [10] but this is debatable; there is evidence that Temple had thought Fisher a likely successor anyway. [9] Bell's high posthumous reputation [11] [12] may have coloured later opinion. For example, Archbishop Rowan Williams said in 2008 that he thought Bell would have made a better Archbishop of Canterbury than Fisher. [13]


War crimes trials

Bell was opposed to the Nazi regime, but subscribed to an understanding of National Socialism that saw the Nazi regime as a freakish aberration from the norms of Western civilization, such that the traditional elites could not have been in any way involved in Nazi crimes. Hence when the British government brought Field Marshal Erich von Manstein to trial for war crimes committed on the Eastern Front in 1949, Bell emerged as one of Manstein's leading champions, stating that it was self-evident that a German Army officer like Manstein could not possibly be a war criminal. [14] For Bell, bringing to trial members of traditional elites in Germany like members of the officer corps and diplomatic corps was morally wrong as Bell simply could not accept that these men had been involved in Nazi crimes. [15] Bell was part of an informal group headed by General Sir Maurice Hankley who strongly opposed war crimes trials of German and Japanese leaders, and campaigned very energetically for the end of war crimes trials and for freedom for those convicted of war crimes like Manstein. [16] The British historian Tom Lawson wrote that Bell was principally concerned with the situation of the Confessing Church in Germany, not with the persecution of the German Jewish community in the 1930s which escalated into a campaign of genocide against all European Jews in the 1940s. [17] Like his ally and friend Pastor Martin Niemöller, what Bell objected to was not the antisemitism of the Nazi regime per se, but rather the attempt to apply the Aryan Paragraph to those German Jews who had converted to Christianity. [18] Lawson argued that this understanding of Nazism as more of an anti-Christian movement than an anti-Jewish movement meant that Anglican clergymen like Bell had only a "superficial" understanding of the Holocaust, which was not a major concern for him. [15]

Visionary for a reconciled Europe

A supporter of Protestant ecumenism, Bell hoped after the war for a Europe united by common Christian values. [19] Bell saw the Soviet Union as the principal enemy of Europe, which for him was an "Asian" nation that was not part of the "European family", calling for an Anglo-German alliance to be the cornerstone of a post-war Europe. [20]

Critic of expulsions

Bell was also one of the first British bishops to protest against the inhumane treatment of approximately 14 million Silesian, Pomeranian, East Prussian and Sudeten Germans expelled from their homes in Eastern Europe. Around 15 August 1945, he signed an open letter of protest in The Spectator , and signed another protest to a London daily newspaper on 12 September that year alongside Bertrand Russell, the British publisher Victor Gollancz and others.[ citation needed ]

Nuclear disarmament and the Cold War

In the 1950s Bell opposed the atomic arms race and supported many Christian initiatives of the time opposed to the Cold War. In the last years of his life, he became acquainted with Giovanni Montini in Milan through his ecumenical contacts, who in 1963 became Pope Paul VI and brought the Second Vatican Council to its conclusion.

Child abuse allegations

In 1995, 37 years after Bell's death, a complaint was made to the then Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, alleging that Bell had sexually abused a female child during the 1940s and 1950s. [21] The complaint was not passed on to police until a second complaint was made to the office of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2013, 18 years after the first complaint had been made and 55 years after Bell's death. [21] This was a time of intense public concern over sexual abuse within the Church of England and especially in Chichester Diocese. [22] :21-22

In September 2015 the diocese paid compensation to the woman and Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, issued a formal apology to her the following month. [21] This led to a major controversy, as people who respected Bell's legacy found the claims to be incredible, and found the Church's apparent acceptance of them to be unjust. [23] Due to the controversy, in February 2016 the woman spoke publicly for the first time under the pseudonym "Carol", in an interview with the Brighton Argus , saying that she was sexually abused from the age of five until her family moved away when she was nine. [24]

In June 2016 the Church of England announced that it would hold an independent review of the procedure used to investigate the church's handling of the allegations (not the truth of the allegations themselves) and in November it announced that Alex Carlile, a QC and a member of the House of Lords, would be the reviewer. [25] [26] [27] Carlile submitted his report to the Church of England in mid-October and on 15 December 2017 the church published it. [22] [25]

Carlile found that "there was a rush to judgment: The church, feeling it should be both supportive of the complainant and transparent in its dealings, failed to engage in a process which would also give proper consideration to the rights of the bishop." [25] The report also found that the available evidence did not suggest there would have been “a realistic prospect of conviction” in court, the standard that prosecutors in England and Wales use in deciding whether to pursue a case. [25]

The Church of England released a statement with the report, in which it apologized to Bell's relatives for the way it investigated child abuse claims made against him, acknowledged the mistakes highlighted by the report, and promised to implement all except one of its recommendations. [23] [25] [28] Archbishop Welby rejected calls to state that the investigation had cleared Bell’s name and said that the allegations were handled as a civil matter, not a criminal one. [29]

In late January 2018 the Church of England's national safeguarding team issued a statement saying it had passed 'fresh information' on to Sussex Police that it had recently received concerning Bishop Bell. In April 2018 Sussex Police stated that a proportionate investigation had been carried out to clarify the circumstances. As there were no safeguarding issues and Bell had been dead for sixty years the matter was now closed as far as the Police are concerned. [30]

In March 2018, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse began examining the handling of allegations of sexual abuse in the diocese of Chichester, including this matter, which it said would unfold over two years. [31] In January 2019 the Church's National Safeguarding Team announced that new allegations by a "range of people", following publication of the Carlile Report, had been reviewed by ecclesiastical lawyer Timothy Briden, who had concluded that they were unfounded. He had not investigated the original complaint. Archbishop Justin Welby apologised for mistakes made after the original allegation while also stating that the original allegation cannot be "ignored or swept under the carpet". [32]


Bell is honoured with a Commemoration in the Church of England on 3 October. The liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) has suspended this commemoration until that calendar can be updated.


Primary works

Edited (together with J. O. Cobham):

Secondary works

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  1. Oxford University Calendar 1913, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1913, pp.152, 208.
  2. Oxford University Calendar 1913, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1913, p.99.
  3. Who Was Who, 1951-60, London : A. & C. Black, 2nd. ed., 1964, p.87.
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 8 December 2012. Retrieved 2013-01-24.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 17 October 2012. Retrieved 25 January 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, Macmillan, 1976, quoted on page 493.
  7. George Kennedy Allen Bell: The Church and Humanity (1939–1946), Green Longmans 1946, p. 140
  8. Maynard, Bennett and the Pathfinders (1996) p198
  9. 1 2 3 Webster, Alan. "Fisher, Geoffrey Francis, Baron Fisher of Lambeth", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 5 December 2019 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  10. 1 2 Chandler and Hein, p. 45
  11. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 October 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-04.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 17 November 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-04.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 17 November 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-04.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. Lawson 2006, p. 159-160.
  15. 1 2 Lawson 2006, p. 168.
  16. Lawson 2006, p. 150.
  17. Lawson, 2006 & 35.
  18. Lawson 2006, p. 38-39.
  19. Lawson 2006, p. 131.
  20. Lawson 2006, p. 157.
  21. 1 2 3 "Bishop of Chichester George Bell's sex abuse victim gets compensation". BBC News. 22 October 2015. Retrieved 22 October 2015.
  22. 1 2 "Bishop George Bell: The Independent Review" (PDF). Church of England. 15 December 2017. p. 44. Retrieved 29 July 2018
  23. 1 2 Sherwood, Harriet (15 December 2017). "Anglican church 'rushed to judgment' in George Bell child abuse case". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 January 2018.
  24. "Victim describes how she was abused by bishop George Bell". The Guardian. 3 February 2016. Retrieved 7 February 2016.
  25. 1 2 3 4 5 Cowell, Alan (15 December 2017). "Church of England Unfair to Dead Bishop, Abuse Inquiry Finds". New York Times. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  26. "Lord Carlile named as independent reviewer in George Bell case". Church of England. 22 November 2016. Retrieved 22 November 2016.
  27. "Bishop George Bell case: Lord Carlile to lead review". BBC News. 23 November 2016. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  28. "Church apology over Bishop George Bell abuse inquiry". BBC News. 15 December 2017. Retrieved 15 December 2017.
  29. "'Abuse' bishop not to be cleared". BBC News. 2018.
  30. Rudgard, Olivia (22 April 2018). "Bishop George Bell investigation dropped by Sussex Police". The Daily Telegraph . Retrieved 27 April 2018.
  31. Church of England faces 'deep shame' at child abuse inquiry, The Guardian, 2 March 2018, “This month’s hearings will focus on abuse in the diocese of Chichester, where there have been multiple allegations of sexual abuse, some dating back many years.”
  32. "Bishop Bell statue to be installed at Canterbury". BBC. 26 January 2019.Retrieved 1 February 2019


Church of England titles
Preceded by
Winfrid Burrows
Bishop of Chichester
1929 1958
Succeeded by
Roger Wilson