‘Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and cult of the Iwerne camps’ by Andrew Graystone – a review

Isn’t abuse something that should make us angry? Isn’t standing up for the victim something God’s people do? Something the leaders of God’s people are supposed to do?

20 comments

This has been a difficult review to write, and it is long. Let me give you the short version – if you are an Evangelical, or an Anglican, and certainly if you are both, please, please, read this book, and then look in the mirror. For many of us there will be ugly patterns we can see that require lament and repentance. I must include myself in those. And some people need to move, fast, into action.  Because there has been cowardly and culpable avoidance of responsibility.

This review is also late.  It’s late because I’m a coward too, and I don’t like heading into controversy.  There are some nasty people out here on the web, and they scare me.  But then cowardice isn’t a fruit of the Spirit. 

The review’s also late because every time I work on it, it gets angrier, and then I have to edit the angry out. But above all it’s late because I’ve been waiting for someone else to take the lead. And they haven’t. Which also makes me angry. 

And isn’t abuse something that should make us angry? Isn’t standing up for the victim something God’s people do? Something the leaders of God’s people are supposed to do?

So here goes.

Now, the long version.

If you’re not familiar with the gruesome stories, let me summarise.  British evangelicalism has long provided summer camps for teenagers, with a mixture of holidays, evangelism and bible teaching.  They have been and remain, enormously popular.  One core feature of the English and Anglican version of them has been camps dating back to the 1930s, provided for the boys at select fee-paying (i.e, ‘private’) schools, under the amiable if eccentric leadership of Eric Nash, or ‘Bash’, at a school in a pretty Dorset village called Iwerne (‘You-ern’) Minster. To be clear, no-one has raised any charge of wickedness against Nash himself.

The idea – unremarkable at that time, I suppose – is that from these schools would come the élites who would run the country, even the Empire  (as it still was), and the camps aimed to reach and convert them first.  In reality that never happened – the world changed.  But one unexpected by-product was the number of prominent clergy (mostly Anglicans) that it produced: among them John Stott, Dick Lucas, Michael Green, David Watson, Nicky Gumbel, and even the current Archbishop of Canterbury. And there have been many, many others. 

You can raise the charge of snobbery, elitism, and all sorts of other class-based-criticisms against the camps, and many have. It’s been accused of anti-intellectualism, lack of curiosity, demeaning women, and only being interested in the sporty types. I reckon there’s good evidence for those, and more.  And I know, as is always noted in the other column of the ledger, you also have to note the gospel impact of those people I mentioned, and of hundreds of others, too. 

But now I must forget being even-handed, because those are not the real charges, which surround two men.

John Smyth

John Smyth, an eminent lawyer, used his senior position on the camps to gain access to young men whom he would routinely invite to his home, and beat with savage and bloody intent, under the aegis of spiritual discipline.  I’m abbreviating this, but please know this went on for many years, and was sadistic. I believe I’m correct in saying that (only) one of these occasions happened on the site of the camp itself. He also recruited other abusers.

Now, when these sickening events were made known to the leadership of the camps, and of nearby Winchester school (one of those expensive cadres, near Smyth’s home, and also accessed by him), the decision was made in the 1980’s to get Smyth out of the country, and essentially pay him to stay away and keep quiet. That decision was made by a number of people, among whom were highly respected church leaders – and some, in retirement, still are.  

Even on its own, that decision merits serious investigation.  How abuse and abusers were handled in the past is famously difficult to calibrate, and that does need to be taken into account.  Nevertheless, it’s clear that those who knew, were aware that criminality had taken place, and yet they took the decision to remove Smyth rather than have him face justice.  Let’s not beat about this one: I could be kind and call it stupid, but actually it was plain wrong, and shocking. The reputations of the camps (‘the work’) and the school were deemed so important that Smyth was let off. Over time, their awareness of the continuing abuse, and therefore the depth that it had to be covered up, can only have increased. So therefore does their culpability.

Smyth was treated as ‘the rotten apple’, and quietly – and very expensively – moved aside.

My experience even in the last few days that it this is still the default response. I’ve been told something like, Let’s not rake over the past, the enemy loves it when we cast blame, it was only two men, we need to get on with ‘the work’. 

I struggle to find the words to describe the complacent arrogance in that approach. Young men bled at the hands of a predator, and we’re told that it’s better for the gospel if we forget about it? 

The police should have been involved then, to investigate the abuse, and I’m no lawyer but it looks like they should be involved now to investigate the avoidance of justice. 

Of course the horrific tale continued, because no-one alerted any authorities in South Africa or Zimbabwe to what had happened, with the result that the plausible abuser repeated, repeated, repeated the beatings. And then one young lad, Guide Nyachuru, ended dead in a swimming pool. He was 14.

It is now clear that there was/is a closed circle of people in the UK who did know about Smyth and his activities as a predator, and should have acted. They bear blame and shame for what happened in Zimbabwe and South Africa. 

And there was/is a wider circle who knew Smyth, but who didn’t know the truth. Then there were those who were later informed in an official capacity, but declined to act, or acted mildly, or slowly, or grudgingly, or were just incompetent.  Graystone names a lot of people; in my view, everyone who is named needs to give an account for what they knew, and when, and why they acted, or didn’t. That includes some senior, if retired, clergy. That includes some very wealthy benefactors. And it seems to include the current Archbishop of Canterbury.

Jonathan Fletcher

The second man has a different set of stories told – and they are the minor part of the book. Jonathan Fletcher, a glossily charming senior leader at Iwerne for many years, and a senior member of many Evangelical circles (mostly, again, Anglican), used his connections to manipulate an inner ring of young men (all adults), in abusive patterns of behaviour  – physical, bullying, frequently homerotic, again under the aegis of spiritual discipline.  He was an influencer, operating behind the scenes, pulling well-connected strings – that was widely known.  But, carefully hidden away, was abuse.

We should make careful distinctions here.  Smyth’s activities were clearly illegal; Graystone doesn’t mention the status of Fletcher’s.  Nor was there anything like a formal investigation and cover-up by senior folk who knew what was going on but chose to look away. But just because a behaviour is legal doesn’t mean it fits with being qualified to be a Christian minister.

With Fletcher we have someone who was harming others, but doing it in a concealed way.  And what else would you expect such a successfully harmful person to do?  People have had many holidays with him, and never suspected anything at all. How so? Because Fletcher was very good at hiding things, and misdirecting. 

Even so, it seems reasonable to assume that there were a lot of people who really did know, or at least suspected, or excused, or guessed at what was going on, and yet chose to turn a blind eye.  And there are probably a fair few men who are fearful of something way back in their past becoming public news. That’s the toxic ‘culture’ that has been identified, where bullying is tolerated.

Which, of course, makes it hard for a victim to get any clear perspective on what is going on.

I’ve said that this is the minor point of the book – this is not to demean it. That’s only because I don’t want to lose sight of Guide Nyachuru. 

But in what follows, it’s the Fletcher part I need to take most closely to heart. 

Channel 4

Andrew Graystone is a Christian journalist, who has made a point of connecting with Smyth’s victims, ever since the story broke on Channel 4 in early 2017. Full disclosure: I think I was at Durham with him, although I doubt he’d remember.

A significant part of the book concerns the story breaking, and the engagement (or lack of engagement) between Smyth’s victims and the Church of England’s leadership, especially that of Justin Welby.  Here the lines get tangled. There is one thread to do with how well Welby knew Smyth, and – separate question – whether Welby had any inkling of the abuse.  From what Graystone has found out, it seems that Welby knew Smyth more than he is comfortable admitting, but that he (like most people) was outside the circle of knowledge at the time. The second thread, though, concerns to what extent the Church of England should have any ownership of blame, for the abuse, for moving Smyth to South Africa, for not alerting the church authorities there, and so on. So many of the men involved were Anglican clergy, Smyth was an Anglican member, so how is the Church of England to account for itself?

Allow me a historical moment, and take you to Jerusalem, in 1961.  One senior Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, was on trial after being kidnapped by Mossad in Argentina, and he was accused of responsibility for the logistics of the Holocaust, for which he was duly found guilty, and hanged.

The historian Hannah Arendt wrote the brilliant book Eichmann in Jerusalem about the events, and among its observations she notes how hard it was to give Eichmann a fair trial. This was the only opportunity many Holocaust survivors would have to tell their stories, and they duly told them, with Eichmann in the dock. The problem was, that Eichmann could shrug.  Each story may well be true – but what did it have to do with him? His trial was not the right place for all their narratives – only evidence directly related to his case should be admitted. He could not be found guilty of other people’s crimes. Yet if the stories were not to be told there, then where?

Here’s the equivalent dilemma today: there are victims of abuse, no question, who wish (need) to tell their stories.  Some want understanding. Many want justice. There is a right need to find someone to blame. People should own up for what they have done, or failed to do.  BUT – Smyth, the perpetrator is dead.  We can blame him, but we cannot punish him. There will be no trial. So, what is the forum where the victims can talk? If it’s to meet the Archbishop, is that to implicate him?  Of what, exactly? Yes, there’s a missing letter to South Africa, but that doesn’t connect Justin Welby to the beatings in Winchester. And, another element, did that letter’s absence permit the abuse to continue?

This was one of the angriest parts of the book, and I can see the anger is right and understandable. I also wonder whether it is being placed in the right direction – but what is the right direction? Maybe the anger is so fierce because the living target is so hard to see. 

If it were up to me, I’d propose a properly independent enquiry set up by the Charity Commissioners, who I imagine do have a legal duty with regard to the various UK trusts and churches involved.  There the various trustees can be held to account, and the victims stories will have a rightful place.

But…

So, let’s get some negatives out the way.

It isn’t a long book, but it’s longer than it needs to be, because it is repetitive, at least in the first third. It could have dropped 10% without losing a point. 

There are occasional purple passages which should have been cut, too. Here’s one, just for flavour: ‘When Mark Ruston’s report into Smyth’s beatings at Winchester was banged out by hand on his old-fashioned typewriter in February 1982…’ (p179). Apply a cold editorial eye to that, and ask, How, except ‘by hand’ would you use a typewriter?  And, even allowing that Ruston might have been using an ‘old-fashioned’ typewriter, what would have been the alternative, in 1982, other than buying a new one? There wasn’t anything ‘old-fashioned’ about using a typewriter.

You’ll say that I’m being picky, and I’ll say I’m not.  Let’s complete the sentence, ‘When Mark Ruston’s report into Smyth’s beatings at Winchester was banged out by hand on his old-fashioned typewriter in February 1982, what Smyth had been doing in his garden shed in Winchester became an open secret within the Iwerne network.’ Now that is important. It’s a central claim in the allegation of a cover-up.  It needs to be shouted. Who knew this open secret? But I almost missed it because the context was slipshod.

And that will become a refrain in this review. Are there mistakes?  I’m sure there are, errors of fact as well as errors of grammar, and there’s a tone of guilt-by-association in here which should have been eliminated – but they all circle around a robust sequence of verified truths which demand detailed scrutiny.  Don’t let the errors distract you from the core truths. That’s too easy.

There are three major areas where I reckon the book is seriously mistaken.

The first, and most serious, is the decision to name two men who were Smyth’s victims, but who had chosen to keep that confidential. This is because Graystone thinks they are sufficiently senior that they should have put their personal pain to one side, and publicly spoken out on behalf of victims. So he ‘outs’ them. That is a violation – a violation of good journalistic standards, as well as of privacy – and Graystone owes them an apology. 

You know, I’m not going to list the other two.  My nit-picking looks defensive and evasive. This isn’t the place for a dispassionate review.

I do wish Graystone had written a better book, because a better one would have been harder to dismiss. As well as harder to read.

A ‘bloody’ gospel?

It’s clear that Smyth and Fletcher both imposed physical and psychological regimes (I’m deliberately underplaying this for my own sake, by the way – don’t think I’m letting them off or gaslighting the victims) in the name of Christian discipline and self-discipline.  Smyth seems to have been considerably more vicious in this – deliberately and repeatedly drawing blood, and doing so both with biblical verses and with Christian literature in support.  Fletcher seems to have preferred humiliation. 

So, the question is, is there anything in Conservative Evangelical theology which allowed and allows this to happen?  Have we, I, inadvertently, created and endorsed a language for abusers to use?

Put like that, it’s a parallel to the question about Penal Subsititution and child abuse – is God the ultimate child abuser?  I honestly think, when the doctrine is properly put, without caricature, that it is not open to that allegation – and so it is more widely with good teaching about self-discipline and sin. Smyth, we know, misrepresented both bible verses and Christian authors in those areas, but there is nothing inherent in either of those, at least to my mind.

But Smyth’s young victims were not in a position to know that – and here’s the important question to resolve.  

I firmly believe that Penal Substitution needs to be at the heart of our teaching about the cross.  In fact, what makes it unique is that among a range of models of the atonement (Redemption, Ransom), it that it is not a model – it is an accurate description of how the cross ‘works’.  Christ bore the penalty for my sins – my death – on the cross, by dying in my place.  That’s not a metaphor.  He did it. So I cannot fail to present Penal Substitution, unless I present a cross which is distorted at its core. 

But that needs to be done with its central motivation – God’s fatherly love – in place. And with appropriately presented repentance and faith. Therefore, with an appropriate explanation of sin and its reality, both before and after conversion.  Because Smyth so presented the Christian life that young men thought that it was consistent with the gospel that their sinful flesh could be subdued by being whipped.

Are we confident that it would be inconsistent with the way you or I present it?

Power

Second, it’s clear that both Smyth and Fletcher used some kind of ‘authority’ to justify asking people to behave in ways which were so outside their obvious self-interest, and getting them to comply.  Both will have used a mantle of ‘spiritual authority’, but equally they will have used powerful but informal ‘social authority.’  This is how C S Lewis’ famous Inner Ring works, of course, with one figure as the gatekeeper.  It doesn’t matter if that Inner Ring exists or not – all the abuser needs is the privilege of being seen as a gatekeeper, to whatever goods lie beyond, whether spiritual or material.

For that access, to that authority, people bow.

I’ve said that it doesn’t matter if the Inner Ring exists or not; let’s stay with that.  For Smyth, the offer was of access to spiritual maturity, and it was offered to innocent young men who only wanted to follow Jesus.  Smyth erected cruel gateway that led somewhere else.  

Fletcher also offered maturity, maybe access – it’s not clear.  At least, Graystone seems to make it clear, presenting Fletcher as an evangelical and shadowy Professor Moriarty, running everything, but out of sight. Opening doors to his favoured, groomed few.

I’ll be honest – that doesn’t ring quite true from what I’ve seen, and I reckon I’ve seen a fair bit.  We’re living at a time when conspiracy theories are wonderfully plausible, and so we are primed to expect them.  Until we’ve uncovered the evil mastermind, our work is incomplete. And Fletcher is socially very well connected – the son of a Cabinet minister, expensively educated, and apparently independently wealthy. His social wheels are well-oiled. The thing is, though, although you and I may not have those kinds of privileges, he really isn’t unique in having them. Yes, he enjoys access and contacts, but he’s no Blofeld.

So here is where it gets weird. I don’t think that Fletcher has that ring of power, but clearly others did, and that is why they would do as he ‘asked’. That is power. He couldn’t really control the jobs and the movements, but in creating an illusion that he could, others believed it.  And the weirdness is that Graystone has believed it too.  He’s bought into the ‘corridors of power’, ‘smoke-filled rooms’, ‘a word in your ear, Prime Minister’, view of politics and brought it into church-world. Fletcher was (is?) a member of the now-notorious Nobody’s Friends dining club, based at Lambeth Palace; I suspect it’s a bit like the Freemasons – when you’re outside it, it looks terribly secretive, with spiders-webs of connections; when you’re inside it you discover that it’s all a bit naff, with just the familiar faces wearing dinner jackets.

The thing is, we’re suckers for this.  Worse – while I’d like to present us just as the gullible idiots who fall for it, there is mounting evidence that people from the Conservative Evangelical world are also terrifically good at colluding with it, and using it.  I’m increasingly alarmed at the number of church leaders (not just Anglican) who are stepping back, standing down, resigning, or being suspended, because of our abuses of power. 

There’s a pattern here, friends. An alarming and sour one. More of us are like Fletcher than we care to admit – not as seedy, I admit, but just as controlling.

Once again, the question is, is there anything in Conservative Evangelical theology which allows this to happen?  Have we, inadvertently, created and endorsed models for church leadership for abusers to use? Which encourage and facilitate abusive leadership?

Others believe we have.  And I’m feeling very uncomfortable.

Snobbery

What the whole of this saga also reveals, even for those of us who are neither victims nor abusers, nor conspirators, nor enablers, nor wonderers, is just how wretchedly class-based our (Anglican) evangelical sub-culture is. For those of us who are outside the scandals themselves, this might be the most pressing issue.

Caveats: The UK is class-based, England especially so.  State school and non-Oxbridge I may be, but my accent and attitude were still successfully ‘poshed-up’, nonetheless. That’s how the social system works. The entire Church of England machinery is too, right to the top of the greasy pole. So is the broader evangelical world in the Church of England – one recently retired bishop once described our aspirations as ‘Christ for the Upper Crust.’ Let that sting.

Naturally therefore, but shockingly, the conservative evangelical Anglican world of which I am a culpable part is riddled with it, too. My story is an example of how porous the apparent Iwerne control can be, but in reality, I am an outlier, aren’t I? Mike Ovey and I both applied to be Principal at Oak Hill; an outside friend warned us each that neither of us would get it – we were both Grammar School.  He was wrong, by the way, but not by much.  

Our subculture, like its hosts, is riddled with love for posh people.  Their accents,  their access.  Their influence. Their patronage. Their (dare we say it) money. And so we submit to their ‘natural’ leadership. Their patrician control. I mean, if they’re paying the bills it’s really hard not to. One friend calls them ‘the Medici’.

It’s not our only idol. ‘Hipster’ is cool, and so is ‘singer-songwriter’. But let’s stay with ‘posh’.

As one savvy colleague noted, it is our version of the Prosperity Gospel. We may not do the version with fancy watches, cars or houses, but we sure do it with schools, accents and decent shoes. 

Think of the hundreds – many hundreds –  of gifted bible teachers who don’t get to speak at the conferences because their accents don’t fit. Whose faces don’t fit.  Whose dress sense doesn’t fit.  There will be exceptions of course – known names from overseas are welcome. I’ve heard ‘token’ speakers. But year in, year out, it’s the same kind of speaker – white, and nicely spoken – who gets the mic, who sits on the committees, who gets the book deal, who’s in the room. 

Let me, once more, underline – I am not saying this from any sense of having a chip on my shoulder.  I’ve been ‘in the room’, and I still am.  But I’m aware there is still an assumption of ‘command’ – by the posh, to lead, and by the non-posh, to let them. When the Fletcher story broke, I made a quiet plea for the Iwerne tribe to stand back.  Not necessarily from their pulpits, but from the committees, the speaking engagements, the publications.  Not for ever, but for a season.  Give us some room to breathe. Let a younger, more diverse leadership run things.  Let our critics see that our gospel is wide, and reaches many.

That hasn’t happened. 

I can see a deadly trap for those senior conservative evangelicals at the moment, who are still, still leading us. Still on the platforms. Still on the committees. I’m going to be kind for one last time, and assume it’s not just about privilege. I’m going to assume there’s a sense of duty, of honour, almost a noblesse oblige.  ‘It was our lot that got you into this mess, so our lot need to get you out of it.’ ‘Trust us, we have it under control.’ ‘We know we need to hand things over, just let us sort things out first.’ 

You really don’t need to.

In fact, the longer you don’t do it, the greater the problem, both in perception and in reality.

And I perceive, the greater the implausibility of that leadership, the greater the anger at what looks like its stubborn refusal to accept blame, the greater the plausibility of those critics who are claiming that there has been a far wider cover up, and a far deeper cultural complicity.

I put it this way to a friend over coffee this week – imagine watching a driver make an absolute hash of parallel parking their car.  Back and forwards, turning the steering wheel to no real effect. Scratching their tyres.  Blocking the road. Damaging other cars’ paintwork. At some point, you’ll need to stroll over, bang on the window and say, ‘Mate, just get out the car, and let someone else drive it.’

Andrew Graystone, Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and cult of the Iwerne camps London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2021

20 comments on “‘Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and cult of the Iwerne camps’ by Andrew Graystone – a review”

  1. Excellent challenging piece, Chris. I wonder if this horrible fiasco would have been improved with more female leaders… but does Conservative evangelicalism allow for that?

    1. Thanks, Chris. Often said, but I’m not sure. This particular profile of abuse might have been avoided,
      but the doctrine of Original Sin is egalitarian. Look what happened under the nuns in Ireland.

      1. Agreed. (And to be topical, Ghislaine Maxwell too.) But as you have hinted, a greater diversity of background amongst the leaders might have provided one potentially limiting factor. Taking a different tack on diversity, I can’t imagine a black British Christian leader agreeing to shunt an offender off to Southern Africa where he can’t do any more damage.

      2. That’s true. Although my point about Original Sin cuts across all ethnicities and cultures too. Doesn’t mean we are all abusers or potential abusers, but it does mean we are all complicit in sin. None of us is our saviour. Obvs.

  2. Excellent review. Most of the reviews so far have not given critique but have been somewhat fawning over the author. My own problem is with the insistence that Iwerne is a ‘cult’ – bad use of that technical term. Almost as bad as calling political conservatives ‘fascists’

    1. I agree – and I have several criticisms of that nature. But I decided on balance to pull my punches, because I was starting to sound defensive.

      1. Don’t worry about how others see you. I’m reminded of current trends in “critical race theory”. If you deny you are a racist, it proves you are a racist but in denial. Admittedly as a working class secondary modern lad, I didn’t fit well in cons Evan circles but I found them always kind and the teaching became a bedrock unlike the warm fuzzy Stevie Chalke type aberrations 😂

  3. Chris – thank you for your insights and I wonder whether we might talk about ? One aspect which I think needs to be explored is how we like our version of Papal Authority within conservative evangelicalism – it has only recently struck me how WWJD really translated as What Would Jonathan Do for me…then and for many years…

  4. One thought, corporal punishment was a lot more common back them. It may not have seemed like such a big deal.

    1. It was vicious and sadistic. It was also criminal. And don’t forget that one young mad died. True, it seems there was deliberate mixed messaging to parents (in South Africa), but the realities could
      not be described as normal-for-the-time ‘corporal punishment’. At no point was Smyth in a position in a school which would have permitted even that at the time. We can’t get out of this with ‘that was how people behaved in those days’.

  5. Thanks for this really useful commentary.

    I might be being picky, but not withstanding the dreadfulness of what happened and the essential cover up, also it all needing to be exposed, I wonder if there are not some aspects that need to reflected on concerning the hidden biases in the intelligencia who write about this issue.

    For example, Andrew Graystone attended an elite grammar school (now fee paying) where there are allegations of sexual violence by pupils being commonplace, and Durham University, which has been ranked 6th in terms of testimony allegations relating to sexual violence and harassment. But so far there doesn’t seem to be expose here coming from him or intellectual framework linking the philosophy of such elite institutions to the sexual violence.

  6. One point about culpability for Fletcher’s abuses is that the official investigation was only carried out because the victims went to the press. They’d kept trying with the C of E authorities and got nowhere. Also, it’s really worth reading Nick Duffell’s books “The Making of Them” and “Wounded Leaders” about boarding school survivors. He shows how and why their snobbishness, self-belief and ruthless defence of one another against inferior outsiders develop.

  7. My husband sent me a link to this article because he thought it might encourage me in my current state of despair at the conservative evangelical church. I’m afraid it has had the opposite effect.
    Don’t tell me how hard it was for you to read this book and how angry you are, when your own words, both in the article and in the comments below, show you are happy to cover over abuse yourself.

    There is widespread abuse in the conservative evangelical church, and although it might not be caused by issues of theology, it’s most certainly facilitated by what we teach, what we don’t teach properly and what we allow others (who we might not agree with privately) to teach without public challenge. To defend the right theology on the shelf, when the teaching and the application are leading to very real abuse on the ground, is cover up.

    For example, complementarianism (which Chris Hudson mentioned in their very valid question and which you so quickly covered over with your Irish nuns comment) is a theology I agree with but have not once heard preached properly. All I’ve heard is what women aren’t allowed to do, as we define ourselves against other Christians. And because we all know the tagline of the conservative evangelical constituency ‘Only ones faithful’ (a grooming hook if ever I heard one) and we are constantly defending ourselves against the world, the liberals and the LGBTQ community, we’re happy to push the form ‘women can’t’ hard without really unpacking the rest of the vision.

    So I sit with women who are being bullied by their husbands and who are receiving no support because our teaching reveals that the form of the marriage is what matters most to us. I sit with a woman who was excommunicated because she wanted to divorce her abusive husbands and is now isolated because the church perceived the divorce as a greater threat than the perversion of the image of the Bridegroom as an abuser; the woman privately being terrorised was acceptable – public divorce was not. I sit with women who suffer under the sexual demands their husbands make on their bodies who feel like they don’t have a choice because of teachings on ‘wifely duties’. I sit with new mothers who are taught not to co-sleep with their babies because that’s ‘denying their husbands’. Consent in our circles is a joke! Abuse is happening.

    Another one, for good measure, because it’s mentioned: corporal punishment. This seems to happen an awful lot in the conservative evangelical church, specifically; I’ve never encountered it in the same way anywhere else before. While the pagans legislate against this (thank you Scotland and Wales!) because of the overwhelming evidence showing that it’s harmful, there are books that defend and promote the practice on our booktables. I sit with people who ask me to pray for their anger so they may not hit their children ‘too much’? (While everything inside me screams, ‘Stop hitting your children AT ALL!!!’) And when you poke into their reasoning for their abuse, you hear phrases like ‘breaking a child’s will’ or demanding obedience ‘as unto God’ as a sign of salvation.

    The people I’m referring to are not from one church – one bad apple – but from a spread across the constituency. People who have been at Oak Hill, flagship churches, camps – all the big hubs. How are they all walking around with all these distorted beliefs? What are we teaching, not teaching properly and allowing to be taught? They are not getting these ideas from outside our circle, because we all know ‘We are the only ones faithful’. So how is this happening? Maybe we need to check that mirror again.

    And finally, as to abuse and cover up, what about that conservative evangelical church in the North of England that everyone seems aware of, (many evangelical leaders signed a petition – though most of them anonymously – calling on the church to commission an external review) but no one is actually doing anything about? Spiritual abuse is happening there. Still! Despite the fact that the senior minister packed up and moved to a different continent (to continue his ways there?) Are you going to wait until that all comes out in the press too, and then write an article telling us how angry you are? As an incest survivor, I’m afraid I’m going to need much more from you.

  8. Thank you Chris. I’ve been back to this review several times since you first posted it, as one thing that keeps coming back to my mind is the detail about hearing from someone in the last few days saying we should move on, and there were only two people involved. It beggars belief that there are people saying such patently absurd and damaging things even today, in the light of all that we know. Would this person, or others of the same mind, like to make their case in a publically accountable forum please? If we believe the Bible it is Jesus Christ himself who is bringing this scandal upon us, how can anyone claim to serve him and then seek in such a crass way to gloss over what he is making known? The persistence of such whispers is profoundly damaging to our unity as evangelicals at the present time, and it would be a very good thing indeed if more leaders of your standing in our churches were to address these problems publically, in the way that you have here.

    Winchester College have just published their review in full on the internet. I’ve just got to page 57, in a section which reproduces a harrowing and shaming series of correspondence evidencing the way that the men leading Iwerne sought to protect Smyth and keep his crimes under wraps following the first disclosures to the Trust. A letter from the Director General of Scripture Union refers unequivocally to two men whom Smyth recruited to join with him in perpetuating his abuse. The obvious reality is that a horrific circle of abuse grew up at the heart of what was the Iwerne movement over the last fifty years and was concealed by responsible men in that movement. The extent of this circle remains an open question, but to speak of only two men is utterly absurd and dishonest. Anyone who tries to play down what has happened is only piling disgrace upon disgrace before the Lord.

    1. Thank you, Graham. The comment was made at an event at which I was an invited speaker, from the floor. I have no idea who the contributor was, I’m afraid – but, like you, I was shocked at both tone and content. I hope I indicated that.

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