Words of Greeting on the 50th anniversary of Bishop George Bell's death
Bishop Dr Wolfgang Huber, Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Churches in Germany (EKD)
October 3, 2008
The Evangelical Church in Germany remembers with gratitude Bishop George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester. In these memories, we are united in friendship with the Church of England. Bishop Bell, the great ecumenical advocate, friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and messenger of reconciliation, died fifty years ago. The way in which he was committed to peace and prepared for new beginnings as well as his unwavering friendship for Christians in Germany, even in our darkest times, deserve our respect and our gratitude.
"Your work will never be forgotten in the history of the German Church", Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1937 to his fatherly friend, who was 23 years older than Bonhoeffer himself. He did not say this lightly, but he had a good reason for his prediction. Hardly any other church leader outside of Germany followed the fate of the churches and Christians in Germany from the beginning of the twenties of the last century onwards with such great interest, such friendship and such discernment as George Bell. He fought for peace and for truth, and he was never afraid to express his convictions emphatically, with all the authority of his office and his person, even in the political arena.
One of his main concerns was that the Church should not remain focussed on itself, but that it should carry the message of reconciliation out into the social and political spheres. He therefore helped the victims of the Hitler regime who had escaped from Germany to England, and opened up new professional avenues for them. Through his initiative, the "Christian Fellowship in Wartime" was founded. In the pages of the London "Times", Bell regularly published articles on the political and ecclesial situation in Germany. He was well informed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer since 1933 and later by his brother-in-law Gerhard Leibholz, who had sought refuge with his family in England on account of his Jewish background.
Especially as the chairman of the Ecumenical Council for Life and Work Bell supported the Confessing Church and promoted its recognition by the worldwide Christianity.
George Bell firmly condemned the area bombardements of German cities, because he thought them strategically senseless, bringing suffering and death mainly to the innocent. The German resistance movement found a courageous supporter in him. In 1941, during a conspiratonial meeting in Sweden, Dietrich Bonhoeffer presented him with the request from the German resistance for the support of the British Government. Bell's promotion of the "other Germany", especially in the House of Lords, brought him criticism from the church and general public in his own country, but in retrospect, we have good reasons to remember his attitude with great gratitude.
After the Second World War, George Bell contributed decisively to the reconciliation process by opening the German Churches' way back into the ecumenical fellowship. Bishop Bell was one of the first church officials to visit Germany after the war. In a moving service, he preached in the severely damaged Church of St Mary in Berlin and was deeply moved by the destitution of the refugees, for example as he witnessed the desperately overcrowded platforms of the Lehrter station in Berlin. With great vigour he pursued his aim to send humanitarian aid to Germany: He was involved in the founding of Christian Aid (originally "Christian Reconstruction in Europe"), the important English relief organization.
Even in his final speech before the House of Lords in January 1958, nine months before he died, Bell spoke out passionately for human rights in East Germany, the then "German Democratic Republic". He was very well informed about how religious freedom, though constitutionally granted, was compromised. We therefore have good reason to remember him on this day of October 3, as we celebrate the German unification.
In view of his great achievements, it is not surprising that in Germany, George Bell is one of the best known and most popular churchmen in the West in post-war times. Fifty years after his death, we are glad to renew both our memories of this great messenger of reconciliation and our thanks for his service to peace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer's last words before his death, handed down to us by his fellow prisoner Payne Best, were words of greeting to George Bell. "Tell him this is the end for me, but also the beginning. Together with him, I believe in universal Christian brotherhood, which rises above national interests."
In July 1945, Bishop Bell conducted a memorial service for Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Holy Trinity Church in London, which was broadcasted by the BBC. Only then and through this service did Bonhoeffer's family know for certain that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had not survived the war.
It is especially through his deep friendship with Dietrich Bonhoeffer that George Bell is most intimately connected with the history of the Evangelical Church in Germany. We therefore send our regards to our sister Church in England with deep gratitude for her great son, the Bishop of Chichester and ecumenical visionary George Bell.