Open letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury January 2018

The historians’ letter

17 January 2018

Dear Archbishop

We are writing to you following the publication of Lord Carlile’s independent review of the case of Bishop George Bell and the public statement which you have issued in consequence. We wish to express our profound dismay with the position you have taken.

We are all academic historians of the twentieth-century who have, over many years of university research, made our considered assessments of Bishop George Bell. Our many publications will speak for themselves. Lecturing students of history and teaching them the various crafts and responsibilities of credible historical analysis and interpretation has been central in our careers. We regard George Bell as a significant historical figure and our assessment of his life and career has been an important aspect of our academic work. On this basis we suggest that our collective view on these matters constitutes a genuine and very pertinent authority.

In your public statement of 15 December 2017, the authority of your position was used to perpetuate a single allegation made against Bishop Bell, and you did so in face of the independent review which the Church itself commissioned. We believe that your statement offends the most basic values and principles of historical understanding, ones which should be maintained firmly by those in positions of public authority across society. They must never be ignored or abused.

Your statement insists that a ‘significant cloud’ still hangs over Bishop Bell. It deepens the impression deliberately conveyed by previous Church statements by adding, purposefully ‘No human being is entirely good or bad. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness.’  On what ground does such a statement now stand? In the past you have insisted that the Church’s view was based on an investigation that was ‘very thorough’. But Lord Carlile has plainly, and utterly, devastated this claim.

Historians and lawyers both attach great importance to the presumption of innocence. Your comment seems to imply that a case against Bell has actually been established. It has not. History cannot be made out of allegations. It is the study of sources. Lord Carlile’s review sets out the material of the allegation for everyone to assess for themselves, and he invites them to do so. There is nothing in it that connects in any way with what is firmly known about Bishop Bell. The allegation is not only wholly uncorroborated but is contradicted by all the considerable, and available, circumstantial material which any historian would consider credible. Furthermore, even on its own terms we find it to depend wholly on scenarios which simply could not have occurred, given what is firmly known and authoritatively established. There is no credible representation of personalities, relationships, patterns or locations which is remotely recognisable. Far from enhancing the allegation, the insistence on vivid quotations undermines critically a testimony in which the experiences of infancy are ‘recollected’, not immediately but at a distance of many decades. Even a modest historical sensitivity would have established the basic implausibility of such a testimony. The material supporting this allegation does not in our view constitute a credible basis for the writing of history and it flies in the face of our customary critical method. It represents something quite different, an unhistorical, indeed anti-historical, testimony, explicable, perhaps, but in different terms. We cannot understand how such an unsupported, indeed insupportable, allegation can be upheld by a responsible public authority. Quite simply, it is indefensible.

You have written that Lord Carlile’s review does not pronounce whether Bishop Bell was guilty or not. Yet the Terms of Reference by which Lord Carlile was invited to work by the Church itself deliberately excluded this. Now we do not believe that your office in itself gives you the authority to pronounce on the reputation of Bishop Bell in the manner you have done. We are prepared, in this letter, to claim that authority. We state our position bluntly. There is no credible evidence at all that Bishop Bell was a paedophile. We state this after reviewing all that is known about his character and behaviour over many years. This letter is not the place to set that assessment out in detail but in the further consideration which must now be surely given we would be very willing to set it out clearly. We note, and emphasize, that there was never so much as a whisper of such an allegation in his lifetime.

It is the testing of accusations which shows the integrity of a society, not the making of them. It is in no way to impugn the sincerity of the complainant, or to resist the claims of compassion, to say that the allegation seems to us self-evidently mistaken. We believe that the historical figure of George Bell is safe in the hands of historians even though, very sadly, it would appear to have been impugned from within his own Church of England. There is today no cloud at all over Bishop Bell. Nobody employing credible critical method could think otherwise.

Two of us are biographers of former Archbishops of Canterbury and we all acknowledge the many difficulties and pressures which any archbishop must face, not least in a position which Archbishop Lang once called ‘incredible, indefensible and inevitable’. None of us may be considered natural critics of an Archbishop of Canterbury. But we must also draw a firm line. The statement of 15 December 2017 seems to us both irresponsible and dangerous. We therefore urge you, in all sincerity, to repudiate what you have said before more damage is done and thus to restore the esteem in which the high, historic office to which you have been called has been held.

Professor Charmian Brinson
Professor Andrew Chandler
Professor John Charmley
Professor Michael J. Hughes
Professor Sir Ian Kershaw
Professor Jeremy Noakes
Professor Keith Robbins

The ecumenists’ letter

16 January 2018

Dear Archbishop Welby

We write as members of different Christian confessions–Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, Roman Catholic–who have been closely involved in ecumenical life and thought both within our respective countries and at international level. We welcome the publication of the Review by Lord Carlile of the investigation by the Church of England into the allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Bishop George Bell, and the procedures which the Church’s Safeguarding Group followed. We share the view that Lord Carlile’s criticisms of the investigation and his conclusions do not provide sufficient grounds for continuing to regard Bishop Bell with suspicion, and that his name and status as an outstanding figure in the Christian life of Britain and the wider world should now be fully and unreservedly acknowledged and restored by the leadership of the Church of England.

Our concern reflects the fact that, as you are well aware, George Bell was not just a great bishop of the Church of England. As his memorial tablet in Chichester Cathedral states, he was “a tireless worker for Christian unity”. He is central to the ecumenical story of Christianity in the twentieth century, and as an inspiring leader he belongs to the ecumenical movement no less than to his own Church. Half a century after his death, he is revered for his prophetic witness by countless people beyond the Anglican Communion, and throughout the world. The way in which the allegations against him were dealt with, and the slur allowed to fall on his character, has been deeply hurtful to all such.

While we recognize that it was not within Lord Carlile’s brief to pronounce upon the actual question of George Bell’s guilt or otherwise (though his review is highly critical of the process of investigation) it seems extraordinary that uncorroborated allegations claiming to relate to events of more than sixty years ago, and investigated without any representation of the interests of the deceased Bell himself, should be taken to outweigh the principle of presumption of innocence until proved guilty. The result has been the effective condemnation by the Church of one who on all evidence was an outstanding example of Christian integrity, and a denial of justice to him who himself fought so earnestly for the victims of injustice.

The ecumenical fellowship which regards George Bell as belonging to its own communion of saints will therefore expect that the Church of England will acknowledge its responsibility not just to its own interests and public reputation but to that wider community of which it is a part, and restore George Bell to his proper place of esteem, to the further building up of the universal Body of Christ on earth.

With every good wish, and looking forward to your response,

In Christ,

Revd Dr Keith Clements, Former General Secretary, Conference of European Churches


Professor John Briggs, Emeritus Professor, University of Birmingham; Former chair of History and Heritage Commission, Baptist World Alliance; Former member, Executive Committee, World Council of Churches

David Carter, Former Secretary, Theology and Unity Group, Churches Together in Britain and IrelandDr Guy Carter, Roman Catholic theologian and writer, York, Pennsylvania

Professor John W. de Gruchy, Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies, University of Cape Town

Bob Fyffe, General Secretary, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland

Revd John W. Matthews, Senior Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, Minnesota; Adjunct Instructor of Religion, Augsburg University, Minnesota; Past President, International Bonhoeffer Society English-speaking Section

Dr Jacob Phillips, Theology and Religious Studies Programme Director, St Mary’s University Twickenham

Dr Jaakko Rusama, Adjunct Professor, Helsinki University; Lutheran Co-Moderator, International Anglican-Lutheran Society

Dr Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Pastor Emeritus, Evangelical Church of Germany, Düsseldorf, Biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Revd Canon Professor David Thompson, Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History, University of Cambridge

The theologians’ letter

24 January 2018

Dear Archbishop,

As a group of professional theologians in the Church of England, we feel bound to express to you our concern at the brief statement you issued in response to Lord Carlile’s report on the George Bell case. It clearly implied two assertions: first, that you ‘disagreed’ with Lord Carlile’s recommendation that there should be greater respect for confidentiality than was shown in this case; secondly, that despite this authoritative legal judgment that the case against him was fatally flawed, you still believe that Bishop George Bell was guilty of serious sexual abuse. On both counts your public expression of these views has very serious implications, not just for the reputation of a great bishop, but for the church as a whole. We take these two points in order.

Transparency and confidentiality. You ‘respectfully disagreed’ with the report that a confidentiality condition should protect the identity of an alleged abuser until a definite judgment of guilt could be obtained (paras 29 and 33). This recommendation was made and argued for by an eminent practitioner of the law and supported by generally accepted principles of legal practice. As such, it was an authoritative exercise of that ‘temporal justice’ which official documents of the Church of England strongly endorse. It is of course true that Christian thinking has not been unanimous about the validity under God of human secular justice: the Lutheran tradition has tended to separate it from the principles of the divine justice that must be normative in the church. But historically the CofE has followed the Augustinian tradition of an intimate connection between the two; and recent documents of the Faith and Order Commission place great emphasis on it.

In its report, Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse (2017), that Commission, appointed by the Archbishops, defines this ‘temporal justice’ as ‘the public, effective and visible work of the government, law and statutory authorities charged with prosecuting injustice without fear or favour’. It then goes on to say (p.12, repeated with emphasis on p.41) that this ‘temporal justice’ is commissioned by God to do its work and should be held in high esteem by the Church of England and especially by those who hold responsibility in it (our emphasis).

We would not wish to say, of course, that the church or those who speak from Christian conviction should never feel free to question or challenge a legal judgment: there are times, indeed, when to do so may be part of its prophetic role. But it cannot credibly do so without advancing strong moral grounds. In this case the only reason you have advanced is that ‘transparency’ must take precedence over confidentiality. It is true that transparency has become a requirement in government, Whitehall, charities and all public institutions: the public has a right to know, so long as this knowledge does not prejudice its safety or well-being; and certainly the church must not be left behind. But it is ironic that you should invoke this principle in reference to the case of George Bell, in which the church’s procedures were the very opposite of transparent. We were not allowed to know what investigations had taken place; what witnesses had been consulted (it emerged that relatives had not been informed and one witness still living had not been questioned); who the ‘experts’ were whose advice had been sought and what was their expertise. Indeed there was relevant evidence available bearing on the case which Lord Carlile was able to access without difficulty but which was not pursued in the church’s enquiry. None of this measured up to ‘transparency’ as it is now understood in secular institutions. We welcome your determination to see it better observed by the church. But, like all general principles, there may be occasions when it competes with equally valid ones, in this case the anonymity which, according to natural justice, should be awarded to the alleged perpetrator just as it is to the person who alleges abuse. The need for transparency, by itself, hardly amounts to grounds on which to abandon that unqualified respect for our legal institutions which is solemnly enjoined upon church leaders by the Faith and Order Commission.

George Bell’s guilt or innocence. You went on to say that ‘a significant cloud is left over his [George Bell’s] name’. We have already referred to the esteem in which the church, and especially its leaders, are required to hold the legal procedures of this country. A guiding principle of these procedures is that a person must be held innocent until proved guilty. This is a principle for which it is not easy to find a basis in Christian doctrine; it rests rather on natural justice, which is itself derived from Natural Law. But Natural Law has been accepted in mainstream church thinking for many centuries; therefore to repudiate it would represent a radical (and deeply unpopular) attack on received doctrine, which again would require very strong moral grounds if it were to be sustained. In George Bell’s case Lord Carlile’s very thorough examination of the church’s procedures and of the evidence considered shows that his alleged guilt is very far from being established to the standard of either a criminal trial (beyond reasonable doubt) or civil litigation (balance of probabilities). You may of course continue to believe privately that Bell is more likely than not to have committed such an abuse, even though this was reported after an interval of seventy years in a single uncorroborated testimony, and even if, as Andrew Chandler, his biographer and a professional historian, has stated, the evidence for his probity, conscientiousness and dedication is exceptionally strong. But given the total absence of probative evidence in this case, to allow this suspicion to undermine the reputation of a person regarded as a shining light in the history of the CofE and recognised in its Calendar is a serious matter. When it is endorsed by the highest authority in the church (which you represent) it becomes very serious indeed.

It is true, of course, that the merest suspicion of the abuse of a child, even in the distant past, causes revulsion in Christian people. Jesus was explicit on the value and dignity of children (far in advance of his culture and his times) and severe in his words condemning any who caused them harm. This revulsion is shared very widely, and in recent years has begun to affect even legal procedures. Children have a ‘sacred innocence’ awarded to them, children’s rights take precedence over those of adults, and even the law of evidence shows signs of being subverted in favour of credence being given to any report of abuse, even when there is no corroboration. This has resulted, certainly, in greater protection both for children and for other vulnerable people; but it also jeopardises the rights and reputations of innocent people –as recent highly publicised cases of distinguished public figures have shown. Along with the necessary pursuit and punishment of offenders, there is a mounting cry for justice for those wrongfully accused of abuse. Of these, Bishop Bell, long after his death, has now been shown to be one. We believe that it is incumbent on you, with your authority as Archbishop of Canterbury, to repudiate your ’respectful disagreement’ with a report conducted with great integrity by a respected lawyer, to be an example of the esteem for temporal justice which the Faith and Order Commission has stated to be an obligation laid on all church leaders, and to reaffirm the principle of innocence until found guilty in this as in all comparable cases. For these reasons we must respectfully urge you to do all in your power to rehabilitate the reputation of one of the most respected, courageous and prophetic church leaders of the twentieth century; and by making this letter public we hope to emphasise the seriousness of the situation in which your statement has placed all of us in the church who respect and are grateful for your leadership.

The Revd Dr Anthony Harvey (* Died 9 January 2018)

Supported by:

Professor Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford

The Revd Professor David Brown, FBA, FRSE, Emeritus Professor of Theology, University of St Andrews

The Revd Professor John Drury, All Souls College, Oxford

Professor James Dunn FBA, Emeritus, University of Durham

The Revd Canon Professor David Jasper DD FRSE, University of Glasgow

Professor Ann Loades CBE, University of St Andrews

The Revd Robert Morgan, Emeritus Fellow, Linacre College, University of Oxford

The Revd Dr John Muddiman, Emeritus Fellow, Mansfield College, University of Oxford

The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford

*Please reply to Anthony Harvey’s literary executor, Professor Andrew Chandler

On 22 January 2018 the Archbishop of Canterbury released a statement in response.