Many people have told me that Bleeding for Jesus by Andrew Graystone is ‘essential reading’, and I take this recommendation seriously for three reasons. First, I have known Andrew for some years, and engaged him to teach media and communications skills at the theological college where I taught. Secondly, as an evangelical of many years, I need to listen carefully to any well-founded critique of evangelical theology and practice. Thirdly, abuse and safeguarding is a critical issue for the church, and this book is an important exploration of one particular and poignant case.
Graystone’s book is a detailed account of the abuses perpetrated by John Smyth, who started life as a high-flying lawyer, working in prominent cases in the 1970s alongside the likes of Mary Whitehouse, but who then became heavily involved in the work of Iwerne Camps. These conservative evangelical vacation camps in Iwerne Minster, Dorset, were found by Eric ‘Bash’ Nash after the Second World War, and targeted boys from public schools with the aim of converting future leaders of the nation to Christian faith.
The ethos of the camps would be seen by many as disciplined to the point of being authoritarian, and Graystone puts forward the case that they were rooted in an unhealthy emotional, psychological, and spiritual outlook. Within this authoritarian context, and with the lack of concern for transparency and accountable (something that marked all organisations until very recently), the camps offered a context for Smyth to indulge his physical abuse of boys in his charge, which involved both emotional coercive control as well as physical beatings—though no sexual activity.
Graystone has put his investigative and communication skills to work, and has produced an exhaustive and harrowing account of the abuse perpetrated by Smyth, who died in 2018 before he could be held to account for his abuse in England and—even more tragically—in Zimbabwe, where one 16-year-old, Guide Nyachuru, died in mysterious circumstances on one of Smyth’s camps. The accounts of Smyth’s abuse of various individuals is relentless and forensic in its detail, and a picture emerges of a man who was pathologically obsessed with control and discipline.
All that is enough to make the book very uncomfortable reading—but I felt uncomfortable for other reasons too. The first is the context that Graystone sets out in the early chapters, where he offers what I can only describe as a parody of evangelical theology and culture in the 1970s and 80s and later, a culture which was sexually repressed and emotionally constrained, eschewing proper critical thinking. It was not a description I recognised. This example is fairly typical:
Evangelical Christians were in no way immune from the pressures and temptations of increasingly liberated attitudes to sexuality. The difference was in their response. For strict evangelicals, heterosexual marriage was the only place where sexual expression of any sort was permitted. Teenage Christians were taught that sex prior to marriage was a particularly serious sin. Whether or not they agreed, and whether or not their behaviour reflected these beliefs, the result was to create an environment in which any honest discussion of sexuality was severely repressed (p 16).
Graystone here appears to move from talking about the culture of Iwerne itself, wider evangelical concerns, and the impact of the rapid changes in attitudes across society itself. I think it would be fair to say that, for most Christians in the 1970s, marriage was the only proper place for sex—and it continues to be the formal position of the Church of England to this day! Again and again, Graystone’s journalistic swashbuckling triumphs over concerns for care and accuracy.
The second theme is Graystone’s repeated claim that the spirit and ethos of Iwerne have ‘infected’ the Church of England in general, and evangelical Anglicans in particular. He makes this claim by mentioning the names of those who have led influential churches, and those who became bishops, including of course Nicky Gumbel at HTB and Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury.
It produced many of the most prominent Conservative Evangelical leaders of the church over the past 40 years: there was David Watson, an evangelist of international repute; John Stott, who was the elder statesman of the evangelical church in the twentieth century; Nicky Gumbel, the driving force behind the Alpha Course, and some prominent bishops too. Indeed, the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, having become a Christian at Cambridge University, took some of his early steps in faith at Iwerne camps, though he denies that he knew about John Smyth’s abuse or was implicated in it (p 5)
But a relatively short list of names is repeated again and again (and at this point the book is rather repetitive), and there is no real exploration of the connection of these individuals to Iwerne and its theology. Graystone does note that people like David Watson, the evangelist, and John Stott, of All Souls’ Langham Place, were critical of aspects of Iwerne’s culture and those who embraced the charismatic movement were regarded as ‘heretics’—yet for Graystone their guilt by association remains.
David Watson is an intriguing figure in many ways; he was something of a hero to me when I came to faith as a teenager, and I both read his books and went to hear him speak. He disagreed with those evangelicals, influenced by Anthony Thiselton, who wanted to take the discipline of hermeneutics (reflection on the interpretation of Scripture) seriously, and was clearly the product of his public school and Cambridge background. Yet he was also acutely aware of the dynamics of power in Christian leadership; he refused to ‘let people sit at his feet’ as a teacher, since he argued that all Christians together sit at the feet of Jesus. It was a radical principle that has stayed with me.
Anyone who knew John Stott personally would be astonished at the idea that he was in any way shaped by an authoritarian approach to power; he repeatedly refused invitations to accept greater institutional power; he sought to enable and equip others; and in person he was a most delightful man.
In reading the detailed accounts of Smyth’s abuse I also had questions about Graystone’s sources. He has clearly spent time with many of the survivors, and makes use of their first hand accounts. But how does he give us authoritative accounts of meetings between bishops at which he was not present, and their views of one another? This is where the book takes a worrying turn, as Graystone feels free to offer some extremely negative and personal assessment of key figures in the Church, including Justin Welby.
By the spring of 2019 Justin Welby had been Archbishop for six years. He was exhausted and depressed. His vision for his tenure as archbishop had been substantially derailed…The segment of the interview dealing with Smyth lasted only 6 minutes, but Welby looked tortured…(188–189)
As Graystone’s account continues, he offers sharply personal assessments of everyone he meets; at some points it reads like a Dan Brown novel. I was not clear why such damning personal criticism was warranted when the book could have focused on the real failures of process in a much more objective way.
One of the key figures, Alasdair Paine, currently rector of the Round Church in Cambridge, was a victim of Smyth’s abuse, and collaborated with Graystone—but he has complained at the misrepresentation and inaccuracy in Graystone’s account. In turn, Graystone accuses Payne of not doing enough, and so being the wrong kind of victim, who is now guilty of allowing Smyth’s of both him and others to go unreported. Graystone says early on in the book:
One of the difficulties in telling this story is that even to this day, many of the victims have chosen not to identify themselves publicly. I respect them in this. It is not my intention to ‘out’ victims of abuse, and I have tried hard not to do so, except in those cases where by their silence they have knowingly caused harm to others (p ix)
In other words, Graystone is making himself judge and jury here, and outing people when he decides it is justified. Andrew Watson, the bishop of Guildford, is also tarred with the same brush—though a victim, now apparently guilty of allowing abuse having initially introduced others to Smyth. I wondered by what right Graystone felt able to out and then label victims in this way. On p 168, he comments in passing:
A handful of other bishops were in longstanding gay relationships, at least two of them with each other.
Is this a helpful way of portraying the culture of the Church—or merely an invitation to speculation?
Other figures who feature prominently question the accuracy of Graystone’s account. James Stileman is a former director of The Titus Trust, and he has listed ’26 passages which I know to be either inaccurate, misleading or untrue’ in the story.
Andrew Graystone’s Bleeding for Jesus, quite rightly, exposes the extent and severity of the horrific abuse administered by John Smyth in the UK and in Southern Africa. It also reveals very serious failings by many involved in the matter once his appalling behaviour became known. Undoubtedly major errors of judgment were made, and hard lessons will need to be learned from this terrible saga.
But as someone who features prominently in Graystone’s account, I am astonished how inaccurate some of it is. If material that relates to me is inaccurate, misleading or untrue, what else in the book is wrong? This is not helpful for those who want to know the truth about what happened, particularly survivors who have suffered greatly from the lack of reliable information to date.
David MacInnes, whom I knew a little when he was Rector of St Aldate’s in Oxford, is another person who is mention several times in the book, and included in the list of ‘offenders’ at the end, and feels badly misrepresented.
There are many questions arising from the book. I was not approached by the author, Andrew Graystone before he published it and he makes a number of untrue assertions about me. I am disappointed that he didn’t attempt to check the accuracy of what he was writing and it leaves question marks about how many things in the book are his conjectures about other people which he has made without checking their veracity, which he could easily have done. I think this inevitably undermines the testimony of the many victims whose stories do need to be told.
If Graystone is serious about unearthing the truth of what happened, doesn’t he need to be held to the same standard that he is applying to others?
The conclusion was something of a theological mess. Graystone offers a critical assessment of the theology of Eric Nash and the camps—and such critical appraisal is surely necessary. But the issues are dealt with clumsily, so that Graystone ends up dismissing some theological themes—the universality of sin, the need for redemption and, of course, historical biblical teaching about the nature of marriage—which are pretty close to the core of orthodox Christian belief.
In his review of the book, Jon Kuhrt observes:
If the book’s strength is its reportage, then its weakness is its analysis of the links between conservative theology and abuse. Take this statement: ‘One factor is the evangelical theology of bodily atonement for sin, that slips so easily into physical abuse. The idea that violence wrought on the Son of God was somehow redemptive invites the vulnerable to believe that pain itself can deal with sin’ [p 200]. The possible links between evangelical theology, especially the idea that Jesus died to appease God’s anger, and violence are a legitimate point of discussion. But it requires a far more careful and focussed attention than Graystone provides.
In this book, conservative theology is only cast as oppressive, whereas I would argue much of it also serves to value, protect and inspire. It means that rather than sounding measured and evidenced, Graystone’s anger overspills into comments which sound dismissive and tribal.
The legacy of abuse and safeguarding remains a messy quagmire in the Church of England, and as Jon Kuhrt has persuasively argued elsewhere on this site, what is needed is a disinterested commitment to truthfulness, for the sake of all, not least the victims. Although Graystone’s book rightly brings some unpleasant truths into the light of day, because of his other concerns, this is, alas, not what this book offers us.
And I am left with a very awkward question: when people use the stories of other people’s abuse to push their own theological and ecclesial agendas, is this not simply adding to the abuse?
(A shorter version of this review first appeared at Premier Christianity online.)