In 1942, the Right Reverend George Bell, a longtime leader of the international Christian peace movement, asked Churchill to support a plot to kill Hitler.
Peace activists and Anglican clergy don’t normally assist conspiracies to assassinate foreign heads of state, but World War II was not a normal time.
Bishop Bell had just returned from neutral Sweden, where he had met with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor who worked with German military intelligence and was part of the plot to kill Hitler.
Churchill refused to help. Hitler survived the assassination attempt. The Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer and the other conspirators.
The Prime Minister disliked Bell — a member of the House of Lords — because the bishop consistently condemned carpet bombing German cities, even in reprisal for the deaths of British civilians, “as a degradation of the spirit for all who take part in it.”
Churchill also didn’t appreciate it when Bell supported labor unions and implied support for Indian independence by inviting Gandhi to speak at his cathedral.
These controversies repeatedly prevented Bell’s promotion to Archbishop of Canterbury.
Since 1933, Bell had excoriated the Nazis as un-Christian and anti-Semitic. Before, during and after the war, the bishop housed Jewish refugees and other people displaced by the war in his official residence. His writings literally saved the life of his friend Martin Niemöller; Hitler decided against executing the dissident Lutheran pastor in 1938 because he feared providing more fodder for Bell and other critics.
After World War II, Bell urged forgiveness and reconciliation. He condemned the forced removal of 14 million ethnic German civilians from eastern Europe.
Throughout his career, the bishop promoted ecumenical and interfaith cooperation.
He died on October 3, 1958. Today is his feast day in the Anglican Communion.
Last year, the Church of England issued a formal apology and paid a £15,000 settlement to a woman who claims Bell molested her as a little girl. When she first made the allegation in 1995, the church failed to investigate properly. Under British law, the evidence remains confidential to protect the complainant; that — together with the fact that the bishop and all other possible witnesses are long dead — makes it difficult both to evaluate Bell’s guilt or innocence in this matter, and to assess his legacy with any finality.
These recent revelations provide two important reminders:
First, that the available evidence always constrains our understanding of the past.
Second, that there are no real saints, that all humans are fallen and fallible, and that even great men can potentially also do great evil. Bell well understood that last lesson.
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