I came to faith and was nurtured in the evangelical tradition, and I also attended a public school (Dulwich College in London)—though funded by the local authority, since my parents had run out of money to pay for me after funding my brother and sister ahead of me. But I had no contact with the quite small and select circle of those involved in the Iwerne Minster Camps which were for a short time overseen by John Smyth, who it is now alleged physically abused boys he met there at his home. Reading the account of one of his victims is harrowing indeed and, many years later, still captures the painful humiliation that was inflicted and experienced. If you have not experienced abuse, then it is a challenging task to imagine the depths of the wounds that were inflicted, and in this sort of context this is compounded both by a sense of betrayal by those in whom you invested so much personal trust, and the spiritual crisis that then follows. How can I now believe anything about God when those who taught me have betrayed me so badly? Mark Meynell, who did attend Iwerne Camps but many years later, captures this sense of disorientation well:
I started trying to write a post about it all yesterday but found myself too upset and shaken. There’s just too much to process and disentangle. And I never suffered this abuse nor even knew Smyth’s name. It was all before my time. But it’s become a perfect storm with all kinds of different agendas driving various responses…I just can’t find a way to write about it carefully or objectively at the moment (even though a number of friends have asked if I would). Perhaps one day.
Mark helpfully goes on to identify an agenda for prayer around this issue, starting with the two most important issues:
- For the victims who have thus far gone unheeded to find some resolution, restoration and justice – that all these years of buried and suppressed pain would find healing and that they will be honoured and comforted as they deserve. This must also include those who are closest to Smyth’s victims specifically, because they will inevitably have faced consequences indirectly.
- For the exposure of the guilty (whoever they are, regardless of their theology, status, subsequent achievements, or passage of time since the crimes). That victims would have the courage and security to bear witness to what they suffered and that the guilty would recognise their guilt.
But Mark also highlights another area of concern: ‘that this would not become a bandwagon for waging other battles (which is sickening indeed)’. He mentions this because this is exactly what some figures have done. Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University comments ‘I feel ashamed for those in power who have allowed this to happen and who still can’t admit how a conservative evangelical theology aided and abetted it. That theology is evident in the bishops’ statement [on same-sex relationships].’ And Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, appeared on Channel 4 News to make the same point, that this wasn’t the fault of one man, but of a whole theological tradition. David Robertson observes:
While I expect the more extreme atheist secularists to take this kind of line (and to be fair many secularists would not make that kind of clumsy connection), it is more than a little disappointing that a professing Christian leader should use this tragic case to further a particular theological/political agenda within the church.
It seems bizarre to me that any Christian commentator should imagine that those outside the church and faith might respond to this by saying ‘Oh, I see, so one Christian theological tradition is unhealthy, but the other traditions are fine.’ The use of these tragedies to criticise particular traditions is simply heard as a condemnation of religion of all kinds. Worse than that, it detracts from the plight of the victims, as they themselves comment. Mark Stibbe, who has been well-known as a speaker, writer and leader in this tradition, and who himself was one of the victims, responded:
— Dr Mark Stibbe (@markstibbe) February 3, 2017
The person who anonymously spoke to the Telegraph also comments:
The final thing that I would like to say is that, from my perspective, it’s not about institutions and organisations; all of those four institutions that I’ve listed include good people doing important, valuable work. So, for me, it’s all about specific individuals. It’s about John Smyth. Myself. The other victims. And all those individuals who have known about this story during those 40 years – and said nothing.
Remarkably, in an act of considerable personal courage, the Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson, has gone public in admitting that he too was part of this circle, and did experience abuse at the hands on Smyth on one occasion. He observes:
I would also like to express the concern of myself and some of my fellow survivors that we are seen as people and not used as pawns in some political or religious game. Abusers espouse all theologies and none; and absolutely nothing that happened in the Smyth shed was the natural fruit of any Christian theology that I’ve come across before or since. It was abuse perpetrated by a misguided, manipulative and dangerous man, tragically playing on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.
Elaine Storkey, when interviewed earlier on Channel 4 News, was unequivocal:
Was that Christian? Absolutely not. There was nothing even remotely Christian about the attitudes [Smyth] had. It violates every aspect of Christian theology….The point about the Bible verses is that Christian faith has a high view of the body. The idea that you violate someone else’s body to draw them in line is absolutely reprehensible.
When asked how it is that abuse can happen in the Church, Elaine responded: ‘Because we recruit from the human race.’
But is Andrew Watson right? Or does evangelicalism have a particular problem in this area? It is important to put such a question in the context of other tragic examples of abuse. Bishop Peter Ball was firmly in the sacramental tradition, and was convicted of child sex abuse. John Howard Yoder fell from grace in the Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition. And how quickly we forget the case of Chris Brain and the Nine O’Clock service in Sheffield, firmly in the progressive/’original blessing’ theological tradition. What these situations have in common is a powerful, charismatic figure who attains a status and a following where both victims and ‘observers’ find it difficult to ask the appropriate questions, and where structures of accountability fail or simply do not exist. Does evangelicalism, and in particular that branch known as conservative evangelicalism, have a concern in this area? For sure. Is there any tradition immune from this tendency? Clearly not.
Every theological tradition will have its own strengths which allow it to resist cultures of abuse and manipulation, and each tradition will also have its points of vulnerability. The evangelical tradition in general has, I think, two potential points of vulnerability. The first is a tendency towards rationalism, and in this evangelicals have been in danger of embracing too readily an Enlightenment rationality under the guise of a commitment to truth as propositional rather than personal. The second weakness (ironically) is a tendency to reject structures of authority, and instead focus on personal discernment of what is right. Such individualism can make it harder to spot structural examples of abuse and have the frameworks in place that lead to a clear sense of accountability.
But evangelicalism (in the broadest sense) also has some key strengths which can protect against abuse. The first is a commitment to questioning authority, and rejecting uncritical acceptance of claims to truth. This can be seen historically in the radically egalitarian approach to access to the Bible as articulated by Wycliffe and other early translators, and it is a commitment that runs through evangelicalism to the present day. It is also evident the New Testament’s commitment to plural leadership, and the idea of the ‘ministry of all believers’ which, from a theological point of view, undercuts every notion of the all-knowing and all-controlling leader. Evangelical theology also has another major strength to draw on, and that is its commitment to being counter-cultural, and being ready to subject all aspects of culture to critique. One thing that has emerged very clearly from this episode is the prevalence of corporal punishment in the English public school system. Where evangelicals participated in this, they have done so through adopting the surrounding culture instead of standing against it—by colluding with culture, rather than offering an evangelical critique of this culture as they should have done.
Every theological tradition will have such points of strength and points of vulnerability, and so all need to do some soul-searching here. The last thing we should do is use such incidents as ways to ‘score points’; it is the victims and the quest for both healing and justice which must remain at the centre. Mark Meynell concludes his piece by repeating words he had posted earlier:
It is NOT a betrayal of the gospel to report criminal offenders to the police, even if their offences occurred under the auspices of gospel ministry… They are the ones who betrayed both the gospel and those they abused. It is agonising for all concerned, and yet it is the only way to protect the integrity of gospel ministry.
So if you or someone you know was abused then either:
– Call 101 and ask for “operation cubic” or
– if in CofE, email the Church of England safeguarding officer: Moira.email@example.com
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