BISHOP GEORGE BELL: A LIVING AND LIFE-SAVING LEGACY
Thank you, Richard, for organising this meeting; and thanks to all of you for showing your support by being present today. By way of introduction, I am the older daughter of Franz Hildebrandt. My father was a very close friend of the late Bishop George Bell from 1933 until the latter’s death in 1958.
When I was first asked to do this talk, in December 2018, we were awaiting the publication of the Briden report and were therefore in a very different situation regarding the George Bell affair. But the report, with its welcome but unsurprising statement that the latest allegations against the Bishop were unfounded, has not changed the essence of what I want to say today. I was concerned then, as I have been for well over a year now, to find a way of making good come out of evil. And I still am. If anything, it has become even more urgent. For we are now concerned with a great deal more than restoring George Bell’s reputation. We are concerned with enhancing it, so that more people will know who he was, what he did, and why he is still important to us today, both here in Chichester and further afield.
The words ‘ecumenist and peacemaker’ that are currently used to describe the late Bishop, when the anniversary of his death is observed every year in the Church of England calendar, are in my opinion frankly inadequate in today’s world. What do those words mean? What might they mean?
The word ‘ecumenist’ is not likely to strike a chord with many people these days. Unlike ‘ecumenism’ and ‘ecumenical’, it isn’t even in the dictionary! Bell was so named because of his belief that it was Christianity, not politics, that could unite even the most divided nations. This was demonstrated especially by his support for and his work with the Confessing Church in Germany before and during the war, and his role in helping to found and promote the World Council of Churches from 1948 onward. Perhaps neither of these sound particularly significant to us now, when the various denominations in this country do so much together these days and when there are so many partnerships, and ‘twinning’ arrangements, between them on an international level as well. But in the 1930s and 1940s, and even later, this was truly pioneering stuff. It required a fair amount both of energy and of courage, especially in view of the enmity that existed between this country and Germany at the time and subsequently between other countries in the Cold War that was to follow, with the new barriers that sprang up between east and west, and between orthodox and other churches. These lasted well beyond Bell’s own lifetime, into the 1980s and even beyond.
And then there’s ‘peacemaker’. This always sounds – wrongly, I know – as a very passive type of person. I know from my own experience at a domestic level that it can be very hard work (as in the case of warring teenagers in our home), often unrecognised, usually thankless. And as with ‘ecumenism’ in the 30s and 40s, it too required a lot of courage. The courage to speak out against the blanket bombing of civilians in German cities such as Dresden. The courage to proclaim the fact that not all Germans were Nazis. These things alone not only made him unpopular among many of his contemporaries in the Church, in political circles, and among much of the public, who branded him a Nazi lover, but probably cost him a well deserved promotion to the highest ranking post the Church of England could offer.
So what terms might we use instead? Other words might be equally inadequate. Instead of playing around with words, let’s ask what George Bell might be doing if he were alive today.
One reason the word ‘ecumenist’ has lost some of its resonance today is perhaps that so much progress has been made on the ecumenical front, at least among the mainstream denominations in this country. We have Churches Together in England, and at local level up and down the land. We have innumerable ecumenical partnerships, and grassroots projects, such as those working together to address homelessness, hunger and debt. Ecumenism is no longer the abstract goal it once was. It is a visible and tangible fact. Christians have learned in recent decades that if the Church as a whole is to survive, we need to set aside our doctrinal differences and work together, even if we still can’t always worship together. George Bell would have applauded this, while he might have been sad at the decline in numbers and the living circumstances of many people that has prompted so much of it.
But what about the role of the World Council of Churches today? It still undoubtedly has a major role in keeping communications open between national church bodies in many countries. Yet there is one area in which much remains to be done. That is in promoting interfaith relations. We should note that as we meet here today (4 February 2019), the general secretary of the WCC is joining the Grand Imam, together with Pope Francis, in attending a Global Conference of Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi. I believe that were George Bell alive, he might be playing an active role in promoting such work. So many of the crises the world faces today are due to lack of understanding and co-operation between the various faiths: especially Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Look at the problems of the Middle East in general, and the Holy Land in particular. Look at the rising tensions here in our own country. And above all, look at the current refugee crisis. If ever a time were needed for interfaith dialogue leading to a World Council of Faiths, that time is surely now. And I am sure that George Bell would have been at the forefront of it.
As for the word ‘peacemaker’, the late bishop was called a peacemaker for more reasons than one. He not only denounced the gratuitous bombing of German cities – for which in turn he was himself denounced – and reached out to a large number of Germans, who were not and never were Nazis. He befriended many individually, beginning with Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and with my father – and helped many escape and find a home in this country, in some cases initially here in Chichester. He demonstrated, through his own example, that peacemaking begins not with international treaties but in our own homes. Again, his work with refugees played a huge part in this. Without such concern for one’s neighbour in the broadest sense (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan), lasting world peace does not stand a chance, especially in these days of impending environmental disaster and the need to share all that we have with those who have nothing and those who have lost everything.
So to me it is striking that the words used to describe George Bell in the church calendar make no specific reference to his work with refugees, although they do perhaps subsume it. From a personal point of view, of course, that is the most important aspect of all his works. He probably saved my father’s life, and I probably therefore owe my very existence to him. He already knew my father, who had been introduced to him by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1933. They became firm friends, all actively engaging in the struggles of the embryonic Confessing Church; and Bell referred to both of the younger men as ‘his two boys’, the sons he had never had. When my father found himself a refugee in this country in 1937 on the grounds of his non-Aryan parentage and of his own front line involvement with the Confessing Church in Germany, it was to Bell that he repeatedly turned for support, not only in terms of hospitality – with which both George Bell and his wife Henrietta were unfailingly generous – but also for help with confronting bureaucracy, insensitivity, ineptitude and often hostility on the part of those from whom he might have expected more support. Bell personally intervened on his behalf on a number of occasions, not least when he was interned in 1940 as an ‘enemy alien’ in the Isle of Man; and he did the same for many others in similar situations. He personally sponsored several dozen non-Aryan pastors to come to this country, and we know that the Bishop’s Palace here in Chichester was often full of refugees during those years.
So I am positive that George Bell would be doing something at a very personal and grassroots level to help refugees in this area now. Hence the proposal that we ourselves do something about it, in his name. At this point I would like to hand over to Roger Pask to say a few words about the work of the organisation he founded, Sanctuary in Chichester.
[Roger Pask’s talk included the background to SiC, together with case studies of a few individual ‘appeal rights exhausted’ asylum seekers whom the organisation has been able to help. He introduced a proposal to develop an international centre for refugees and asylum seekers in the Chichester area which would be a living memorial to George Bell’s own work in this field]
Thank you, Roger. In conclusion, I am grateful to all those who have done so much to defend, and to restore, the memory of George Bell. I am grateful both on my father’s behalf and on my own. Moreover, I am grateful in a strange sort of way because this whole sorry episode, which has sought to discredit a man who was not only one of the greatest bishops, but possibly one of the greatest public figures of the 20th century in this country, has given me the incentive to find out more and personally engage with the reality of the man who until a few years ago was little more than something of a legend in my immediate family. It has given me the opportunity to make new friends here in Chichester and elsewhere, whom I would have been unlikely to have got to know otherwise. And it has – probably inadvertently – challenged me, as indeed a church should, to seek to bring good out of what I believe to have been the very great wrong that has been done to George Bell’s reputation. It is now for us to begin to put that right. Professor Andrew Chandler, in the current [1 February 2019] edition of the Church Times, wrote under the heading ‘George Bell: the life matched the legacy’. Let us ensure that from now on, the legacy matches the life of this great man, and helps him to live on in the lives and the memories of many generations to come.
My final message to this meeting is one of invitation. I pray that all of us here will find some way not only of continuing the efforts toward restitution of names of buildings and other material memorials to George Bell, but will join with us in helping to create a living one in which I am certain he would have been involved and would have rejoiced. And I pray that the message that will go out from this place will be one of invitation also, that others may feel drawn to join us. Thank you very much.
Ruth Hildebrandt Grayson