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Note: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bishop George Bell were good friends.

Highly respected Church of England bishop was a paedophile

Lambeth Palace Libray

A highly-respected 20th century Church of England bishop was a paedophile, it was revealed today.

The shocking revelations about the late Bishop of Chichester George Bell came when the Church of England disclosed it had apologised and paid damages following a civil sex abuse claim against him.

The allegations against Bell date from the late 1940s and early 1950s and concern sexual offences against an individual who was at the time a young child.

Bishop Bell, born in 1883 and who died in 1958, became Bishop of Chichester in 1929. He was revered as a leading light on the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church and at one time was even in the running to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He had been a Queen’s Scholar at Westminster School and was elected after that to a scholarship at Christ Church Oxford where he studied theology.

He was a prolific author and also appeared in works of fiction by others, most notably in the best-selling novel Ultimate Prizes by Susan Howatch and as Francis Wood, Bishop of Cirencester in Anthony Horowitz’s TV series Foyle’s War. He was also a character in Alison McLeod’s novel Unexploded.

The current Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said the news had brought “a bewildering mix of deep and disturbing emotions.”

In its effect on the legacy and reputation of George Bell, it “yields a bitter fruit of great sadness and a sense that we are all diminished by what we are being told,” Dr Warner added. “We remain committed to listening to all allegations of abuse with an open mind. In this case, the scrutiny of the allegation has been thorough, objective, and undertaken by people who command the respect of all parties. We face with shame a story of abuse of a child; we also know that the burden of not being heard has made the experience so much worse. We apologise for the failures of the past.

“The revelation of abuse demands bravery on the part of a survivor, and we respect the courage needed to tell the truth. We also recognise that telling the truth provides a legitimate opportunity for others to come forward, sometimes to identify the same source of abuse.”

For the rest of the post…

Should Dietrich Bonhoeffer be considered a “martyr”? Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyr tackled that question. In order to determine if Bonhoeffer was a true martyr for Jesus. Slane looked at how early Christianity defined it (Chapter 3: “Martyrdom in Early Christianity”). Slane made the following conclusion about “martyrdom” among the early followers of Jesus…

Here martyrs are in the process of being narrowly defined by the Christian community, which marks the beginning of the technical use of the term. Bearing witness before the authorities and contending with various tortures apparently was not enough. Their “perfection” was still hanging in the balance as long as defection remained a possibility. Death alone could render the final judgement on their faithfulness, as it had already with Stephen, the “perfect martyr,”and that “faithful and true martyr,” Christ himself. By implication, taking to one’s self the title martyr involves a presumption that the living simply cannot make (50).

Should Dietrich Bonhoeffer be considered a “martyr”? Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrgave the various responses to that question, and these “responses and concerns”

…call for a careful examination of martyrdom in the Christian tradition to see whether and to what extent Bonhoeffer can be fitted into the category. This is no easy task, for the category itself has an evolutionary history. In the course of the examination it will become obvious that the Christian understanding of martyrdom is a matter of historical development of and elaboration upon the relation between the life and death of Jesus and the lives and deaths of his followers (34).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Should Dietrich Bonhoeffer be considered a “martyr”? Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrquoted Lacey Baldwin Smith, a historian of martyrdom…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a political martyr; a nomenclature that has bedeviled martyrdom from the start. The moment society began to classify and define its martyrs, the dilemma emerged: how to differentiate within a Christian context between religion and politics, faith and social justice. Becket, More, Charles I, John Brown, and Bonhoeffer were all convinced in their various ways that they were defending the faith against the Antichrist, but the moment the devil dressed himself in secular garb and began playing politics, the trouble began. All five men died as a consequence of their “treason.” In each case faith was the motivating force, but when doing battle with the Antichrist, that faith quickly became synonymous with their private definitions of what constituted the true structure of God’s Kingdom on earth (32).

Should Dietrich Bonhoeffer be considered a “martyr”? Well, it depends what kind of martyr we are talking about? Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrwrote that…

… Detlev Daedlow… stipulates that while Bonhoeffer may be a political-secular martyr he is not an ecclesiastical one–a distinction dating at least to the time of the Reformation, and a provocative one coming from someone who himself a member of the Confessing Church (31-32).

In previous posts, we began to answer the question if Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be considered a “martyr” in the traditional way that Christians understand martyrdom? Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrwrote that…

…Since 1945, it has become fashionable in various religious contexts to esteem Bonhoeffer with the title martyr. The enthusiasm continues. On 9 July 1998 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was memorialized along with nine other martyrs of the twentieth century at Westminster Abbey. Statues of the ten were unveiled and now stand in the abbey’s west portal. Those included with Bonhoeffer are the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Manche Masemola of South Africa, Licuinan Tapeidi of Papua New Guinea, Maximillian Kolbe of Poland, Esther John of Pakistan, Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States, Wang Zhiming of China, Janani Luwum of Uganda, and Oscar Romero of El Salvador (31).

In previous posts, we began to answer the question if Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be considered a “martyr” in the traditional way that Christians understand martyrdom?

Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrwrote that even in Bonhoeffer’s own church, he was not recognized a martyr. Yet, there were some who disagreed…

Even while the dust of was settling, Reinhold Niebuhr was hailing Bonhoeffer as a martyr whose story belonged amongst “the modern Acts of the Apostles.” Bishop George Bell of Chichester, Bonhoeffer’s chief contact in the ecumenical movement, echoed Niebuhr’s sentiments as he recounted the background of the Hitler plot (30).

In my previous post, we began to answer the question if Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be considered a “martyr” in the traditional way that Christians understand martyrdom?

Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrwrites about the “ambiguity” surrounding the death of Bonhoeffer…

The ambiguity was immediately recognized by his own church of Berlin-Brandenburg when, after the war, it refused to embrace him as a martyr once the facts of his inspirational activities  were known. On the first anniversary of the plot’s failure, Paul Schneider (Lutheran pastor at Dickensheid who refused to comply with the Nazi order not to preach and, after several years of torture in the Buchenwald camp, was given a lethal injection of Strophantine on 18 July 1939) was presented to the churches as “a martyr in the full sense of the word” while Bonhoeffer’s name was not even mentioned. The refusal to name Bonhoeffer was neither a personal rejection of Bonhoeffer nor a repudiation of his conspiratorial activities per se.

Rather, it was a theological statement about martyrdom and its limits  (30).

Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a “martyr” in the traditional way that Christians understand martyrdom?

Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyr, writes that we should not be that quick to see Bonhoeffer as a martyr.

Upon his return from New York in 1939, Bonhoeffer involved himself in various acts of subterfuge against the German government, and as an active member of the Abwehr he participated in tyrannicide by plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. It was for his participation in this treasonous conspiracy that he was ordered hanged by the Gestapo. The Gestapo saw only his “high treason.” On the surface at least, Bonhoeffer’s Christian conviction in the matter seem to have been an irrelevant fact in the immediate circumstances of his death. Hence this final and highly politicized period of his life (1939-1945) renders ambiguous the relationship between his Christian confession and his death and thus calls into question the authenticity of his martyrdom when weighed against the traditional Christian understanding (29-30).

That popular version of Bonhoeffer’s death is explained below…

There was a “trial” that lasted through the night: “the prisoners were interrogated once more and confronted with one another. All were condemned.”Early in the morning on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging. Bosanquet writes:

“So the morning came. Now the prisoners were ordered to strip. They were led down to a little flight of steps under the trees to the secluded place of execution. There was a pause. For the men about to die, time hung a moment suspended. Naked under the scaffold in the sweet spring of woods, Bonhoeffer knelt for the last time to pray. Five minutes later, his life was ended.”

     The camp doctor was an eye-witness of Bonhoeffer’s final minutes:

“Through the half-door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps of the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly seen a man die so entrirely submissive to the will of God.”

That version may be debatable according to Craig J. Slane in Bonhoeffer as Martyr…

The report, received by Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann, was written 4 April 1955 by H. Fischer-Hullstrung, a medical doctor who ostensibly had attended to the prisoners on that morning. But it may be as bogus as the trial that preceded the execution.

J. L. F. Mogensen, a Danish survivor of the Flossenburg camp, has taken the doctor’s account at several points, First, he notes that on the morning of the hangings the hangings were taken an usually long period of time, from about six o’clock until close at noon. He conjectures that that the reason for the length had to do with the torture technique sometimes used by the Nazis: to hang the victim with the tips of the toes touching the ground so as to prolong the death. When death drew near, the victim might be revived and the process repeated. Mogensen believes this practice would help to explain the prolonged nature of the killings. Second, he notes that the door to the execution area was always closed during killings. Even it it were left open by chance, there were no barrack buildings with a view of the place of execution. Third, he doubts weather the executioner would have allowed Bonhoeffer the uncommon privilege of kneeling and praying. This would have been outside normal procedures.

The camp doctor may have known what happened to Bonhoeffer and decided to create an alternative account in order to wash his hands of these deaths. Or he may not have been an eyewitness at all. It also remains possible that he is telling the truth and that Mogensen has misinterpreted his own experience in some way. At the very least, Fischer-Hullstrung had to have signed Bonhoeffer’s death certficate. Even so, the doctor’s report is losing its credibility among Bonhoeffer scholars and interpreters. The physical details of Bonhoeffer’s death may have been much more difficult than we earlier imagined. But aside from some kind of recantation, which is practically unthinkable, it is hard to imagine how the harrowing details of his final minutes or hours could make a real theological difference, though they might shape our psychological identification with him.

(Craig J. SlaneBonhoeffer as Martyr28).

July 2020


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