Paper presented to the George Bell Conference, “Rebuilding Bridges” on 5 Oct 2018 by Gavin Ashenden
Our interest and concern today is the value and importance of reputation; specifically, the reputation of bishop George Bell.
Before turning to the specifics of choosing to be guardians of Bishop George Bell’s reputation let me remind you of the importance given to reputation in
the Bible and
I am going to suggest to you that not only has the Church of England been partisan, prejudiced and incompetent, but it has sacrificed George Bell on the altar of its capitulation to a growing authoritarian zeitgeist.
We experience this as a new and antagonistic culture emerging in our country today.
It is changing the meaning of language, our hierarchy of ethics and threatening our freedom of speech, and mote particularly our freedom to criticise it. Many of you will immediately sense the resonances and echoes of Germany in the 1930’s amongst other associations.
It has in particular replaced the universal Christian models and ethics of sanctity with the new and politicised sanctity of victimhood.
I will try to persuade you that the rehabilitation of George Bell matters not only as a matter of natural justice, but also because his life, values and witness act as a wake-up call to an English Church that has started to capitulate to another wave of political totalitarianism, just as the German Church did in the 1930’s.
To use a dramatic metaphor, George Bell and his close collaborator Dietrich Bonhoeffer acted as a fire alarm, warning that both Church and state and Christian values were in danger of consumed by an intolerant aggressive new secularism.
Let me begin as I will end with the wisdom of George Bell:
“the most important thing happening in the world today is the process of the destruction of Christianity in Central Europe.:
SHAKESPEARE STATUS AND SALVATION.
You will immediately recognise the the words of Shakespeare in Othello in one of his most famous speeches reminding us of the importance of reputations.
“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”
― William Shakespeare, Othello. (Iago – Act3.scene 3.)
Less well known, but to us, more theologically potent are lines give to Cassio in an earlier act:
“Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” (Act 2. scene 3)
Shakespeare makes a connection between our public identity and our sense of self value, and rightly. At the heart of the human journey is this longing to be affirmed, valued, loved, treasured and forgiven. At the heart of Christianity is the absolution of Christ, won on the cross, heard from the mouth of the priest, restoring through the blood of Christ, our reputation, our standing, our status before God the Father.
No wonder Cassio connects his reputation with the ‘immortal part of myself.’
No wonder too he laments that to be publicly accused and denigrated is to be ‘bestial’ – shriven of immortal life and incarcerated in the flesh, the animal, the lower world.
FROM ORDER TO CHAOS
When Shakespeare has Cassio complain so bitterly about the loss of his reputation, he draws our attention to the disasters that flow from not telling the truth.
Othello is a masterclass in manipulation. It is an exercise reshaping the images of ‘who people are’ practicing deceptive distortions of the truth; after which the characters of the play, failing to see each other as they truly are, set about one another in a catastrophe of destruction.
Moral: If you don’t tell the truth about people, chaos will ensue.
But we didn’t need Shakespeare to tell us that, though his graphic depictions should chill our soul and alarm us into higher standards of safeguarding what we say about one another.
We have the narrative and the theology of the Bible.
THE BIBLE, REPUTATION AND TRUTH.
Christianity is born out of telling the truth. The liberation of the Jews from slavery is fuelled by an experience of the living God. “Who shall I say sent me”
‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ (Exodus 3).
God relies on his reputation to draw the people of Israel to himself. The Psalms are poetic paeans to God’s good reputation in saving his people time after time after time.
Setting the early messianic secret to one side, the birth of Christianity is wholly dependent on knowing who Jesus is. “Who do you say that I am” he asks Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” replies Peter, in what Jesus says is a direct revelation of the truth by the Father.
The Gospel lived and the Church flourished as followers of Jesus put their lives on the line to tell people who Jesus really was. To foster, publicise and protect his reputation. The incarnate Logos, the sinless one, the Saviour of the World.
REPUTATION AS A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE.
The mystical transformation that lies at the heart of Christianity is one where the inner character is transformed – When anyone is in Christ, behold the old has gone and the new has come…(2 Corinthians 5.17) We lose our bad reputation before God. Accusation is silenced. We are given a new name and a new reputation which we receive in Christ.
But accusation has a spiritual and theological dynamic too.
We experience an assault on our reputation, accusations against us, as the dynamic of the spiritual conflict that defines Christian discipleship
“And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. (Rev 12.)
False accusation and the assault on reputation, private or public, is a symptom of our struggle with evil.
Revelation, the incarnation, sanctification, transformation, all depend on telling the truth.
If we needed more, we have injunctions from the decalogue, specifically the 9th Commandment: -“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”. We also have the resonant advice from our most respected theologians:
Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “Destroying a person’s reputation is a very serious wrong.”
THE LAW AND THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE.
Perhaps one of the great gifts of Judaeo-Christian culture has been the presumption of innocence in our legal system.
Throughout the web of the English criminal law one golden thread is always to be seen—that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt
The panoply of contemporary Human Rights contain the same vital principle.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11, states: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”.
The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Council of Europe says (art. 6.2): “Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law”.
LORD CARLISLE AND THE ASSAULT ON THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE.
In Lord Carlisle’s independent review p239,5 he declares that
“In effect, the Church reversed the burden of proof without taking real steps for the case for Bishop Bell to be developed and investigated.”
This represents the most serious departure from the norms of English justice, natural justice and the integrity of the Church.
THE BOTCHED CORE GROUP
You don’t need me to repeat to you the devastating critique that the report constituted.
But just one example of this perversion of the presumption of innocence is found in the reaction to the knowledge that the Palace at Chichester was inhabited by kindertransport children over the years.
The core group chose to assume that this meant that Bishop Bell had interest in and access to children which he might have misused. Lord Carlisle points out that the proper inference is that since paedophiles are invariably repeat offenders, the lack of any kind of corroborative claim counts powerfully in Bell’s favour.
Preferring uncorroborated alleged memories over the presumption of innocence the core group chose to ignore what real corroborative evidence there was. They ignored the contribution of both Pauline, a small girl who actually did live in the Palace, and who had vivid memories of Bishop Bell and his demeanour and actions.
They chose to ignore the evidence Canon Adrian Carey, his chaplain who worked so intimately for Bell, and had the closest opportunity for scrutiny.
INCOMPETENCE OR SIGNS OF A NEW AUTHORITARIANISM?
Most of the anger against the Church of England for this grotesque travesty of injustice expresses a deep frustration at what seems to be boundless incompetence.
But what if this was not just incompetence, but the early waves of an incoming tide of progressive repression- a new cultural authoritarianism?
What might this be?
For some years many of us have put down the continues assault on Christian culture to a creeping secularism. And there is no doubt that this is accurate. But what we are facing is not simple secularism. It has morphed into something more antagonistic and more organised. It has fed off the twin factors of the increasing sexualisation of our culture and a movement which is driven by a fixation with equality.
It aims for a complete redistribution of power and reconfiguration of power relations, away from those it identifies as oppressors, and in favour of those it claims are the victims.
It seems best described as Marxism 2.0 – or neo-Marxism, some call it cultural Marxism.
Marxism has always been dedicated to the enforced totalitarian utopianism of so called ‘equality’. It sought to achieve it through a revolt of the proletariat and the Marxist-Leninist economics, but failed. The economic theory proved inadequate to support the ideological edifice of utopian egalitarianism that was built on top.
The Frankfurt school in the 1930’s gave its creative attention to the development of Marxism 2.0 which would seek the same ends, but by a different route. Not a revolution of the proletariat, but a revolution of cultural values.
What this movement has done is to jettison any sense of the presumption of innocence because in its lexicon, there are certain people who are existentially, politically and morally guilty, just by virtue of their identity.
This is the function of our new identity politics.
It targets those that you and I would have seen as exercising responsibility and accuses them of the illegitimate exercise of power.
So, in particular, men, white men, older men, Christian men, are guilty already.
It is this background radiation of politically correct identity politics that the Church of England has chosen to absorb and adopt in its refusal by Archbishop Welby, and Bishop Martin Warner down to the core group, to presume the innocence of George Bell. They have decided that just a scintilla of suspicion, uncorroborated and unlikely as it is, is enough for him to lose his claim to innocence and be tainted with the unprovable toxicity of merely suspected guilt.
Accompanying this corrosive irradiation of political correctness is a new vocabulary that sets out to redefine reality and supports any attempt to critique this new authoritarianism.
It might be illustrative of the scope of what we are facing in society, of which George Bell is a symptomatic casualty.
Hidden in a trojan horse of vocabulary, that at first sight offers a treasure trove of fairness and wholesome redistribution and reparation, are the words ‘diversity, inclusion, tolerance and equality.’
HOW THE DECEPTION WORKS – PERVERSE INVERSION OF LANGUAGE
The trick is always to use a set of attractive words and concepts but to redefine them and give them a wholly different and subversive meaning.
So DIVERSITY for Christians might signify the unlimited complexity and creativity of God’s creation.
But perverse political diversity turns out to mean any combination of interests that excludes Christians.
TOLERANCE for Christians signifies the elasticity of love that makes a distinction between the sin and the sinner, loving the sinner with a graced tolerance, while hating what poisoned him.
Perverse political tolerance means the celebration and promotion of any ethical behavior that appeals to a hedonistic culture, particularly in the area of sexual unholiness and perversity; ~ and the exclusion of Christian values.
INCLUSION for Christians is the ambition that there are no places where the mercy of God will not stretch, inviting us to turn and be held by the Good Shepherd who will carry us home to heaven.
Perverse political inclusion is the overturning of Christ’s teaching by celebrating what he warned us to avoid and detest, in particular the perversions that pour out of the corrupt human heart and that defile the soul; and the exclusion of Christian values.
Equality, uniquely here, is scarcely a term that’s exists within the Christian framework. There is very little equality in the Bible or Christian tradition. After all God favours Israel over all others, and prefers the spiritually poor to the complacent, and the penitent to the self-sufficient, and the committed to the lackadaisical. To those who accomplish much, more will be given. But it sounds fair, though no distinction is made between the graced equality of opportunity and the enforced equality of outcome.
THE SANCTIFICATION OF VICTIMHOOD.
One of the characteristics of this new politics of progressive repression is the sanctification of victimhood,
The Church of England has chosen to replace the authentic Christian aspiration for holiness, with the progressive sanctification of victimhood.
George Bell was not a saint. There is no movement to canonise him. Such mechanisms don’t exist in the Church of England, but there is plenty of evidence that Bell himself was a Christian whose whole life was orientated to the practice of self restraint, self-giving, and self sacrifice.
Andrew Chandler, the latest biographer of Bell, opens his book with his delight at having found in Bell’s papers a day-book journal in which Bell wrote his daily prayers, quotes and gathered material.
There Bell copied down Gerald Manley Hopkins’ aphorism on ‘chastity of mind’. There we find his preoccupations for his own ethical integrity.
Bell (with Hopkins) looked at Christ to be inspired by “that chastity of mind which seems to lie at the very heart and be the parent of all other good.”
The testimonies to Bell’s perceived integrity flow throughout his life.
Pauline, the witness Lord Carlisle found who lived in the Palace at Chichester as a child while Bell was there, talked about his integrity and the moral calibre his presence exuded.
Andrew Chandler, in the conclusion of his biography, describes Bell as the product of a particular generation and culture.
“He believed that a life given to service demanded constant self denial and a resolute subordination of private emotions and interest to public duty.” (p.197).
Adrian Carey, his chaplain described at the end of his life how Bell’s goodness and affection were “strangely apparent” (p.198). Carey was struck by the consistency of his integrity and observed that during all his years in the Bishop’s Palace, he observed not a single lapse.
Bell’s offered his own contribution to the forward of Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cost of Discipleship’ when it was published in English. It gives us further evidence of his commitment to, and understanding of self restraint and self sacrifice. He wrote:
“When Christ calls a man”, says Bonhoeffer, “he bids him come and die.” There are different kinds of dying it is true, but the essence of dying is contained in those words….Dietrich himself was a martyr many times before he died. He was one of the first as well as one of the bravest witnesses against idolatry. He understood what he chose when he chose resistance.” (p.128 of Chandler.)
If George Bell were really guilty of sexually interfering with a young girl behind the scenes in the Palace in Chichester, it would require him to have a split in his personality that would verge on the schizophrenic.
But in the absence of any evidence of his guilt, one of the most important features of the George Bell defamation process has been the way in which the Church of England has jettisoned the traditional Christian celebration of virtue and sanctity, and replaced it with the politically correct preoccupation of identity politics, the celebration and sanctification of assumed victimhood.
Christian ethics gives way to no other value system in its care for and prioritising of the vulnerable and the abused. Christ himself is the ultimate sacrificial victim. But not at the expense of refusing to test claims about the truth truth. Nor at the expense of violating the ancient principle of holding a person innocent until proved guilty; nor at the expense of natural justice.
But as we know, the Church of England investigation into George Bell, inept, myopic and apparently prejudiced as it was, preferences uncorroborated and untestable allegations over the whole range of attested ethical, professional and spiritual values Bell exemplified.
There is a certain tragic poignancy in this exchange of one value system for another.
At one level it causes deep concern and responses, ranging from great distress to outrage, that the dead can be so defamed without any restrain or recourse to justice. But at another level, Bell now dead, has fallen victim to the very evil that he fought so assiduously against in his life time.
ECHOES OF THE 1930’S
Many commentators on this new politicised movement of political correctness see it as developing astonishingly into a new fascism. The overlap between Nazism, as National Socialism and totalitarian Marxism has long caught our attention. Both seek to impose a totalitarian state on alternative value systems, democratic or otherwise; one used the values of race, the other of class. This most recent one uses identity and hierarchies of power.
The irony is that George Bell, along with his close friend and colleague Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave much of his life and energy to protesting against totalitarian abuse of the Church and Society.
And he has posthumously fallen victim to a growing movement of authoritarian victimhood that is corroding both Church and Society.
As with the Nazis, free speech is the immediate casualty of this new cultural hegemony. And as free speech was curtailed in Germany in the 1930’s so it is in Britain in this present decade.
IKONS OF RESISTANCE
George Bell is often praised for his ecumenical generosity and his work with refugees. His humanitarianism in the face of the evils of warfare is praiseworthy and wholly commendable. But equally important was his voice raised in warning against the dangers of Nazism, and his support for Dietrich Bonhoeffer more active resistance.
Bell points us to Bonhoeffer, and I want to suggest that his rehabilitation today is all the more pressing as we find ourselves needing an English Bonhoeffer. For we face a determined assault on Christian values and witness; an assault on the authority and integrity of the Bible and a closing down of free speech at the hands of this increasingly aggressive progressive movement.
George Bell promoted, advised and supported Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his attempt to change the direction and priorities of the German Church as it collapsed into a deeper and more toxic capitulation and collaboration with Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Timothy Keller in his foreword to Metaxis’ commendable book on Bonhoeffer describes the collapse of the German church. He blames the incapacity and unwillingness of the Church to repent,- relying on the famous phrase, ‘cheap grace’.
“By the time of Hitler’s ascension much of the German church understood grace only as an abstract concept – as in “God forgives , that’s his job.”
But Keller reminds us as Bonhoeffer reminded the compromised German Church, that grace changes you from the inside out. it requires and instigates changed behaviour and then Keller asks, and here is the critical point I want to bring us to,
“This lapse couldn’t happen today could it?”
“Many Christian want to talk only of God’s love and acceptance.
They don’t like talking about Jesus’ death on the cross to satisfy divine wrath and justice.”
So much of the Church today seems abandoned its willingness to act as a prophetic voice in its relation to the state, and has developed a role or a persona that is more akin to that of the benign psychotherapist. It seems to care only to affirm people in their tastes and preferences, and dares not challenge them.
As we explore the actions the Church of England as it is today, and in particular a church that has been willing to adapt the secular reconfiguration of ethical values, as if to buy credit from a secular society, we see a Church that has decided to compromise and capitulate to a sanctification of victimhood.
I am not for a moment saying that any form of abuse at the hands of any powerful person committed against any weaker person is anything but a heinous abuse of power and a gross sin. The Church has been disreputably slow to police its own.
But let us glance at some of the other symptoms of totalitarianism in the 1930s and see if there are any parallels today.
Both Bell and Bonhoeffer were assiduous in their defence of the right of the Jews to coexist in the body politic. One of Bonhoeffer’s earliest warning to the German Church in 1933 was his confrontation of what was called ‘the Aryan Paragraph’ in which all Jews would lose their employment at the hands of the State. This would include any pastors in the State Church who were of Jewish descent. It affected one of Bonhoeffer’s closest friends Franz Hildebrand. You will not need reminding of the work that Bell did in trying to alert the British Government of the day to the growing anti-Semitism of the Nazi state; nor his support for the Kinder transport; nor his opening the Palace in Chichester to children refugees.
This couldn’t happen again could it?
In fact what we have is the Labour Party slipping into exactly the kind of anti-Semitism the polluted Germany in the 1930s and we hear anything from the collapsing in collaboration Church of England.
Where are the voices of the bishops of the Church of England, seeking to hold the Labour Party to account for this dreadful repetition of a hateful creed that the experience of the holocaust should have made impossible in a civilised society?
FREEDOM OF SPEECH.
Bell watched with profound concern as his friends in Germany, beginning with Martin Niemoller, were silenced by the regime. One of the great surprises we are just beginning to catch up with, is the way in which this new movement of identity politics and politically correctness, using the wholly fictitious notion of hate crime to close down free speech. And in particular to stifle those who want to articulate Christian view on gender, marriage and sexuality in the public space.,
“It could’t happen again could it”?
It is happening.
The signs of the diminution of freedom of speech are evidenced by the Christian street evangelists arrested by the police for hate crimes, and then being either found innocent or released after being held for 24 hours without charge;
by the teachers who have been sacked for holding bible studies in the schools they taught in in their free time in lunch breaks;
by the driving from their office of politicians who believe in traditional marriage.
by the nurses who have been sacked for offering prayers as part of their humanitarian caring and professional support. The Christian Legal Centre is being overwhelmed with case after case if Christians being discriminated against at work and silenced in the public forum.
The social media excludes Christian voices when they transgress against the secular ethics of gender and identity politics.
The very concept of hate crime leads on to thought crime, and Christians are being accused of both hate crime and thought crime if they challenge either the claims of the Koran (which contradict the Gospels) or the sexualisation of society or the concept and validity of identity politics.
THE MORAL SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE.
The traditional Anglican apologia for Church State relations and identity has been best expressed by Richard Hooker. The symbiotic intimacy is expressed constitutionally with vivid colour and pageant in a variety of constitutional forms.
But one of Bell’s most formidable contributions to to his area came in an article he wrote in the Fortnightly review in 1939.
His main purpose was to hold the State accountable to Christian values and ethics.
“The Church is not the State’s spiritual auxiliary with exactly the same ends as the State.”
His main concern was with the bombing of civilian populations, and rightly so. But we can look to him as offering us too a prophetic voice that challenges the easy assumptions, particularly found amongst the Church of England’s hierarchy, that the values of the state, political and ethical are, or ought to be, validated by the Church.
We too are in a war. It’s a war that is theological, political and metaphysical. It’s a war over the Judaea Christian character of our culture. It is being waged inexorably and overtly by a secular progressive activists who have gained considerable influence in the major institutions in our state, health, education, police, and media
Currently the state we live in is making significant, and to many of us, serious moves away from Christianity. For many of us the death of 7 million aborted children is a scar on our conscience that unlike biological scars, causes a searing pain, and takes place despite the law on abortion being breached in daily practice.
More recently the state has redefined marriage in a way that sets itself in direct opposition to the Church’s understanding of its sacramental character. But this war on Christian ethics is intended to go so much further than its proponents usually admit.
Some time ago the church was lampooned by being called the ‘tory party at prayer.’
In 2018, the house of bishops appears to almost uniformly allied to the left wing in English politics. This has made it particularly vulnerable to collaborating with the pressures that flow from progressive ethical assault on Christian values.
The Church of England has adopted the secular narrative of inclusion over the biblical teaching on sexual ethics that the church has held in all places and at all times, except it seems, ours.
In a context where the Church has yet again put collaboration before its own integrity bishop Bell stands as a beacon of prophetic integrity when the need to speak prophetically to the State to warn it against a degeneration in sexual ethics that is likely to bring upon it civic, democratic and spiritual diminution, and even perhaps, divine judgement.
BRETT KAVANAUGH AND DR BLASEY FORD.
During this last week the media of the Western World has been transfixed by a titanic struggle that has erupted over whether or not the principle of being held to be innocent unless proved guilty, can be defended in the public space.
The case of President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court had pitched left against right, Christians against secularists, feminists against the white patriarchy.
The price of this kind of disastrous conflict, which is not so much about the sexual experiences of two teenagers, but more about a clash of antagonistic cultures, is that few people will feel that it is safe to stand for public office in case some real or fictitious misdemeanour from 30 years before will be alleged, without any mechanism for distinguishing between character assassination and genuine criminal behaviour.
Allowing George Bells’ reputation to remain under what Justin Welby so infelicitously called ‘a cloud’, undermines what the Church and the faith stand for at so many levels and in such serious ways.
George Bell has always represented integrity, duty, compassion, and the prophetic voice of the Church raised against injustice and evil. He is an ikon of resistance to the destruction of freedom and faith.
Ronald Jasper speaks of Bell observing, “the most important thing happening in the world today is the process of the destruction of Christianity in Central Europe. (p.65 Chandler).
He should not be allowed to be sacrificed just in order to provide shallow social credibility in the middle of a safeguarding crisis to protect incompetent archbishops and bishops from further criticism. He should not be sacrificed to protect an increasingly colluding and corrupted Church from being challenged to defend the need to put telling the truth before political expediency.
If he is not restored to his rightful place in history, the integrity of faith and those who remain faithful to Christian witness will be tragically and disastrously impaired, and our capacity to contribute to the virtues of democracy and Christian values in the body politic damagingly restricted.