As it happens, this week I am correcting the proofs of my new book. In a section on the communion of saints, I write: “Saints are not saints because they are perfect people. None of them were.”
This evening, I turned away from the proofs and came across a piece of news that devastatingly confirmed this: George Bell, an Anglican bishop and prophet for peace in World War II, sexually abused a young child during his ministry. The Church of England has recently settled a legal claim relating to this abuse.
Bell is someone I have admired through the long gaze of history. He is not a “saint” in the conventional, Catholic sense of the term, but he is commemorated in the calendar of the church. He spoke out against the carpet bombing of Germany in the House of Lords, doing in the (very credible) chance he had of becoming archbishop of Canterbury. He was later deeply concerned with the reconstruction of Europe after the war. Three years ago, I wrote this short post about him. I’m hardly the only one: Paul Zahl, an Episcopal priest, wrote a really excellent reflection some years ago remembering Bell in the context of drone warfare. Rowan Williams preached a sermon on Bell’s consecration in 2008. Re-reading it now is heart-breaking.
To have lived in England for the last several years is to have lived in the midst of a constant stream of sexual abuse allegations against figures in the establishment: media, politics, and church. A retired bishop was recently jailed for sexual offenses. Bell, were he alive, would no doubt be joining him. This is clearly a time of reckoning that is not coming to a close anytime soon.
We can and do pray for those who were assaulted by those in power. We affirm with the bishop of Chichester and others the truth (so often occluded in the church) that “the abuse of children is a criminal act and a devastating betrayal of trust that should never occur in any situation, particularly the church.” We make sure we listen carefully (in a way that has not always happened in the past) to their stories of pain and woundedness and praise them for speaking up over many decades. We work to prevent it from ever happening it again.
In my book, I write that rather than saints being perfect people, saints are people whose lives pointed beyond their current existence to the future God will fulfill. George Bell is commemorated because in some small way a part of his ministry did this. But we know now that even as he did that, he was hopelessly, inescapably rooted in the fallen, sinful present.
I hardly know what to think, except to return to the Bible: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3.23) It is a tragic reminder of that central Christian truth.