George Bell (bishop)

From New World Encyclopedia

George Kennedy Allen Bell (February 4, 1883 – October 3, 1958) was an Anglican theologian, Dean of Canterbury, Bishop of Chichester, member of House of Lords and a pioneer of the Ecumenical Movement. He was a man of extraordinary vision, giving his support in 1943 to the pioneering notion of a World Council of Religions that would support the then League of Nations, and unify the world's spiritual traditions around a common set of values. Elected the first moderator of the World Council of Church's Central Committee in 1948, he also served as a President of the WCC from 1954 until his death. During World War II, he placed his own career at risk by condemning the saturation bombing of Germany. He was a strong supporter of the anti-Hitler Confessing Church in Germany, and gave asylum to Jewish and other refugees. Many speculate that he forfeited the Archbishopric of Canterbury for his forthright, but politically unpopular, views on saturation bombing, yet this left him free to walk on the world stage through his leadership within the World Council of Churches. He can properly be considered one of the founders of the ecumenical movement. A man of courage, he did not hesitate to disagree with the prevailing political opinion of his day.


Bell was born in Hayling Island, Hampshire, where his father was a Church of England clergyman. Bell attended Wells Theological College and was ordained as priest in 1907. After serving a curacy in Leeds, he then underwent further studies at Christ Church, Oxford until 1914, when he was appointed as chaplain (meaning private secretary) to Archbishop Randall Davidson, one of the key figures in twentieth century church history. Bell subsequently wrote the standard biography of Davidson. In 1920, he served as Secretary to the international gathering of Anglican prelates, the Lambeth Conference, and by 1924, he was Dean of Canterbury Cathedral and already a prominent Christian figure at home and abroad. At Canterbury, he experimented in using arts and drama in Christian worship (Turner 1991). Two interests would dominate his career: Church unity and opposition to the Third Reich in Germany. He is, however, remembered mainly for denouncing the Allied saturation bombing of Germany and for questioning whether, in doing so, the Allies had compromised the justness of World War II. His ecumenical interests were built on his understanding of the underlying unity of all branches of the Christian church. In 1925, he participated in the Life and Work conference in Stockholm, Sweden, and edited the Report, published in 1926. The Life and Work movement would, in 1948, combine with the Faith and Order movement to form the World Council of Churches. Between 1927 and 1930, he organized three Anglo-German theological conferences and in 1935, he became a member of the Commission on Church and State. President of the Life and Work movement from 1932, Bell played a significant role in conversations that started in 1937, to create the world body. Appointed Bishop of Chichester in 1929, his own prestige as bishop of a diocese that had been created in 681 C.E. gave even more credibility to his leading role within the ecumenical movement.

Support for the Confessing Church

After 1933, Bell became the most important international ally of the Confessing Church in Germany, formed by those Protestants who refused to join Hitler's national church, and who denounced what they saw as idolatry, the near worship of Hitler. He was a close friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. Bonhoeffer, whom Bell first met in Britain in 1933, often informed Bell of what was going on in Germany, and, before his execution in 1945, communicated, through a fellow prisoner, his last words to Bell, that his death was for him the beginning of life. "I believe," he continued, "with him in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood, which rises above all national interests" (Turner 2004). They had last met in Sweden in 1942, when Bonhoeffer told him about the plot to assassinate Hitler. Bell passed this information on to Winston Churchill, Britain's war-time Prime Minister but he expressed no interest in assisting with this plot.[1] When Niemöller was arrested in 1937, Bell began a campaign for his release by publishing a series of letters in his defense. It later transpired that Hitler had intended to execute Niemöller, but was persuaded not to do so on the grounds that this would give such critics as Bell even more reason to denounce his attitude toward the Christian church. Bell used his authority as a leader in the ecumenical movement and after 1938, as a member of the House of Lords, to influence public opinion in Britain as well as the Nazi authorities in Berlin.

In winter of 1938-1939, he helped 90 persons, mainly pastors' families who were in danger because they had Jewish ancestors or were opponents of the Nazi regime, to emigrate from Germany to Great Britain. In 1938, he sponsored the Christian Council for Refugees. His work would eventually lead to the establishment of what is now Christian Aid, one of the largest British aid and development agencies (Turner 2004).

Condemnation of saturation bombing

During World War II, Bell repeatedly condemned the Allied practice of area bombing. He informed Anthony Eden of the German resistance movement and tried in vain to gain the British government's support for them.

As a member of the House of Lords, he was a consistent parliamentary critic of mass, or saturation, bombing, along with Richard Stokes and Alfred Salter, a Labour Party Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. In November 1939, he had published an article stating that the Church in wartime should not hesitate

…To condemn the infliction of reprisals, or the bombing of civilian populations, by the military forces of its own nation. It should set itself against the propaganda of lies and hatred. It should be ready to encourage the resumption of friendly relations with the enemy nation. It should set its face against any war of extermination or enslavement, and any measures directly aimed to destroy the morale of a population (Johnson 1976).

In a 1941 letter to The Times, he called the bombing of unarmed women and children "barbarian" which would destroy the just cause for the war. On February 14, 1943, two years ahead of the Dresden raids he urged the House of Lords to resist the War Cabinet's decision for area bombing. As a close friend of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer Bell knew precise details of German plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler. So in 1942, he asked Anthony Eden to declare publicly the British would make a distinction between the Nazi regime and German people. After July 20, 1944, he harshly criticized the British government, as having doomed German resisters against Hitler to fail. That year, during debate, he again demanded of the House of Lords to stop British area bombing, a crime against humanity, and asked, "How can the War Cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilization?" Bell argued that mass-bombing was losing the Allies their moral high ground. Speaking in the House of Lords, February 9, 1944, Bell asked:

Does the Government understand the full force of what area bombardment is doing and is destroying now? Are they alive not only to the vastness of the material damage, much of which is irreparable, but also to the harvest they are laying up for the future relationships of the peoples of Europe, as well as to its moral implications?

I recognize the legitimacy of concentrated attack on industrial and military objectives, on airfields and air bases. I fully realize that in attacks on centers of war industry and transport, the killing of civilians, when it is the result of bona fide military…. [2]

Despite the fact that he had little support for his views on the subject of bombing and attracted criticism for being naive about the realities of war, Turner (1991) comments that he "never feared being in a minority." When Cosmo Lang retired in 1941, Bell was thought by many to be a candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury, but instead William Temple was appointed. Few, though, would deny that Temple was an outstanding choice. In 1944, when Temple died after only two years in that post, Bell was again considered a leading candidate to succeed him, but this time it was Geoffrey Fisher, Bishop of London, who was appointed. Bishops of the Church of England were chosen ultimately by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and it is known that Winston Churchill strongly disapproved of Bell's speeches against bombing. It has often been asserted that Bell would otherwise have been appointed, but this is debatable: There is evidence that Temple had thought Fisher a likely successor anyway. In hindsight, many Anglicans wish that Bell had been appointed, which has tended to color opinions. In condemning the saturation bombings, Bell was calling into question the just nature of the War, since according to just-war theory, the prosecution, as well as the cause of the war, must be moral. However, leadership of the Church of England would almost certainly have prevented Bell from accepting the level of responsibility he went on to hold within the ecumenical movement in the years following his controversial stance during the war. After World War II, Bell also took a lead in the "reconstruction of relationships with the German churches" (Turner 1991).

Against Britain's nuclear weapons

Bell also spoke in the House of Lords against Britain's decision to acquire nuclear weapons, and wrote about this in his 1955 book, Nuclear War and Peace: The Facts and the Challenge, which again brought him into confrontation with the prevailing political wisdom of the day.

Bell's role in the Ecumenical Movement after World War II

Plans set in motion as early as 1937 to bring the two ecumenical commissions together as a World Council, consisting of Protestant and Orthodox, but not the Catholic communion, anticipated a first Assembly in 1941. Postponed by the war, this meeting took place in Amsterdam in 1948. Bell was elected as first moderator of the Central Committee, perhaps the most influential post in the new world body alongside that of its chief executive officer, the Secretary General. The first Central Committee meeting took place in Chichester in 1949. In the years that followed, Bishop Bell traveled widely on behalf of the WCC, promoting Christian unity. He was a strong supporter of the union of various churches with the Anglican Church in South India. In his Olaus Petri Lectures at Upsala University in 1946, he spoke of the possibility of all those churches that possessed the Historic Episcopacy and practiced the "two Dominical sacraments" to mutually recognize each other. While, in his view, the non-episcopal Free Churches would need to embrace episcopacy, there was much that they could teach the Church of England, notably "the preservation of the Council of Presbyters and the Congregation of the Faithful" and there was no question of clergy being "re-ordained," since they were already "ordained as ministers of the Church of God."[3]. Turner says that "few did more to facilitate the launching of the WCC" (Turner 1991).

In 1955, Bell represented his Anglican community in an historic visit to the Archbishop of Milan (later Pope Paul VI); contact that was later built on when a second delegation spent ten days with him the following year. Bell's term as Central Committee chair expired at the WCC's second Assembly in 1954. At that Assembly, he was elected as President of the WCC. This term would have expired at the third Assembly in Delhi, India, in 1961, but Bell died in 1958. Bell's very last sermon was preached at the tenth anniversary of the Amsterdam Assembly (Turner 2004). Throughout his career, he saw "the Church as the instrument of the kingdom, the sustaining, correcting, befriending opposite of the world" (Turner 2004). Just before he died, the West German government awarded him the Order of Merit.

Bell's vision of inter-faith co-operation

Bell's interest in unity went beyond that of the divided Christian church to embrace a spiritual unity of the religions of the world based on shared values. He was associated with the World Congress of Faith, within which there was much talk about a New World Order. He was a speaker at the 1940 WCF conference on the theme, "The Common Spiritual Basis for International Order," a theme that met disfavor in some Christian circles. The Church Times was "not impressed" since "that the consequences of its (WCF's) labours are for the most part entirely mischievous… The results from such perverse efforts could only be to abolish the religion of God." [4] On April 4, 1943, speaking in the House of Lords, Bell suggested that the world's religions might unite around "acceptance of an absolute law with a common ethos" which would then inform "the dealings of nations with each other." He proposed the forming "of an association between the International Authority and representatives of the living religions of the world," an idea which Rudolf Otto had already raised. The WCF invited him to submit a proposal. Bell envisaged that such a body would support the work of the League of Nations. A committee was formed, which Bell chaired. Members included the former Secretary-General of the League of Nations. The result was the "three faith declaration of world peace."

The Declaration proclaimed:

1. That the moral law must govern the world order. 2. That the rights of the individual must be assured. 3. That the rights of the oppressed, weak or coloured (sic) peoples, must be protected. 4. That the rights of minorities must be secured. 5. That international institutions to maintain peace with justice must be organized. 6. That international economic co-operation must be developed. 7. That a just social order within each state must be achieved.

The WCF circulated this to see if there was enough support to establish a World Council of Religions. Unfortunately, while some significant Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim support was expressed, "there was little backing for the initiative from most Christian leaders" and in several European countries the letters did not even get through the censure's office.[5]

Selected works by Bell

  • A Brief Sketch of the Church of England. Milwaukee, WI: Morehouse publishing company, 1929.
  • Mysterium Christi; Christological Studies by British and German Theologians. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1930.
  • Christianity and World Order. New York: Penguin Books, 1940.
  • "The Background of the Hitler Plot," in Contemporary Review 10, London, 1945.
  • The Church and Humanity. New York: Longmans, Green, 1946.
  • Germany and the Hitlerite State. London: V. Gollancz ltd., 1944.
  • The Task of the Churches in Germany. London: S.P.C.K., 1947.
  • Christian Unity: The Anglican Position, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1948.
  • Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
  • We Intend to Stay Together: Four Talks on Evanston by the Bishop of Chichester. London: SCM, 1955.
  • The Kingship of Christ: The Story of the World Council of Churches. Hamondsworth: Penguin, 1954.
  • (with Roberts, John E.) Nuclear War and Peace: The Facts and the Challenge. London: National Peace Council, 1955.
  • "Die Kirche und die Widerstandsbewegung (Politisch-historische Vorlesungsreihe der Universität Göttingen)," Evangelische Theologie (Zeitschrift) 7, 1957. (in German)

Edited (together with J. 0. Cobham):

  • The Significance of the Barmen Declaration for the Oecumenical Church. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1943.

Between 1920 and 1928 he edited four volumes on Christian unity, published by Oxford University Press.


  1. German Embassy, London, Ambassador Blomeyer-Bartenstein honours Christian Martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  2. George Bell, The Morality of Dropping Bombs. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  3. George Bell, Christian Unity: The Anglican Position, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1948).
  4. Marcus Braybrooke, "Hoping for a New World Order in the Midst of War: 1936-1942," from A Wider Vision (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997). ISBN 9781851681198
  5. Marcus Braybrooke, A World Body for the World Religions? Retrieved June 18, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Eine Biographie München: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1978. (in German)
  • Chandler, Andrew Brethren in Adversity. Bishop George Bell, The Church of England and the Crisis of German Protestants, 1933-1939. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. ISBN 978-0851156927
  • Foster, Paul (ed.). Bell of Chichester: A Prophetic Bishop. Chichester, West Sussex: University College Chichester, Otter Memorial Paper No. 17, (February 2004).
  • Garrett, Stephen A. Ethics and Airpower in World War II. The British Bombing of German Cities. New York: St. Martins Press, 1997. ISBN 0312086830
  • Hein, David. "George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, on the Morality of War." Anglican and Episcopal History 58 (1989). :498-509.
  • Hildebrandt, Franz, ed. And Other Pastors of thy Flock: A German Tribute to the Bishop of Chichester. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1942.
  • Jasper, Ronald C. D. George Bell, Bishop of Chichester. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. New York: Atheneum, 1976. ISBN 978-0689107283
  • Raina, Peter Bishop. George Bell. The Greatest Churchman. A Portrait in Letters. London: Churches together in Britain and Ireland, 2006.
  • Slack, Kenneth. George Bell. London: SCM Book Club, 1971.
  • Turner, Minsey John. "Bell, George Kennedy Allen," pp. 92–3. In Lossky, et. al. Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991. ISBN 282541025X

External Links

All links retrieved April 18, 2024.


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