The Archbishop of Canterbury has once again been dragged into a battle between traditionalists and modernisers. This time though it’s not about gay marriage or women bishops, but the tattered reputation of one of the Church of England’s most-celebrated figures, Bishop George Bell.
Justin Welby was sorely mistaken if he hoped commissioning an independent report into the claim that Bell was a child abuser would draw a line under this messy two-year row. Instead, the report found that the church has made mistakes in the way it handled the accusations. This infuriated Bell’s supporters, who always maintained his innocence. Now, some are calling for Welby to walk, or at least apologise. But he refuses to do either.
Even Welby’s supporters would probably concede that his refusal to back down has poured fuel on the fire. In his report, Lord Carlile was scathing about the way the Church of England had handled things, suggesting that it had ‘rushed to judgement’ when it decided the allegations against Bell were probably true. Carlile also concluded that Bell, who died in 1958, had not been given a fair hearing. Yet Welby continued to cast doubt on Bell’s integrity, issuing a statement saying: ‘We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name…Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness… No human being is entirely good or bad’.
This response has done little to calm Bell’s supporters. Now, three open letters chastising Welby have been published. In one of these, a group of historians, including Sir Ian Kershaw, call for Welby to take back his remarks about Bell: ‘We cannot understand how such an unsupported, indeed insupportable, allegation can be upheld by a responsible public authority. Quite simply, it is indefensible’.
To make matters worse for Welby, a group of church leaders from across the world have also spoken out. ‘The way in which the allegations against him were dealt with has shocked people well beyond both the Anglican communion and Britain. There has been a miscarriage of justice for one who himself fought so earnestly for the victims of injustice,’ their letter says.
Yet still Welby refuses to budge. ‘The letter from the historians does not take into account…the past failures of the Church…The experience of discovering feet of clay in more than one person I held in profound respect has been personally tragic’, he said.
The bust-up is now arguably about more than just Bell. Instead, it looks to be part of a wider war between two factions in the church: those who look back, and those who look forwards. The way in which Bell was promptly written out of history – buildings named after him were quickly re-named when the scandal first broke – seemed to some like a telling example of the progressive, thrusting, cavalier attitude they suspect also drives the CofE’s hierarchy. But for the clerics leading the church, there is little time for nostalgia for the ‘good old days’. They do not believe the church exists to venerate long-dead bishops and want to get on with the day job of doing God’s work.
So when the allegation arose against Bell, they had, it would seem, no interest in fighting to protect the reputation of one of the 20th century’s great Christian leaders. In the wake of other sex scandals that have plagued the church, the leadership was desperate to prevent a repeat of another cover up. Painfully aware of their dismal record in handling other historic cases of clerical abuse, the CofE ‘oversteered’ – to use Lord Carlile’s euphemism – in the other direction and rushed to condemn Bell, irrespective of what actually happened.
To the modernisers, this seemed like the logical and moral response to ensure the CofE could move on. Yet the irony is that in trying to dampen this row, Welby’s response has led to things blowing up. The fallout has also exposed the deep divisions rumbling at the heart of the Church of England. It is difficult to see how things will be solved amicably. And meanwhile, Bishop Bell’s name has been badly traduced.