We have just spent two days in the far north of Sri Lanka. This is where the civil war saw its bloody conclusions in Jaffna in 1995 and Kilinochchi only five years ago.

Having met a range of civic and Christian leaders in Jaffna and heard their stories, the tragedy of that civil war is etched in the ruins of homes and the lives that were torn apart in them. The scars of war cannot be avoided – the destruction and all it represents is there to see. And, as the Bishop of Colombo said, the enormity is hinted at when you walk into random ruins and find the remains of a child's doll. A family died there. Probably someone else's war.

This isn't the time or place to go into the nature of the conflict itself. But, the Church of Ceylon (which we are visiting for the first time) exercises its ministry of reconciliation in the conflicted context of the war's aftermath. And its stress is not on working for justice for one side or one community or one language/ethnic group; rather, its concern is to establish justice for all and bring healing to the whole country.

Like the church in most places, this work is done mostly on the quiet – often under the radar. Not all good and effective work is done through a microphone, but in the hidden business of bringing people together, creating the space for a different sort of conversation with a different sort of vocabulary.

I am only a few days into this visit – and have an explosion of images, sounds and stories in my mind – and will continue to think around it all. Today's judgments might well be challenged by tomorrow's experience or the weekend's encounters. So, I continue to listen and look and learn.

Yet, at the heart of it all is that universal conundrum that struggles to hold together the beauty and the violence of human beings, the glory and the evil of human passion, the power and weakness of hope in the face of destructiveness.

Given my connections with Germany and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, where Bell is seen as a hero, this is also the conundrum that emerges today from the announcement of Bishop George Bell's sexual abuse crime. Inexcusable and appalling – not only the abuse itself, but also the way it was ignored by the Church of England for so long – Bell's reputation is destroyed. But, what, then, do we do with the courage he showed during the Second World War in supporting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the resistance movement in and outside Germany itself, and questioning the moral basis of the Allied bombing of civilians in cities like Dresden?

I am not sure how we deal with this. Is it possible to damn the abusing bishop while admiring the courageous defender of the oppressed and the builder of peace?

How we answer this question will say something not just about Bell, but also about us.

And, like the survivors of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the survivor(s) of Bell's abuse, the effects of the crime cannot be expunged by some later compensation. We can only trust that truth is the path to peace.

 

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It is a bit odd to be in Germany at a Meissen Theological Conference while the General Synod meets in London – especially as both bodies seem to be addressing similar themes from different directions. This morning the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke plainly and clearly (and truthfully) about the urgent need for a culture change in the Church of England – from fear to love:

When the Church of England works well it is because love overcomes fear. When it works badly it is because fear overcomes love.

In one sense he is calling the bluff on pious theological sentiments that are not backed up by sacrificial acts of the will in choosing to live, speak and relate differently. Where 'difference' becomes a zero sum contest, it is only fear (of loss) that drives us.

Here in Arnoldshain we have been thinking this morning about reconciliation (as addressed by St Paul in the New Testament) in a stimulating paper by Professor Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Horn who teaches New Testament at the University of Mainz. This set the ground for two papers – one English and one German – about the difficult challenges of faith and patriotism from which Christians in our two countries cannot escape. However, this was not just some random excursion around academic themes, but, rather, was rooted in a real historical examination of Bishop George Bell and the role of the church in time of war.

Bishop Christopher Hill took us on a journey from English appropriations of German theological literature prior to 1914 through two world wars and beyond. Key to this was both the blindness of churches in Britain and Germany to the ethical demands of developing political, cultural and economic circumstances, and the shaping of their choices by the theologies that had shaped the lens through which they saw, expereinced and understood the world. Patriotism was both challenged and enjoined in ways that beg further questions. What is little understood and rarely noted is the efforts of German and English Christians in 1908 and 1909 to use their common fellowship and unity in Christ to confound the growing conflict between their countries. War mostly finished off such contacts, but could not kill off the relationships that were rooted not in nationalist priority, but in common Christian identity.

The hard question, of course, is how the church should determine its 'line' in the face of political or military crisis. This was taken up in a paper by Professor Dr Nils Ole Oermann from the University of Lüneburg. Following Bishop Bell through the war years – sometimes standing alone against both the political and public mood in refusing to demonise all Germans and opposing the 'obliteration bombing' of cities like Dresden – reveals a man of “impartiality and integrity”, both of which charateristics gave him the moral authority to command a respectful audience.

And this where the link to the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech comes in. On 9 February 1944 Bishop Bell prepared to make a difficult and unpopular speech in the House of Lords. Prior to the debate his friend Lord Woolton famously said to him: “George, there isn’t a soul in this house who doesn’t wish you wouldn’t make the speech you are going to make. You must know that. But I also want to tell you that there isn’t a soul who doesn’t know that the only reason why you make it, is because you believe it is your duty as a Christian priest.” The greatest respect was held in a context of complete disagreement.

Isn't that something to do with reconciliation? To respect the one from whom you differ – and to recognise the integrity that compels that disagreement to be expressed?