Defender of Peace and Truth
Fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bishop George Bell
October 1, 2008
"Your work will forever be remembered in the history of the German church," wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1937 in a letter to his friend in England, who was 23 years his senior and like a father to him. The addressee was the Anglican bishop of Chichester George Bell. This statement had not been made lightly, for it was solidly justified. Indeed, since the early 1920s hardly any other church leader outside of Germany had accompanied as intensively, amicably and yet critically the destiny of the Church and of Christians in Germany as George Bell. He was a champion of peace and truth who never hesitated to engage the authority of his office and of his person in forcefully defending his beliefs, including in the political arena. George K. A. Bell passed away on 3 October 50 years ago-so now is an opportune time to pay hommage to him.
George K. A. Bell was born on 4 February 1883, the son of a clergyman. After completing his theological studies, he worked for three years as a parish priest in the industrial slums of Leeds. For the next several years, he was student minister and academic tutor at Oxford University, before being appointed as chaplain (private secretary) to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1914 and receiving a special commission for international and inter-denominational relations. During World War I, he supported an interdenominational effort to rescue war orphans and, together with Swedish Lutheran Archbishop Nathan Söderblom, worked for the exchange of prisoners of war. Following the war, Bell drew on this experience of collaboration with the Lutheran church to promote the still-young ecumenical movement and international theological exchanges. In 1929 Bell was appointed Bishop of Chichester and, from 1932 to 1934, was concurrently chairman of the Life and Work movement, an important organization within the ecumenical movement.
From the very outset, the Bishop of Chichester took a vigorous part in the German "Kirchenkampf" (the struggle between church and state under the Third Reich). In April 1933 he publicly expressed the international church's worries over the beginnings of the Nazis' anti-Semitic campaign in Germany, and in September carried a resolution sharply protesting against the Aryan paragraph and its acceptance by members of the German Evangelical Church. He met Dietrich Bonhoeffer at a meeting in Sofia in the autumn of 1931. When Bonhoeffer went to London for two years in the autumn of 1933 as German pastor abroad, a close relationship of trust developed between the two men and Bonhoeffer became Bell's most important source of information on events in Germany. Bell in turn informed the British public, for example, through regular letters to The Times. Unlike other segments of the British public and the Anglican Church, Bell from the very beginning stood up as a staunch antifascist in the Kirchenkampf and an ally of the Confessing Church in Germany.
Very early on, Bell became involved in helping refugees who fled Germany. In his first address before the House of Lords, of which he became a member in 1937, Bell called upon the British government to intensify its assistance to Jewish refuges from Germany. He probably prevented the execution of Martin Niemöller by making his imprisonment widely known and protesting against it in the British press.
Initially, Bell's involvement during the war was aimed at helping refugees who had fled the continent to England and other destitute persons, but he also helped interned Germans and British conscientious objectors. Bell was not a pacifist, but he resolutely and publically condemned the strategy of indiscriminate area bombing of German cities, for example, in a passionate speech before the House of Lords, placing himself in direct opposition to the government policy of the time and a large part of the British general public. After the war, he continued to often find himself at odds with mainstream political interests.
Following the Second World War, Bell contributed decisively to the reconciliation process by paving the way for the return of the German churches into the ecumenical movement. Bishop Bell was one of the first to revisit Germany. In a moving worship service, he preached in the extensively destroyed Marienkirche in Berlin and was deeply touched by the distress of refugees whom he encountered, for example, on the desperately overcrowded platforms of the Lehrter Bahnhof (Lehrte Station) in Berlin. Shortly after the end of the war, he held a memorial service at Holy Trinity Church for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is reported that Bonhoeffer's last words to his friend in England were: "Tell him [Bell] that this is for me not the end, but the beginning. With him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood, which rises above all national interests." (1)
(1) Turner, Munsey John. "Bell, George Kennedy Allen." In: Lossky et al., Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2002: p. 106.