George Bell (bishop)

George Bell (bishop)

George Kennedy Allen Bell (February 4, 1883October 3, 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 studied theology at Christ Church, Oxford and Wells Theological College (first being influenced by ecumenism at the latter) and was ordained deacon at Ripon Cathedral in 1907 then priest in 1908, before working for 3 years as a parish priest 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, and 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 autumn 1910, Bell returned to Christ Church College, Oxford for almost four years as a student minister and academic tutor. Here too he was socially was 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

After the war, Bell became an outstanding 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 realization of the "ecumenical advice for practical Christianity (Life and Work)".

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 Mansfield, 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 1932-34 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 Nazi takeover 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 "Arian paragraph" and its acceptance by parts of the German Evangelical Church (Deutschen Evangelischen 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 1st June 1934 he signed the Barmen Declaration, the foundational manifesto of the Confessing Church - it proclaimed that Christian belief and National Socialism were incompatibile and declaimed the pro-Nazi German Christians as "false teaching" (ie heresy). Bell reported on 6th 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 president of the Westphalian Landeskirche 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 Niemoeller'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 Niemoeller's planned execution in 1938.

In winter 1938/39 he helped 90 persons, mainly Pastors' families (eg 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.

World War II

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.

Opponent of area bombing

During World War II 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:"... to 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." [Paul Johnson, "A History of Christianity", Macmillan Press, 1976, quoted on page 493.]

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 February 14, 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: :"How can the War Cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilization?" [George Kennedy Allen Bell: The Church and Humanity (1939–1946), Green Longmans 1946, p. 140]

upporter 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 1st 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 (Noel Coward's 1943 song "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans", hostile 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 July 20, 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 for Archbishop?

In 1944 the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, died after only two years in that post. Bell was considered a leading possibility to succeed him, but in fact it was Geoffrey Fisher, Bishop of London, who was appointed. Bishops of the Church of England were chosen ultimately by the Prime Minister, and it is known that Winston Churchill strongly disapproved of Bell's speeches against bombing. It has often been asserted that Bell would otherwise have been appointed, but this is debatable; there is evidence that Temple had thought Fisher a likely successor anyway. In hindsight, many Anglicans wish that Bell had been appointed, which has tended to colour opinions.Fact|date=March 2008


Champion of defeated Germany

Visionary for a reconciled Europe

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 East Germany. Around 15th August 1945, he signed an open letter of protest in "The Spectator", and signed another protest to a London daily newspaper on 12th September that year alongside the British Jewish publisher Victor Gollancz, lord Bertrand Russell and others.

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 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.


*He appears as an off-stage character in "Bomber Harris".

Primary Works

*"A Brief Sketch of the Church of England", 1929
*"Life of Archbishop Randall Davidson." Biografie, 2 Bände, 1935
*"Christianity and World Order", 1940
*"The Background of the Hitler Plot", in: Contemporary Review 10, London 1945
*"The Church and Humanity", 1946 (contains: "The Church's Function in Wartime." November 1939)
*"The Task of the Churches in Germany", 1947
*"Christian Unity: The Anglican Position", 1948
*"The Kingship of Christ: The Story of the World Council of Churches", 1954
*"Die Kirche und die Widerstandsbewegung (Politisch-historische Vorlesungsreihe der Universität Göttingen), in: Evangelische Theologie (Zeitschrift) 7, 1957.

Edited (together with J. 0. Cobham):
*"The Significance of the Barmen Declaration for the Oecumenical Church", London 1943.

econdary works

*Franz Hildebrandt (Ed.), 'And other Pastors of thy Flock': a German tribute to the Bishop of Chichester, Cambridge, 1942
*Ronald C. D. Jasper: "George Bell, Bishop of Chichester." Oxford University Press, 1967.
*Kenneth Slack: "George Bell". SCM Book Club 204, 1971
*Eberhard Bethge: "Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Eine Biographie." Christian Kaiser Verlag München, 1978, ISBN 3-459-01182-3
*Jaakko Rusama: "Unity and Compassion. Moral issues in the life and thought of George K.A. Bell." Helsinki 1986. ISBN 951-95207-6-7.
*David Hein: "George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, on the Morality of War." "Anglican and Episcopal History" 58 (1989): 498-509.
*Annegret Winkler-Nehls / Andreas Nehls: "They find themselves between the upper and the nether millstones". Bischof Bells Nachlass zum Problem nichtarischer Flüchtlinge, 1933-1939. Eine Dokumentation. Beiträge zur Diakoniewissenschaft 152, Heidelberg 1991.
*Edwin Robertson: "Unshakeable Friend. George Bell and the German Churches. London: CCBI 1995. ISBN 0-85169-234-6.
*Andrew Chandler: "Brethren in Adversity. Bishop George Bell, The Church of England and the Crisis of German Protestants, 1933-1939". Woodbridge 1997.
*Stephen A. Garrett: "Ethics and Airpower in World War II. The British Bombing of German Cities." New York 1997
*Paul Foster (Ed.): "Bell of Chichester: A Prophetic Bishop." Otter Memorial Paper No. 17, February 2004, ISBN 0-948765-84-4
*Peter Raina: "George Bell: The greatest churchman - a portrait in letters." London: Churches Together in Britain and Ireland 2006. ISBN 0-85169-332-6 & ISBN 0-85169-334-2.
* [ George Bell] in the Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required)


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