George Bell, prophet for peace and pedophile

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.

Remembering George Bell

The Church of England today commemorates George Bell, Bishop of Chicester during World War II. Bell is remembered, inter alia, as a bishop who opposed the Allies’ bombing campaigns in World War II and, it is thought, was passed over for the see of Canterbury as a result. You can do worse than read the Wikipedia entry for more on Bishop Bell.

Today I’ve been reading reflections from Paul Zahl and Rowan Williams about Bell. Both are brief and both worth reading, particularly for the way they connect Bell’s opposition to the war to elements of Christian witness in today’s world. Here’s a bit from Williams’

But Bell also knew that we could only be who we are at home with ourselves and with God, if we knew where our homeless and displaced brothers and sisters were; hence his concern for the refugees and the landless. And God’s challenge to us once again—’Where are you? Where are your brothers and sisters?’ —is a challenge about how we as believers in Jesus Christ answer for the lives of those who are being driven from their homes, their livelihood and their security by the terrible violence of our age.

At a previous commemoration of Bell a year or two ago, I remember mentioning him to a senior priest in the church. “Who’s that?” this priest responded.

So today I’ve been thinking about those who have gone before us, who (for whatever reason) were passed over for career advancement, and have now gone into obscurity. George Bell was a faithful minister of the Gospel in his context. How can we do the same?

It is appropriate, perhaps, that Bell’s commemoration falls as the Crown Nominations Commission makes it final deliberations as to who the next archbishop of Canterbury shall be. When that name is unveiled (whenever that may be), quite a lot of attention will focus on the person chosen.

But I hope that we also remember the long list of people who were considered and not selected, and, even more importantly, the long list of people who were never in a position to be considered. There’s lots of faithful witness at all levels of the church, forgotten, overlooked, and passed over for a variety of reasons. We do well to remember it.