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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.”

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What Bonhoeffer knew

After I’d given a talk to mark the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution, I got a letter complaining that Bonhoeffer had been drained dry of meaning and was of no more use to the church. Here’s what I replied.

Bonhoeffer was theological. We don’t all have to write two doctoral theses by the age of 24. But we do have to approach every challenge as fundamentally a question about God. The German Christians were seduced into treating the führer as God. Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church saw that the problem with the Nazis was first a theological problem.

Bonhoeffer was about Jesus. The Bonhoeffer of popular theology is the one who talks from prison about the “world come of age” and “religionless Christianity.” But what put him in prison was Jesus. The church fears that when it says the word Jesus it’s assuming an imperialistic oppressive voice that dominates, excludes, or devalues other voices. The church has too often assumed such a voice. But Jesus doesn’t assume such a voice. Bonhoeffer knew that when the church stops talking about Jesus, it has nothing to say. And when it assumes dominance, it’s not talking about Jesus.

Bonhoeffer was ecumenical. The vital conversation that convinced Bonhoeffer to return to Germany in 1939 was with George Bell, Anglican bishop of Chichester. They became friends in the 1920s ecumenical movement, when denominations really mattered. They matter less now. The days when we could forget about the world and concentrate on our arguments with other Christians are passing. Ecumenical discord is a luxury of the complacent church. We need each other. If we feel the church is weak, it’s because we’ve limited what we’re looking at when we use the word church.

Bonhoeffer was international. He understood that Germany and the church weren’t the same thing. Western Christians are slowly realizing that they aren’t the majority of the church or the part that matters most. Christianity doesn’t fundamentally belong to them. Bonhoeffer may be a dead white Western male, but his legacy points us in global directions. When people say Christianity is in decline, you have to ask which map they’re looking at.

Bonhoeffer was politically engaged. There were Christians in 1930s Germany who thought salvation was about saving souls and it wasn’t their business to get involved in politics. That reasoning left 6 million Jews dead and ten times that number dead globally. Politics is the name we give to resolving differences short of violence. If you don’t do politics, you end up doing violence.

Bonhoeffer was rooted in an accountable community. He saw that for his Confessing Church to have any backbone, it needed to be led by pastors who took for granted the simple, straightforward practices of daily prayer, the confession of sin, the studying of scripture, and the sharing of communion. His book Life Together describes that uncompromising, uncluttered set of priorities. Community is easier to theorize about than to practice, but it’s still the center of the church’s renewal.

Bonhoeffer was prepared to face danger. One of the assumptions I find bewildering yet widespread in the church is that if one is a good Christian, one’s days will be long and one shall multiply and one’s valleys will grow rich with corn. Most of the people in the Bible face danger, hardship, crisis, tragedy, and fear. Those are the places God most often shows up. God is close to the poor, not because there’s anything holy about poverty, but because those in poverty face such things all the time, and that’s what brings them face to face with God. Bonhoeffer wrestled with this in 1939. He could do so much good from the safe distance of America, but he was called to be in the place of danger. We face the same choices.

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On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging at the Flossenburg concentration camp.

His last recorded words were: “This is the end–for me the beginning of life.”

Bonhoeffer’s impact continues well into the twenty-first century. There are countless resources about his life and works and influence. It is never too late to learn about his life and influence. 

(A wall at Flossenburg. Perhaps Bonhoeffer was hung near it)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A Kernel of Wheat for the Gospel

By John Martin, NC State UBF

On July 27, 1945, a radio broadcast went out over newly liberated Western Europe.  In Germany the elderly Dr. Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer gathered around the radio to hear the noon BBC broadcast which began with somber classical music, followed by a familiar English voice, that of George Bell the Anglican Bishop of Chichester and dear friend of their missing son, Dietrich, who spoke “We are gathered here in the presence of God, to make thankful remembrance of the life and work of his servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life and faith and obedience to his holy word.”  Finally after three agonizing months the mystery of their missing son had been tragically and yet heroically answered.  But who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and why has his influence continued to grow, and why does he remain so fascinating and yet mysterious even now.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer only lived to be 39 years old before he was martyred three weeks before the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945.  But today he is considered one of the most important 20th century theologians and contributors to the contemporary Christian Protestant church.  The fact that he lived and gave his life for what he believed has given his words extra mortal force.  Like a kernel of wheat that dies and produces many seeds his influence and writings including, “The Cost of Discipleship” have grown in importance year by year.  Bonhoeffer is vital to us as a modern hero of faith, not only because of what he said wrote and believed, but also what he stood against and because of his participating fully in the sufferings of Christ.

Born to the gifted Family

Dietrich was born to well-educated parents of good standing.  His father, Karl Ludwig Bonhoeffer, was both a noted physician and professor at the University of Berlin; his mother was a descendant of the famous church historian Karl von Hase.  Dietrich had a beloved twin sister named Sabine; they were both born on February 4, 1906, and had four older brothers and sisters, but there was plenty of room to explore, play and study in their big house.  While growing up many famous academics, theologians and philosophers were frequent household guest of his parents.  However, the family did not go to church and only Dietrich showed any interest in learning about God.  Bonhoeffer was a gifted, sincere child and precocious student and who decided by the age of sixteen to dedicate his life for the ministry of the church.  This was to the consternation of his skeptical brothers who urged him to go into secular studies and the sciences. But Dietrich remained firm in his decision saying “Even if you knock my block off i will still believe in God.”  and at age 17 entered the University of Tubingen.

In 1924 after one year he transferred to the University of Berlin where he began studies for his doctorate of theology.  The faculty at Berlin was brilliant, erudite and liberal and were considered outstanding contributors in their fields of history, doctrine and New Testament studies.  The twenties were also a period of intellectual ferment and radicalism in Germany.  However Bonhoeffer stood out as a young man who learned from his teachers but did not swallow their ideas verbatim and developed independently.  In class discussions he refused to accept liberal thinking and arguments at face value and often firmly contradicted his teachers on firm theological grounds. Consequently his fellow students held Bonhoeffer in high regard.  In 1927, he submitted his graduation thesis on the topic of community of the church.  Young Bonhoeffer’s dissertation was praised as a “theological miracle” by esteemed theologian Karl Barth and was later published as the first of Bonhoeffer’s important works.

After graduation Bonhoeffer received additional assignments as part of his religious training. Though some of these assignments seemed minor at that time, from God’s point of view they were all critical in the development of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual growth to become a leader in the opposition to political totalitarianism.  For three years he traveled, first to Barcelona, Spain to serve as an assistant pastor in a German speaking church; and then to New York for a post graduate position at the famous General Theological Seminary.  The undergraduate students there was so influenced by Modernism they made fun of Bonhoeffer’s serious teaching on man’s sinfulness, and the authority of scripture, but grew to greatly respect them.  In turn, he was impressed not with the depth of intellectual study and theology in America, but he did note the social concern of students, and he worked with them in soup kitchens and children’s orphanages. Bonhoeffer was impressed by the writings of Harlem Renaissance authors like Langston Hughes. On Sunday’s Dietrich attended a large black Baptist church, taught ladies Sunday School and was even invited into their homes.

In 1931 he returned to Berlin and began teaching systematic theology full time at the University of Berlin after completing his inaugural paper entitled, “Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology”.  Again his independent conservatism made him stand out, but at this time he began a life-long friendship with Karl Barth, with whom he shared a common belief. Bonhoeffer served as a popular youth pastor for delinquent kids in one of Berlin’s roughest neighborhoods.  In 1931, because of his connections and multilingual skills, Bonhoeffer was elected International Youth Secretary for the World Council of Churches.  This position would later become vital to the future role Bonhoeffer would have as a representative of the underground church and the resistance movement against Hitler during World War II.

During the 1930’s, as Adolph Hitler seized the levers of power in German one by one, Bonhoeffer grew very outspoken against the Nazi movement, and took a highly visible role in the evangelical opposition to Hitler.  Bonhoeffer was also busy writing a teaching a  series of lectures entitled “Creation and fall”, “Christ the Center”, and finally in 1937 his perhaps most well known and influential book “The Cost of Discipleship”.  This is as a study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and a condemnation of the substitution of “cheap grace” for the true “costly discipleship” of following Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s travel and involvement with the international ecumenical movement during the decade of the thirties enabled him to make friends all over the world including George Bell, the Anglican Bishop of Chichester in England, and even Mahatma Gandhi in India.  However, a planned trip to India to study pacifism was cut short by a call from the opposition, so called, “Confessing church,” to establish an unofficial seminary for the training of ministers who were not controlled by the Nazi party.  This was necessary because the Nazi government had now infiltrated and taken control of the official state Lutheran church.

“Life Together”…

For the rest of the article…

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).

July 2020


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