An Indian Looks at Bishop George Bell

By Muthuraj, Joseph G. | The Ecumenical Review, July 2009 | Go to article overview

An Indian Looks at Bishop George Bell


Muthuraj, Joseph G., The Ecumenical Review


"I feel a certain responsibility to the Church of South India, having been with them and believing in them" (Bishop George Bell).

I hope that the title of this article does not lead anyone to think that the word "Indian" implies a narrow chauvinism or a militant nationalism. I write as someone belonging to a country which has a history and, above all, as someone who is a member of a church. The name of Bishop George Bell is well-known in ecumenical circles; he was the first chair of the WCC central committee and later one of its presidents. His importance to the churches of the South, and India especially, has not yet been fully recognized and this article seeks to redress this imbalance. I came across Bishop Bell's name when doing some work recently on the history of the Anglican Episcopate in India. The little I read impressed me and it aroused my interest to know more. An opportunity was provided to me in 2007 to do some reading at Lambeth Palace Library, particularly The Bell Papers, and also to spend a week in Chichester collecting more material on Bell's life and work.

Though Bell is well known in ecumenical circles, much of what I learnt was new to me and it is with the joy of discovering a man of God that I present the distinct and laudable role this man played in the United Kingdom in promoting the affairs of India, both in her attempts to achieve self-rule for the nation and to attain the union of churches, especially in South India. This latter concern was so vital to him that he became a powerful and unwearying advocate in creating and building a right relationship between the Church of England and the Church of South India.

Gandhi and Bishop Bell: a tale of two Mahatmas (1)

The Bishop of Chichester showed sympathy to the struggles and aspirations of the people of India. His words and actions often matched one another. His actions came from his deep convictions to which he always remained true. Bell had made several soulfriends cutting across, race, nationality and religion, and Gandhi, a Hindu, was one of them. Another of Bell's ecumenical friends, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, also had a deep admiration for Gandhi and was keen to visit India, meet with him and learn spiritual lessons from him. Gandhi was liked for his ideals and goals. Bell and Bonhoeffer very much wanted to read the Sermon on the Mount together with Gandhi. Bell wrote to Gandhi about Bonhoeffer's desire to visit India and Gandhi sent an invitation to Bonhoeffer saying he could stay in his ashram in India and accompany him on his travels. (2) Although the visit never took place, it shows the depth of their friendship, which became clear when Gandhi visited Chichester from 10-12 October 1931 with his companions Miss Madeline Slade (Mira Bai), Miss Muriel Lester and C.F. Andrews. Gandhi's visit was reported in the local newspapers. The Chichester Observer and West Sussex Recorder (14 October 1931) (3) called the visit a private call on C.P. Scott who was the former editor of The Manchester Guardian and lived locally. (4) People of Chichester were waiting near the crossroads to have a view of him as his car had to slow down before it turned into Canon Lane and Gandhi waved to a music band which was passing by. Gandhi brought with him a spinning wheel which went everywhere he travelled. He took a morning walk along the banks of the canal. The West Sussex Gezette published fuller details of Gandhi and his stay in Chichester including his dress, people posing for photographs with Gandhi, a visit to the Dean and his family, his meeting with some of the members of the Cathedral Chapter and others at the palace and his walking up South Street where a puppy dog playfully caught hold of his cloak. (5) "People showed such an interest in him during his visit that a number of the Chichester Police were posted on special duty." (6)

However the visit had in fact been arranged by Bishop George Bell and Mrs Bell who agreed to host Gandhi and his team in Chichester over a weekend. …

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