Saturday, 7 November 2015


Having spare time on my hands, I went into the Cathedral at Christ Church on Friday morning. Crossing Tom Quad (having been challenged on the gate - "who are you going to see?" "God") - it would have been impossible to miss the small field of poppies that had grown on the lawn nearest the Cathedral doorway. On closer inspection, they proved to be identical (in style, apparently all are hand-made and unique) to the one I bought from the Tower of London memorial last year, that marked the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. A question to ask, but the nearest custodian suddenly felt the need to pursue a naughty tourist for straying off the track, so I went into the House of God and kept my question.

A few years ago - its website no longer says when - the College and Cathedral dedicated a new chapel to the memory of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (1883-1958). He was a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and had condemned the saturation bombings of German cities by the RAF as war crimes. Some say it cost him the chance of being Archbishop of Canterbury. The Queen honoured it with a huge slab of a tree from Windsor Great Park, which was carved out into a crude altar. There's a stone on the floor recording his name and offices. But on Friday there was no board explaining who he was, or why there was a chapel remembering him; it had gone. In fact, you could easily pass it by just thinking it was a rather modern sort of attempt at an altar, and move on. That was another thing to ask.

In the cathedral they knew the answer about Bishop Bell. He has lately been publicly accused, nearly sixty years after his death, of child-abuse. The present Bishop of Chichester has issued an apology (whatever that might mean). So, our Christ Church saint has become a sinner, and although he keeps his chapel, for the time being, we are not having our attention drawn to it. The man at the door said "he did great things; that he did bad things too didn't cancel them out". Perhaps I had met someone who understood that there is light and shade in all of us, and the darkness does not overcome the light? Maybe that is too sentimental. Or too theological.

About the poppies, the kind people in the cathedral couldn't help, but a new custodian in Tom Quad could. He said they were indeed from the Tower of London, and were there to remember the 239 war dead recalled on our memorials in the entrance to the cathedral. I rather liked that. I bought mine in part because of my Grandad's eldest brother, Uncle Harry, who died in Australia, on active service, but of the Spanish 'flu' in 1919. It seemed fitting and right.

But Uncle Harry had no intention of coming back to this country, the one he'd supposedly fought for. He'd made arrangements for his wife and daughter to come and join him for a new and better life in Australia. In the 1990s, the daughter he'd never known, my formidable Cousin Doris, took him up on that, and emigrated. He didn't join up to serve King and Country. He did it because his mother had just died, his family was falling apart, and there was an evil stepmother moving in. Joining the Navy was infinitely preferable to life in South London back then. It might still be.

How much truth can we tell? How much are we allowed to remember?

Though I knew neither, I remember them, for the good things they did, with gladness.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2015


  1. I was somewhat unsettled by what was mentioned about Bishop Bell and so did some searching. I find it disgusting that despite giving no details whatsoever of the accusation or the accuser, the Chichester diocese should have taken the steps it has.
    After reading Peter Hitchens' Spectator article entitled " The Church of England’s shameful betrayal of bishop George Bell
    This fair, just, brave man deserves the simple justice of the presumption of innocence " and the comments that followed, I added the following two penn'orth :
    "Were I a parishioner anywhere in the diocese of Chichester I should withhold my contributions to the Church until I knew how much compensation had been paid, to whom, for what reason, and upon what evidence.
    The only real evidence can be DNA. If a man in his sixties impregnated a girl under sixteen in his charge in his capacity as a Churchman, that certainly would be abuse of power as well as the crime of unlawful carnal knowledge. If fifty years later the offspring came looking for the birth mother who asked for a DNA sample in order to confirm the identity of the man who got her into trouble all those years ago, there would be a possible explanation of the timing of the accusation.
    What other sexual abuse could have occurred that could be proven in the absence of eye witnesses or signed confession is surely beyond the imagination of the normal person in the pew.
    I don't see why compensation should come out of what I put on the collection plate nevertheless."

  2. An interesting perspective of life, death and dead 'Saints'.

    Firstly, the leaving South London for something better during WW1 was something many did. I did the same in 1967 from East London, and don't regret it for one moment.

    As far as Bishop Bell is concerned, I don't know the ins and outs of the case, but the presumption of guilt, seems to me a bit 'iffy' so long after his death, and presumption without proof is just that - speculation. Chichester diocese is being held over a barrel and their insurers must be dreading the next case that comes to light. I don't believe that compensation should be paid, unless the evidence is strong enough to stand the test of a trial, even in his absence. So, the easy way out is to admit responsibility for the actions of the dead and pay up for a quiet life.

    I'm more concerned about George Carey's actions in the Bishop Ball case, which has the potential to be much more expensive.

  3. The historian Bishop Gilbert Burnet says Mary II told him,when asked about the reputation of Mary I, ( her first cousin five times removed aka Bloody Mary, not her great-great grandmother aka Mary Queen of Scots ) 'When princes do ill things, history must needs punish their memories if it cannot get at their persons.' My own memory may be at fault as to the verbs used, as I gave up on my research when Van der Zee and Van der Zee brought out a paperback that knocked it into a cocked hat. I can't remember how long ago I read Burnet. It could be thirty years.
    No sooner had I typed the above than there was a quiz question on the TV to which the answer was Mary Tudor. So she's not been photoshopped from history then, despite what she did in her position of power vis-a-vis The Church. Her memory lingers on.Bishop Bell, on the other hand, is in danger of being removed from the memory of the general public, of whom I am a member. As such I resent it. Other institutions named after him, including a place of refuge and a school, are to be renamed. How dare they interfere with my knowledge and make assumptions about my attitude ? I had hardly heard of him before but now his case is preying on my mind and making me wonder how often the Church has done this sort of thing.

    1. Sexual abuse, especially of children has never been acceptable. It's a horrible thing to do and a horrible thing to be accused of. As a sniggery schoolgirl circa 1960 I learned the term 'unfrocked' one Monday lunchtime from The News of the World, a Sunday paper whose inside pages specialised in reports of court cases of the 'unlawful carnal knowledge' kind. If a girl was abused it was called 'being interfered with' in those days. What a man could do to a little boy that could be illegal we couldn't imagine and the boys said they didn't know either.
      Some years later, at Culham Church of England College for Schoolmasters founded by Christ Church Oxford, I learned how widespread was predation on children in the families of the 'deprived' who came to the attention of the authorities. Subsequent teaching experience brought me into contact with some victims. Media experts state wrongly that a claim by an accused adult that the sexual approach came from the child must be always false. Many an inexperienced youth or elderly otherworldly gent must have been taken by surprise and placed in an awkward position by a previously-abused child. A former pupil of mine told me of blatant sexual demands made of her five-year-old son by a three-year-old girl she was fostering.
      What happened to Bishop Bell, or what Bishop Bell did, we don't know. Yet. It could be anything from having a male physiological reaction to the unexpected behaviour of an evacuee he took onto his lap to repeated rape. That's if the accusations have any basis in truth. We are left guessing. What the police are reported as saying is that they would have arrested and interviewed + Bell if he'd been alive when the accusation was made. I should jolly well hope they would. They did not say they had been given any evidence they could use to charge him or put before the DPP. We are left to notice this for ourselves. Is The Church's attempt to erase Bishop Bell's memory a worthy reaction to the seriousness of proven offences or is it an overreaction to a fashionable accusation ?
      Both my parents and all my aunts and uncles survived the second world war. Had they not done so,my sister and I and half my cousins would not be here. How much of this is thanks to the results of the works of Bishop Bell and those like him, I can never know, but the older I grow, the more I want my gratitude to that generation - armchair generals and fighting forces both - acknowledged.
      It looks like one of those cases in which the conditions of an out-of-court financial settlement include not talking about it. There are, however, people who know, and people who are outraged. I have a premonition that one of these days somebody is going to tweet or otherwise spill the beans.