Bishop George Bell

Bishop George Bell

George Bell, the eldest child of James Allen Bell, the vicar of Hayling Island, and his wife, Sarah Georgina Megaw, was born on 4th February 1883. As his biographer, Andrew Chandler, has pointed out: "The Bells moved by stages northwards, first to Southampton, then to Pershore in Worcestershire, and then to Balsall Heath in Birmingham. In 1903 they moved again to Wimbledon in London. Throughout his boyhood George Bell endured a succession of schools, but in 1896 he was awarded a place at Westminster School. This placed him in the heart of the London of power and eminence the school represented."

In 1901 Bell went to study at Christ Church, Oxford University. Two years later he obtained a first class in classical moderations, but in 1905 missed another in Greats. During this period he developed a strong interest in poetry and won the Newdigate Prize for a poem entitled Delphi. He also edited five anthologies for the publishing house Routledge (a publisher owned by a family friend).

In April 1906 Bell went to Wells Theological College for a year. He was ordained deacon in Ripon Cathedral in 1907 and then priest a year later in Leeds parish church. This was his first experience of urban working-class life and was to have a long-term impact on his thinking. He was also greatly influenced by the views of Henry Scott Holland and the outspoken socialist churchman, William Temple. According to a friend his home became the centre for vigorous discussion and "would have contented the reddest communist".

Soon after the outbreak of the First World War Bell was appointed chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson. His biographer, Andrew Chandler, points out: "With characteristic caution Bell hesitated, sought advice, and accepted. It was a turning point. This new role he made his own, growing in confidence and watching the world of institutional responsibility sensitively and minutely in what became almost at once an age of international conflict. Davidson was not obviously one to inspire the idealist, but Bell's loyalty to him contained an element of devotion and in time he became his respectful biographer."

Bell became actively involved in World Alliance for International Friendship through the Churches. The organisation was established in August 1914 at a conference in Konstance, Germany, as an international organization that would work primarily to help Christian churches in its member countries influence their people and governments for peace. Its stated purpose was "to organize the religious forces of the world so that the weight of all churches and Christians can be brought to bear upon the relations of governments and peoples to the end that the spirit of peace and goodwill may prevail, and that there may be substituted arbitration for war in the settlement of international disputes; friendship in place of suspicion and hate; co-operation instead of ruinous competition; and a spirit of service and sacrifice rather than that of greed and gain in all transactions between the nations." Bell developed a close friendship with its leader, Nathan Söderblom, the Archbishop of Uppsala and the head of the Lutheran Church in Sweden. Together they campaigned on such issues as disarmament, the treatment of racial and religious minorities, the creation of the League of Nations, and support for conscientious objectors, refugees and for extensive peace education.

On 8th January 1918 Bell married Henrietta Millicent Grace, daughter of Canon R. J. Livingstone and sister of Sir Richard Livingstone. There were no children. In 1924 Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald offered Bell the deanery of Canterbury and he accepted it. Bell was now forty-one but still committed to reform. He brought change, encouraging visitors, writing guides, and abolishing fees. He also encouraged broadcasting of services and brought dramatic productions to the cathedral. Bell was an admirer of John Mansfield and in 1928 he arranged for production of The Coming of Christ. This was the first dramatic production in an English church since the Middle Ages.

After the death of Winfrid Burrows in 1929, Bell became Bishop of Chichester. He continued to develop a relationship with the arts. He had a close association with Christopher Fry, Charles Williams, Gustav Holst, Dorothy L. Sayers and Christopher Hassall. He also commissioned T. S. Eliot to write Murder in the Cathedral, about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket, for the 1935 Canterbury Festival. He also invited guest speakers to the cathedral such as Mahatma Gandhi.

A strong opponent of Adolf Hitler and his his government in Nazi Germany. Bell gave his support to the leaders of the German Church who resisted Hitler such as Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The historian, Mark M. Boatner III, has pointed out: "The bishop firmly supported the Confessional Church organized by Martin Niemuller to oppose Hitler's efforts to dominate German religion... Bell had been sought out earlier by leaders of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany who hoped for British support. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an associate of Niemuller's in opposing the Nazis, visited England in early 1939 and gave Bell a report on anti-Nazi efforts to that date."

Bell also condemned the persecution of Jews in Europe and was active in the campaign to help German refugees. Bell's biographer, Andrew Chandler: "Bell's participation in the German crisis after Hitler came to power in January 1933 became increasingly intense. He worked as an ally of those he perceived to be withstanding the onslaught of tyranny and also as a friend of those who were the victims of National Socialist policy. His vision of Christian mission and responsibility was marked by a new urgency and breadth. He spent numberless hours reading reports from Germany and discussing the situation with ecumenical contacts.... He devised plans to settle refugees in his diocese and across Great Britain. Advised that those defined as non-Aryan Christians in Germany needed support still more than Jews or Christians he campaigned for them vigorously, organizing a succession of national campaigns."

In 1937 Martin Niemöller was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to be "re-educated". Niemöller refused to change his views and was later transferred to Dachau. Bell took up Niemöller's case. He had a series of letters published in the British press about the arrest and imprisonment of Niemöller. Bell argued that Hitler's treatment of Niemöller illustrated the attitude of the German state to Christianity. Bell's campaign helped to save Niemöller's life. It was later discovered that in 1938 Joseph Goebbels urged Adolf Hitler to have Niemöller executed. Alfred Rosenberg argued against the idea as he believed it would provide an opportunity of people like Bishop Bell to attack the German government. Hitler agreed and Niemöller was allowed to live.

Bell was in contact with the German Resistance. Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Abwehr, and Hans Oster his Chief of Staff. Both men were involved in an anti-Nazi conspiracy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was recruited as a double agent. As Alan Bullock has pointed out: "The Abwehr provided admirable cover and unique facilities for a conspiracy." On 19th March, 1939, Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Abwehr, sent Bonhoeffer to London to meet with Bishop Bell.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Bishop Bell wrote controversially that the Church should "condemn the infliction of reprisals, or the bombing of civilian populations, by the military forces of its own nation. It should set itself against the propaganda of lies and hatred. It should be ready to encourage the resumption of friendly relations with the enemy nation. It should set its face against any war of extermination or enslavement, and any measures directly aimed to destroy the morale of a population."

Bell became unpopular when he took up the cause of interned enemy aliens. He also criticised Winston Churchill and Arthur Harris for the policy of of area bombing (also known as saturation or terror bombing). On 10th May 1941, Bell made a speech where he described the "night-bombing of non-combatants as a degradation of the spirit for all who take part in it". Andrew Chandler commented: "Bell was an unlikely campaigner. His was not a striking public presence; his voice was gentle and rather high. He had little feel for the pungent generalizations of rhetoric. More important to him were the intricate facts that lay behind complicated issues. In a world of propaganda and confrontation he perceived that credibility and influence grew above all out of exactitude."

Bishop George Bell
Bishop George Bell by William Menzies Coldstream

Bishop Bell called for negotiations to take place between Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler to bring an end to the policy of bombing civilian areas. This idea was dismissed by Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who claimed that such an offer would suggest to Hitler that the Blitz on Britain was being successful. The Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, was strongly opposed to Bell's campaign and described him as "this pestilent priest".

During the Second World War Bell also complained about the British economic blockade of Europe. He established the Famine Relief Committee and attempted to raise money in order to send dried milk and vitamins to mothers, children and invalids in countries such as Belgium and Greece. However, the government took measures that made sure very little relief was actually sent to the people of Europe.

In 1941 Cosmo Lang decided to retire as Archbishop of Canterbury. For many years Bell had been seen as the likely successor but as Bishop Henson pointed out, Bell's prospects had worsened "as his sympathies with Jews and Germans have been more openly declared". William Temple was appointed to the post instead. It was generally believed that the main reason he was not chosen was because of his criticism of the government. and when he died in 1944. According to his biographer, Andrew Chandler: "Bell again failed to get the post. the roots of this lay not merely in Bell's political controversialism in wartime, but in his commitment to issues that were not so much institutional as humanitarian. In this sense Geoffrey Fisher's appointment in succession to Temple foreshadowed a growing tendency in the church to concentrate primarily on its own affairs and to organize its structures more efficiently."

Bell continued with his peace-making and In May 1942 Bell went to Sweden where he made contact with Dietrich Bonhoeffer who provided information on the plot by the resistance group led by General Ludwig Beck and Carl Goerdeler to overthrow Adolf Hitler. On his return home Bell passed this news to Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden but they were uninterested in working with this German-based group. A has pointed out: "For its determined refusal to offer explicit encouragement to resistance circles in Germany Bell never forgave the British government, holding it partly responsible for the calamitous failure of the coup attempt of 20 July 1944. That a Christian bishop could effectively work on behalf of a political conspiracy to assassinate the head of a European state remains a striking fact."

In July 1943 Bell attempted to persuade William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to oppose area bombing. He described the area bombing of Hamburg and Berlin as a disproportionate and illegal "policy of annihilation" and a "crime against humanity". Temple replied that area bombing "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". In February 1944 Bell raised this issue in the House of Lords. In the debate Bell asked: "How can the War Cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilization." Lord Vansittart responded by arguing that national socialism was the expression of German character and that any distinction between the Nazis and the Germans was simple foolishness.

Bell obtained no support from the Lords, but a couple of Labour Party MPs in the House of Commons agreed with him. This included Richard Stokes and Alfred Salter who in a debate argued passionately against the bombing of civilians: "All this is founded on the great and terrible fallacy that ends justify means. They never do. Is there no pity in the whole world? Are all our hearts hardened and coarsened by events?"

William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1944. Once again Bell was overlooked and the post went instead to Geoffrey Fisher. According to his biographer, Andrew Chandler: "Bell again failed to get the post. The roots of this lay not merely in Bell's political controversialism in wartime, but in his commitment to issues that were not so much institutional as humanitarian. In this sense Geoffrey Fisher's appointment in succession to Temple foreshadowed a growing tendency in the church to concentrate primarily on its own affairs and to organize its structures more efficiently."

Bishop George Bell protested publicly against the explosion of the first atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and remained a critic of the stockpiling of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. He was elected moderator of the central committee of the new World Council of Churches at its first assembly in Amsterdam in 1948. In 1954 Bell became a president of the organization.

Bell wrote several books during his lifetime including Randall Davidson (1935), Christianity and World Order (1940), Christian Unity: The Anglican Position (1948) and The Kingship of Christ (1954).

George Bell died on 3rd October 1958. His widow told a friend: "I cannot grieve for his going, he felt so much for all that was happening in the world".

Primary Sources

(1) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997)

Another series of attempts to establish contact had been under way in Stockholm since the early 1940s and revolved largely around Theodor Steltzer, a key member of the Kreisau Circle. In May 1942 Bishop George Bell of Chichester met with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his fellow clergyman Hans Schonfeld in Stockholm. Without knowing anything about the plans of the other, the two Germans had both decided to go to Sweden when they learned that Bell would be there. They told him about the opposition and the Kreisauers' ideas for peace and expressed the hope that some token of encouragement might be offered. Bell was quite well acquainted with Bonhoeffer, who had been a pastor in the German church in London during the 1930s, and knew that he was one of the leading figures in the Confessional Church in Germany. A man of radical religious conviction, Bonhoeffer had repeatedly insisted that Hitler had to be "exterminated" regardless of the political consequences. At a secret church conference in Geneva in 1941 he had gone even further, announcing that he prayed for the defeat of his country because that was the only way Germany would be able to atone for the crimes it had committed. Schonfeld, on the other hand, brought only one question: Would the Allies adopt a different stance toward a Germany that had liberated itself from Hitler than they would toward a Germany still under his rule? Bell forwarded a report to the British Foreign Office, but Anthony Eden wrote back only to say he was "satisfied that it is not in the national interest to provide an answer of any kind." When Bell approached the British Foreign Office again, Eden noted in the margin of his reply, "I see no reason whatsoever to encourage this pestilent priest!"