Christian columnists of left (Giles Fraser) and right (Charles Moore, Peter Hitchens) agree: Bishop Bell has been most sorely wronged. The Church should not have compensated the person he allegedly abused about seventy years ago. It has damaged the reputation of one of its major figures, without any sort of trial taking place.
I disagree. I think the Church has behaved – shock, horror – Christianly. The Church knew what a huge step it was taking in believing this woman, who has now told her story to the Brighton Argus. (She was a relative of a member of staff in the bishop’s palace; she was occasionally read bedtime stories as she sat on his knee, and was interfered with.) The Church knew that, by compensating her, it would transform the reputation of this heroic figure, friend of the martyred Bonhoeffer. It knew that schools and buildings named after the bishop would probably have to be renamed, plaques adapted.
It could have rejected her case, and probably attracted little attention. His reputation would have been safe enough – a minority would know the rumours, but it would remain a minority. Not that many people care that much about allegations against a long-dead bishop – rumours that can no longer be proved one way or the other. The story would never have got beyond the Church Times. The carpet was raised, the brush was ready to sweep.
But it chose to believe her. In doing so it signaled that responding honestly and compassionately to the painful truth (or almost certain truth) is the Christian thing to do. Was this unfair to Bell, whose reputation as a moral hero is tarnished?
This will annoy some people, but I think Bell would have approved of the Church’s decision. He did a lot of good, but he didn’t do it to be remembered as a moral hero. He did it in service to the Church. He put his life, and afterlife, in its hands, trusting in its collective wisdom. It’s an appropriate message as we enter Lent this week: in the Christian understanding, moral heroes are just sinners about whom certain truths have not yet emerged.