It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It produced the best of bishops; it produced the worst of bishops. One was a saint; the other a scoundrel. One was the spring of hope; the other was the winter of despair. One was going direct to heaven; the other was going direct the other way.
How would Dickens end this tale of two bishops? He would glorify the saint and vilify the scoundrel. How does the Church of England end this tale of two bishops? It smears the saint and shields the scoundrel. It requires a miracle to turn a Dickensian narrative into a Kafkaesque nightmare. The hierarchy of the C of E is used to performing such miracles on a smaller scale—its autocracy, bureaucracy and mediocracy regularly turns wine into water. Just type “Church of England” into that omniscient oracle “Google” and read the results.
This is the tale of two bishops: Bishop Bell and Bishop Ball. Bishop George Bell was the Bishop of Chichester and a great friend and supporter of my hero Dietrich Bonhöffer in his resistance to Adolf Hitler. Were it not for his principled opposition to the blanket-bombing of Dresden, Bell would have been elevated to the See of Canterbury. ‘To despair of being able to do anything, or refuse to do anything, is to be guilty of infidelity,’ he wrote. His words have pricked my calloused conscience when I have been tempted to cower before power. I got to know Bell a great deal more when I read Eric Metaxas’ biography of the German pastor who dared to defy the Nazis—Bonhöffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
Bishop Peter Ball? Bishop who? I had never even heard the name until newspaper headlines screamed it out in 2015. Only then I learned that Ball was suffragan Bishop of Lewes and diocesan Bishop of Gloucester.
That’s when the story takes a Kafkaesque twist. In the case of George Bell, an unidentified woman, known only as ‘Carol’ first complained in 1995 that Bell had sexually abused her when she was five. Carol is now 70. But it was only when she wrote to Archbishop Justin Welby in 2013 that the C of E went into safeguarding overdrive and its sainted bishop was pronounced a paedophile overnight. Carol received £15,000 as compensation. The Child Protection Gestapo went on a cleansing spree and adopted a scorched earth policy to buildings, schools and other institutions named after Bell.
In the case of Bishop Ball, an identified individual, Neil Todd, first complained in 1993, about the horrific sexual and sadistic abuse he had suffered at the hands of Peter Ball. The C of E went into cover-up overdrive. Leading establishment figures, including senior clergy, colluded to protect Bishop Ball. A BBC report said that ‘another person in the church who helped one of Ball’s victims tried to raise concerns with 13 different bishops who appeared to take no action.’ It was only through the heroic persistence of priests like the Revd Graham Sawyer, one of Ball’s victims, that Ball was sentenced in October 2015 to 32 months in prison for the grooming, sexual exploitation and abuse of 18 vulnerable young men between 1977 and 1992.
If there is one institution that ought to be a beacon of justice it ought to be the church. This is because its foundational text, the Bible, has justice at its very heart. It is the Bible that was instrumental in giving birth to many of the principles of Western jurisprudence.
Most prominent is the principle of equal justice under the law. ‘You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s,’ declares Deuteronomy. Exodus backs this up. ‘You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice’. Leviticus echoes this. ‘You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour’.
Equally important is the principle of evidence. Rabbinic exegesis on the Tower of Babel story in Genesis points to the verse where ‘the Lord came down to see the city and the tower’ which the citizens of Babel had built. Rashi, the great eleventh-century rabbi, used this as a basis for evidence in a trial: ‘And the Lord came down to see—He really did not need to do this, but Scripture intends to teach the judges that they should not proclaim a defendant guilty before they have seen the case and thoroughly understood the matter in question.’
Other legal texts in the Bible take this further when discussing the role of witnesses. ‘A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established,’ states Deuteronomy. ‘Do not admit a charge against a presbyter except on the evidence of two or three witnesses,’ writes the apostle Paul to Timothy.
So why did at least one archbishop and a number of bishops allegedly close ranks and collude in an act of partiality to protect Ball when there were so many witnesses against him? On the other hand, why did the C of E pronounce Bell guilty when a single uncorroborated witness testified against him? Why has the evidence not been made public? Bell could not defend himself from the grave. Has the politics of expediency replaced biblical principles and the ethics of a fair trial in the way the church conducts its legal and disciplinary procedures?
After much pressure from a cadre of eminent lawyers, commentators, writers, and members of the House of Lords, the C of E finally agreed to an independent review of the Bell case at the end of June 2016. A gaggle of incompetent and frightened bishops who have tarnished Bell’s reputation now have to contend with historian Andrew Chandler’s meticulously researched and recently published biography George Bell, Bishop of Chichester: Church, State, and Resistance in the Age of Dictatorship. Chandler ends on a note that any historian, judge or journalist would be wise to heed when judging Bishop Bell.
‘The allegation of 2015 is anomalous. Indeed, it seems to exist in its own world, evidently uncorroborated by any other independent source. It also remains unique, for apparently no other such accusation has arisen. In sum, we are asked to invest an entire authority in one testimony and to dismiss all the materials by which we have come to know the historical George Bell as mere figments of reputation. The corollary of such a method may now be witnessed in the hasty removal of his name or image from public institutions and commemorations. It may simply be observed here that such iconoclastic activities are not unknown to historians of other, far darker, times and contexts.’
For the Church of England, it is indeed, the worst of times.