Piety and Provocation: A Study of George Bell, Humanitas

Chandler, Andrew
George Bell Institute (2008)
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It is easy for the denizens of Sussex to get George Bell out of proportion but the mainstay of Bell studies, Andrew Chandler does not make this mistake, even though he works at the Bell Institute in Chichester. The brief, clear-eyed survey of Bell's life and achievements is summed up in his phrase "a costly failure", not only for him but for the great causes he espoused of world peace and Christian unity. Chandler might have added his failure to inculcate a zeal for social justice into the Church of England which only surfaced under the extreme pressure of re-invigorated liberal capitalism in the late 1970s.

Sadly, Bell's heritage is largely based on three myths. First, he is said to have opposed the area bombing of Dresden in 1945 which he did not; his major intervention took place in February 1944. This sheds light on the second myth, that Churchill turned him down for Canterbury because of his Dresden speech when, at worst, it might have been because of his actual speech although, Chandler notes, there were many and good reasons why Fisher should have been chosen. Thirdly, Bell is widely regarded as a pacifist although the two full length speeches at the back of this book flatly contradict this.

This is not to say that Bell did not have a full and fruitful life: his support of ecumenism laid a foundation on which we are still building today; his patronage of the arts - crowned by T.S. Eliot's Murder in The Cathedral - has left a lasting heritage, not least in Chichester; and his writings, though not academically nor theologically profound, possess a directness of thought which refreshes the jaded mind.

Chandler finds it difficult to reach the core of a man who was private - even secretive - uncharismatic and self-effacing, presenting the biographer with a series of contradictions. One instance which Chandler does not note is that the zealously campaigning Bell only made his Lord's maiden speech in 1938,nine years after taking his seat.

If you know about Bell, this brief survey is probably not for you but, then, as Chandler shows, most people only think they know him.