I won’t be very long. Good afternoon and thank you specially to Richard for giving me the slot and indeed for organising this meeting. Thank you to everybody who contributed to the discussion, we certainly had a great deal to think about and I’m sure we will go away and chew it all over, and hopefully begin maybe to start coming to some form of ideas in our own minds as to where we have got to, and how to move things forward.
I would like to pick up on the words that David actually used in his talk just now, resolution and healing. In one sense, you are right, there hasn’t been a lot said about it today; but on the other hand, that is the reason for today. It has been implied if not actually spoken out loud. That gives me a very good starting point for what I have to say this afternoon, which will be brief and not academic. I am not a theologian and I’m not a member of the clergy, I’m not even a member of the Church of England, for which I’m sure the Church of England is extremely thankful!
My starting point really is a wrist band that doesn’t exist with these words on it but which does exist with other words on it, we will all have seen them. It says: What would Jesus do? My question is: What would George Bell be doing in this situation? I actually started thinking about this more than 3 years ago, more than a couple of months before that devastating announcement that emanated from the diocese of Chichester in October†2015.
I started thinking about it during the summer, the preceding summer when the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean was hitting the news big time, you remember the pictures, the little boy washed up on the beach, the boatloads of people drowning in the Mediterranean, the politics of countries saying, “Not my problem, not my responsibility, let the EU sort it.” Well then, let Germany sort it, well, here we are and it is still not sorted.
I was waiting, I suppose, for some statement from the church, and I do mean the Church of England in this case, I was waiting for some statement from the powers that be at Lambeth to give some indication as to how the Church in this country might address that situation while our own government was vaccillating and driveling on about whether to take a thousand people or 20,000 people, the Church as a whole, as an institution was being very silent.
At that point I wrote to a friend of mine who despite the fact that he is very young was very senior in the hierarchy of my own home diocese of Sheffield and has latterly moved on elsewhere, and I said, “Where is the George Bell among you?” A well educated young man had never heard of him. And I began to think what can be done to further George Bell’s work in the present day and in the present crisis, humanitarian crisis, that is facing so many hundreds of thousands of people in the world today.
Then came the statement from the diocese of Chichester in October†2015 and to begin with I thought it was a misprint. I read that in the Church Times and I thought they are not talking about George Bell, they must mean Peter Ball and have got the two names confused. Anyway it became clear that that was not the case, and in the following winter I got in touch with Andrew Chandler and one way and another gradually became more involved in open campaigning, became a member of the George Bell group, started attending meetings, started attending events in Chichester, and became much more engaged in the pursuit of justice for George Bell.
Let me backtrack for a minute. For those of you who don’t know, my father was Franz Hildebrant, he was a very, very close friend of two men who have featured largely in today’s discussions, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom he knew long before he knew George Bell because they were students together in Germany, and it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who introduced my father to George Bell in 1933 when my father was spending a year working with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Forest Hill in London.
The three of them obviously talked a great deal about the situation in Germany and Bell referred to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and my father as his 2 boys. It was that close a relationship. They were the sons that he himself had not had. When in 1937 my father, who had returned to Germany in the meantime, came back to this country as a refugee, he came back for two reasons: First of all, he was by then openly and avowedly a member of the “Confessing church” which was set up in 1934.
But secondly, and perhaps even more dangerously, he was half Jewish. My paternal grandmother was Jewish, she was a non-practising Jew but to the Nazis that didn’t make any difference whatever. So my father came to this country having fled persecution in Germany, he was imprisoned by the Gestapo, he narrowly missed getting rounded up by the SS and taken off to a concentration camp. And the first person he went to see when he got to safety in this country was George Bell, who became his mentor in addition to being his friend. He advised him on many things, gave him practical help.
It was because of the situation that faced many Pastors in Germany like my father, who were of non Aryan descent that George Bell became aware that he needed to help many more people and he personally sponsored 40 such Pastors to come to this country and for some time he had some living in his Bishop’s Palace in Chichester. As you know he then got involved in kindertransport hosting children when they came to the country, he became very active in helping internees, again including my father in the Isle of Man, because after Dunkirk, as you probably know, many people were rounded up as enemy aliens of this country and sent off to “a place where they couldn’t do any harm , like the Isle of Man. Through the good offices of George Bell my father and others obtained early release, Bell persuaded the authorities that my father was infinitely more use ministering to the German congregation in Cambridge than he was making a nuisance of himself in the Isle of Man. Hence my interest in George Bell’s work with refugees.
So the two things began to come together in my mind and as the events of the last year didn’t exactly go the way we hoped they would with the publication of the Carlile report and we hoped the acceptance of that report by the church authorities, and the issuing of an apology and the beginning of restitution restoring Bell’s name to various institutions and places in Chichester and elsewhere, when none of that happened and when the Church clearly began to stall for a time about delivering this apology, which I think everybody feels must come in some form or another, I began to think how can we move it forward? What can be done that would be positive? What would George Bell himself be doing? He wouldn’t be sitting back waiting for the church to do nothing, that’s for sure, any more than he sat back and waited for the authorities to act in the 1940s.
On the contrary, he got on with his work. In his time he was called a name which is almost equivalent, almost as bad in those days as being a paedophile now, he was called a Nazi lover. He was called a Nazi lover because he opposed the bombing of German cities like Dresden but it didn’t stop him continuing to work with German refugees. He was one of the very few people who spoke up and said not all Germans are Nazis. And he began to bring about the beginnings of the reconciliation which took place very, very slowly in post war years, but it was a cultural change, if you like for those days, which was badly needed because many people in this country persisted in thinking that all Germans were Nazis.
In the Church of Scotland book shop in Edinburgh in the 1970s, someone turned round to my father on hearing his German accent which he retained all his life and you could cut with a knife and called him a Nazi. The Church of Scotland book shop. In Edinburgh. So old feelings die hard and we needn’t expect that everybody is going to accept an apology if and when it ever comes from Lambeth.
In the spring of this year, at the instigation of Marilyn Billingham, who is from Chichester, I went with her to the annual general meeting of a group in Chichester called Sanctuary in Chichester, a new organisation set up just a few years ago to help refugees and asylum seekers in the area. Subsequently, I started corresponding with the chair of that organisation, Roger Pask, very cautiously to begin with because I didn’t know where he stood in all this, I didn’t know if he was a member of the Church of England, if he was closely related to someone in the diocese, I didn’t know how he felt about Bell’s situation. And I was delighted to get the warm and enthusiastic communication back from him saying “Let’s get together and think this out.”
There has been more correspondence and a couple of meetings, and we finally, with the consent of the committee of Sanctuary in Chichester, which has approved this leaflet, have put together this declaration of intent. It is nothing more than a declaration of intent at the moment, but we are hoping that within the next few months Sanctuary in Chichester will have received its status as a registered charity, at which point we propose to launch a fund to plan and develop and build, if new building is necessary, or open a centre for asylum seekers and refugees in Chichester which will embrace a lot of the individual bits and pieces of work that this group are already doing.
They provide drop in facilities, they provide English language courses, they provide help for people who are in this country and just don’t know basically what to do and how to turn for help. These are very, very early days. But I persuaded the Committee that I should speak about it today, I mentioned it briefly on Wednesday at the George Bell group and gave out these flyers to people who were at that service. It was far too good an opportunity this week to let it pass by, because let’s face it, it could be some months before these groups meet again in whatever venue takes place. And time goes by and people’s lives are at stake here. This is about furthering the work and the memory of George Bell with regard to refugees yes, but it is primarily about saving lives and helping the people whom George Bell himself gave so much to save and to help.
So, I would like you to take this away with you, think about it and if you are interested, I’m not saying if you are thinking of giving us £50,000 today, you don’t have to tell me that right now, even if you want to give me £5, don’t do it today. I would like you to go away and think about it, think prayerfully in what way or ways you may be able to help and support this project. I believe, it is urgent, and I believe it is what George Bell himself would be doing. He would not be sitting down under a terrible burden that the Church has put on him, he would be moving forward and if we really want to honour his name, and his memory, I believe this is one way to do it. I believe that would be part of healing, I also do believe it could be part of a possible resolution to the gulf that has appeared between people like ourselves and the authorities in both Lambeth and Chichester because, even if they don’t apologise and they may not, they could support this venture with some money and that would be one way of saying they are sorry. They might even have a suitable building or premises that could be used for such a project. Hope springs eternal but it is more possible than pigs might fly! So thank you very much.