Thinking Anglicans

Bishop Bell: more criticism of response to Carlile report

Updated Saturday

First, Dr Irene Lancaster wrote in Christian Today Bishop George Bell was a hero who saved Jewish children. It is time his reputation was restored.

Then, Bishop Peter Hancock replied to this with Why the Church insisted on transparency with the George Bell case.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph reports that a letter has been sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury from seven academic historians criticising his comments in response to the Carlile report: Archbishop’s claims against Bishop George Bell ‘irresponsible and dangerous’.

The full text of the letter is copied below the fold.

Earlier criticism was reported here, here, and here. and there is another item not previously linked.


A further letter has been published in The Times:

Sir, As individuals much involved in the international ecumenical movement for Christian unity, we have written to the Archbishop of Canterbury welcoming the review by Lord Carlile of Berriew of the investigation by the Church of England into allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Bishop George Bell. We believe that in the light of the review Bell’s reputation should now be fully and unreservedly acknowledged and restored by the church.

Bell was a tireless worker for Christian unity and international peace and reconciliation. He belongs as a prophetic figure within the ecumenical movement just as much as he belongs as a bishop in his own church. The way in which the allegations against him were dealt with has shocked people well beyond both the Anglican communion and Britain. There has been a miscarriage of justice for one who himself fought so earnestly for the victims of injustice.

We with many others of different churches all over the world will now expect that the Church of England will acknowledge its responsibility to that wider community of which it is part and renew the respect due to George Bell, to the benefit of Christians everywhere and all who believe in justice and humanity.

Revd Dr Keith Clements, former General Secretary, Conference of European Churches;
Professor Jaakko Rusama, Lutheran Co-Moderator, International Anglican-Lutheran Society;
Professor John Briggs, former member, Executive Committee, World Council of Churches;
Dr Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Pastor Emeritus, Evangelical Church of Germany, Dusseldorf;
Revd Canon Dr David Thompson, Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History, University of Cambridge;
Dr Guy Carter, Roman Catholic theologian and writer, York, Pennsylvania;
Bob Fy]e, General Secretary, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland;
David Carter, former secretary, Theology and Unity Group, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland;
John W de Gruchy, Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies, University of Cape Town;
Revd John W Matthews, Senior Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, Minnesota;
Dr Jacob Phillips, Theology and Religious Studies Programme Director, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

Both letters are reported on in the Church Times Welby is urged to withdraw George Bell ‘cloud’ statement after Carlile report:

THE Archbishop of Canterbury faces gathering international opposition and criticism over his response to the Carlile review of the Bishop Bell affair.

Two letters — one from seven academic historians, and another from 11 correspondents associated with the wider Church internationally and ecumenically — have been sent to the Archbishop. A third, from a group of theologians, is understood to be in preparation…

Dear Archbishop,

We are writing to you following the publication of Lord Carlile’s independent review of the case of Bishop George Bell and the public statement which you have issued in consequence. We wish to express our profound dismay with the position you have taken. We are all academic historians of the twentieth-century who have, over many years of university research, made our considered assessments of Bishop George Bell. Our many publications will speak for themselves. Lecturing students of history and teaching them the various crafts and responsibilities of credible historical analysis and interpretation has been central in our careers.

We regard George Bell as a significant historical figure and our assessment of his life and career has been an important aspect of our academic work. On this basis we suggest that our collective view on these matters constitutes a genuine and very pertinent authority. In your public statement of 15 December 2017, the authority of your position was used to perpetuate a single allegation made against Bishop Bell, and you did so in face of the independent review which the Church itself commissioned. We believe that your statement offends the most basic values and principles of historical understanding, ones which should be maintained firmly by those in positions of public authority across society. They must never be ignored or abused. You have insisted that a ‘significant cloud’ still hangs over Bishop Bell. It deepens the impression deliberately conveyed by previous Church statements by adding, purposefully: “No human being is entirely good or bad. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness.” On what ground does such a statement now stand? In the past you have insisted that the Church’s view was based on an investigation that was ‘very thorough’.

But Lord Carlile has plainly, and utterly, devastated this claim. Historians and lawyers both attach great importance to the presumption of innocence. Your comment seems to imply that a case against Bell has actually been established. It has not. History cannot be made out of allegations. It is the study of sources. Lord Carlile’s review sets out the material of the allegation for everyone to assess for themselves, and he invites them to do so. There is nothing in it that connects in any way with what is firmly known about Bishop Bell. The allegation is not only wholly uncorroborated but is contradicted by all the considerable, and available, circumstantial material which any historian would consider credible. Furthermore, even on its own terms we find it to depend wholly on scenarios which simply could not have occurred, given what is firmly known and authoritatively established. There is no credible representation of personalities, relationships, patterns or locations which is remotely recognisable. Far from enhancing the allegation, the insistence on vivid quotations undermines critically a testimony in which the experiences of infancy are ‘recollected’, not immediately but at a distance of many decades. Even a modest historical sensitivity would have established the basic implausibility of such a testimony.

The material supporting this allegation does not in our view constitute a credible basis for the writing of history and it flies in the face of our customary critical method. It represents something quite different, an unhistorical, indeed anti-historical, testimony, explicable, perhaps, but in different terms. We cannot understand how such an unsupported, indeed insupportable, allegation can be upheld by a responsible public authority. Quite simply, it is indefensible. You have written that Lord Carlile’s review does not pronounce whether Bishop Bell was guilty or not. Yet the Terms of Reference by which Lord Carlile was invited to work by the Church itself deliberately excluded this. Now we do not believe that your office in itself gives you the authority to pronounce on the reputation of Bishop Bell in the manner you have done.

We are prepared, in this letter, to claim that authority. We state our position bluntly. There is no credible evidence at all that Bishop Bell was a paedophile. We state this after reviewing all that is known about his character and behaviour over many years. This letter is not the place to set that assessment out in detail but in the further consideration which must now be surely given we would be very willing to set it out clearly. We note, and emphasize, that there was never so much as a whisper of such an allegation in his lifetime. It is the testing of accusations which shows the integrity of a society, not the making of them. It is in no way to impugn the sincerity of the complainant, or to resist the claims of compassion, to say that the allegation seems to us self- evidently mistaken. We believe that the historical figure of George Bell is safe in the hands of historians even though, very sadly, it would appear to have been impugned from within his own Church of England. There is today no cloud at all over Bishop Bell. Nobody employing credible critical method could think otherwise.

Two of us are biographers of former Archbishops of Canterbury and we all acknowledge the many difficulties and pressures which any archbishop must face, not least in a position which Archbishop Lang once called ‘incredible, indefensible and inevitable’. None of us may be considered natural critics of an Archbishop of Canterbury. But we must also draw a firm line. The statement of 15 December 2017 seems to us both irresponsible and dangerous. We therefore urge you, in all sincerity, to repudiate what you have said before more damage is done and thus to restore the esteem in which the high, historic office to which you have been called has been held.

Professor Charmian Brinson
Professor Andrew Chandler
Professor John Charmley
Professor Michael J. Hughes
Professor Sir Ian Kershaw
Professor Jeremy Noakes
Professor Keith Robbins

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6 years ago

Bishop Peter Hancock reasons–if one can call it that–as follows: “In respect of the allegations against George Bell, had we imposed a confidentiality clause we would at some stage be facing the accusation that we had kept a survivor/complainant quiet to protect the reputation of one of our bishops. The review was about our processes; Lord Carlile states he has no doubt the Church acted in good faith. “Together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Chichester, we have accepted the criticisms in Lord Carlile’s report that our processes were deficient in a number of respects. But while… Read more »

James Byron
James Byron
6 years ago

I of course understand why the CoE’s taking the position it is, but even from an amoral PR perspective, it’d do a lot less harm to simply admit the mistake than it would to bullishly plow on only to be regularly denounced by members of the establishment. Never mind right (we know that ethics play pretty much nil role in institutional politics), ‘fessing up would be smart. If the church had simply done this when Carlile’s report was published, things would mostly have blown over by now. Instead, the controversy rumbles on, and will do so for the decade-or-so that… Read more »

Daniel Lamont
Daniel Lamont
6 years ago

The excellent letter from the six historians applies their exact scholarship to the Bell case and reinforces the Carlile Report. Archbishop Welby’s comments are indefensible as is the position the CofE has taken on this matter. Certainly the Archbishop’s reputation and credibility is tarnished in the eyes of many of us. In the rush to accept uncritically the testament of ‘Carol’ and subsequently to defend the institution’s flawed process,the CofE hierarchy has shredded the reputation of a great and good man and done itself great harm.

Edward Prebble
Edward Prebble
6 years ago

I am sorry to repeat myself by acknowledging a personal investment in this case. I can provide an alibi for George Bell for at least one of the occasions when abuse was supposed to have been happening. He was in New Zealand, baptising me. +Bell ordained my father, and both my parents held him in the highest regard – “devotion” is not too strong a word. I am glad they had both died before this matter came out. Jeremy, while I agree with the main thrust of what you say, I think you are mistaken in one important regard. Lord… Read more »

David Lamming
David Lamming
6 years ago

There is an article by Adam Becket in the Church Times online referring to the historians’ and ecumenists’ letters: “Welby is urged to withdraw George Bell ‘cloud’ statement after Carlile report.” (19 January 2018). Becket also mentions another letter in preparation from a group of theologians, presumably to be published next week.
I endorse Daniel Lamont’s comment (19 January at 6.09 pm). Perhaps Archbishop Welby should be advised to re-read Luke 18, vv 1-6.

James Byron
James Byron
6 years ago

This is well meant, but the chances of Welby issuing a public retraction are vanishingly small: even if he were willing to cop to it (which would go against a lifetime of establishment training), he likely believes that any kind of retraction would harm “Carol’s” reputation. He’ll probably issue some kinda tap-dancing statement, but what people are seeking goes against everything he is.

That being so, why place so much weight on one man’s personal opinion? Ignore Welby, and restore Bell’s reputation anyway.

6 years ago

Edward Prebble, I will re-read the Carlile report and see if I share your understanding. My present recollection is that the issue of confidentiality clauses was rather buried in the report, which iirc focused more on whether the CofE was wrong to say what it did say, itself, and extremely publicly. “Ignore Welby, and restore Bell’s reputation anyway.” It seems that this is in effect what the historians are prepared to do. The historians say, of their assessment of Bell, that “in the further consideration which must now be surely given we would be very willing to set it out… Read more »

Alan Howarth
Alan Howarth
6 years ago

“…we have accepted the criticisms in Lord Carlile’s report that our processes were deficient in a number of respects.” If that is the case, could someone tell me why Graham Tilby, the Church’s National Safeguarding Officer, who chaired this process, is still in post and the focus of attention was very swiftly diverted to the Bishop of Chichester who was just a participant?

David Lamming
David Lamming
6 years ago

There is a further powerful letter in support of Bishop George Bell in today’s The Times (22 January 2018, page 26), written by ten former Chichester Cathedral choristers and Prebendal School pupils in the late 1940s and 1950s (i.e. around the same time that ‘Carol’ alleges that she was sexually abused by Bishop Bell). Their letter provides some evidential support for the suggestion that Bell is the victim of a case of mistaken identity: a view of the case that need not involve the implication that Carol is a liar (which has not been suggested), as opposed to her recollection… Read more »

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