Iwerne Trust camps, the abuse of LGBTI people in the C of E and the theology of violence

On Thursday 2nd and Friday 3rd February 2017 Channel 4 News broadcast two reports about allegations of abuse by John Smyth who is accused of violent sado-masochistic beatings of teenage boys and young men.

John Smyth became a leader at the Iwerne Trust Christian summer camps in the late 1970s and was for a time chairman of the charity. The summer camps were established by an evangelist called Eric Nash in the 1930s. They targeted boys from the top thirty public schools in England. In the evening, Eric Nash gave a simple talk on Christianity. He was by all accounts highly effective.

The BBC and several papers reported that allegations of abuse by Smyth have been “swirling about” for some time, but only recently have individuals come forward and described the most appalling experiences of abuse, being forced to strip naked and beaten by Smyth. Smyth asked boys personal questions such as had they masturbated and they would be beaten by him if they confessed. The beatings were justified on the grounds that Christian discipline required it. The Iwerne Trust commissioned a report in response to the rumours in 1982 but took no further action. John Smyth was confronted and dismissed and emigrated to Zimbabwe. He now lives in South Africa.

The BBC reported that some of the most influential church leaders of the last century went through these camps. They included the Revd John Stott who became Rector of All Souls Langham Place, the Revd Dick Lucas, Rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, and the Revd Nicky Gumbel, Rector of Holy Trinity Brompton and developer of the Alpha Course. Another person mentioned to me as attending the Iwerne camps is Jonathan Fletcher, Vicar of Emmanuel Wimbledon (who reputedly led Nicky Gumbel to faith). They are all leading conservative evangelicals, and each in their own way has argued from their evangelical teaching in opposing homosexuality in the church.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a Dormitory Officer at Iwerne in the late 1970s, where his role was to be a mentor to the boys. A statement issued on behalf of the Archbishop said that John Smyth was one of the main leaders at the camp and although the Archbishop worked with him, he, Justin, was not part of the inner circle of friends and no one discussed allegations of abuse by John Smyth with him.

I have since learnt of the personal experiences of other gay men who had attended Iwerne Trust camps. Senior, revered, married figures from the conservative evangelical wing of the church behaved inappropriately, engineering circumstances in which younger gay men were persuaded to spend time with them in partial or total nudity. A boundary was crossed by some of these men. No direct sexual contact was made, but the senior clergyman in each case was clearly engineering a scenario to satisfy their homosexual fantasies.

A new report has emerged since I posted this blog. Andrew Watson, the bishop of Guildford, claims he was beaten on a single occasion. He said he had contacted Hampshire police, the force investigating allegations made against Smyth, at the weekend.

Bishop Andrew alleges that he was subject to a “violent, excruciating and shocking” beating. He said in a statement: “I am one of the survivors of John Smyth’s appalling activities in the late 1970s and early 80s. I am also one of the bishops in the Church of England. This has placed me in a unique and challenging position when it comes to the events of the past few days.

“My own story is certainly less traumatic than that of some others. I was drawn into the Smyth circle, as they were, and the beating I endured in the infamous garden shed was violent, excruciating and shocking; but it was thankfully a one-off experience never to be repeated.”

Bishop Andrew added that a friend of his had attempted suicide on the eve of an alleged beating.

He added: “My profoundest prayers are with all those affected by this, and my heartfelt desire is that lessons might be learnt so this never happens again. I am grateful to the archbishop of Canterbury for his apology to survivors on behalf of the church, and don’t begin to believe that he knew anything of Smyth’s violent activities until his office was informed in 2013.”

The bishop said survivors of the alleged beatings should not be “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.”

The influence of Iwerne on today’s Church of England

The conservative evangelical culture of suppressed homosexual desire is something I have encountered during the whole of my involvement with the campaign for LGBTI equality in the Church of England. Anne Atkins has been interviewed several times in the past few days, most recently on this morning’s Radio 4 Sunday programme. Fifteen or so years ago Anne was often the person in the studio arguing the conservative evangelical position against LGBTI people in the church to my pro-gay argument.

Anne had attended Iwerne at the age of 4 or 5 and met John Smyth in passing, and returned as an 18 year old, when she found the culture extremely sexist, an attitude formed by the Iwerne theology. Anne said the achievement of Eric Nash who created the Iwerne camps in the 1930s was phenomenal. The intention was to develop a body of men who were going to influence church and society and the result was people of the calibre of David Shepherd, John Stott, David Watson, Michael Green and most notably, she said, Justin Welby.

As she continued the interview, Anne revealed more than she might have intended. She said the camps were, and still are, very successful in what they do, which is “to bring a Christian influence to this country.” That Christian influence is of course a very specific brand of conservative evangelical influence “marketed” by Holy Trinity Brompton and marking the impact of Archbishop Justin on the changing culture of the Church of England.

She noted the aim of the Iwerne Trust, selecting participants from the top 30 “right” public schools who were to become politicians and Prime Ministers and bishops. She is talking about a very exclusive set of people, a group which develops a deep sense of entitlement to rule.

Andrew Graystone, a church and media consultant, was also interviewed. He confirmed Anne’s perception, noting that the Iwerne network had become hugely influential within the church. “If you look at the loud conservative movements within the church” he said, “you’ll find that a large proportion of its leadership has its roots in Iwerne and its theopgy.”

A theology that justifies violence

Anne noted that there was a theological justification for what was done – that because Christ suffered young boys should suffer too. She claimed never to have heard sermons preached or theology taught that justified violence. Other witnesses disagree.

In today’s Guardian, Giles Fraser says the beatings described by victims of John Smyth are entirely familiar to him. The problem was deep in the educational philosophy of the public school system. The popularity of beating children in the British educational system, and the idea that it had moral, character-forming properties, cannot be understood without the rise of so-called muscular Christianity during the second half of the 19th century. The Protestant public school establishment began to promote a version of manly Christianity through the character-forming powers of chapel, rugby and the cane.

That’s why evangelicals today retain the middle-class Victorian fear of homosexuality – because it doesn’t fit with their ideal of wholesome masculinity. The archbishop of Canterbury’s particular brand of Eton/Alpha Course Christianity is cut from the same cloth as the muscular Christianity of the 1850s. And this is why the Church of England hierarchy can’t get past an over-fascination with homosexuality. The archbishop is still too much a part of the world that made him.

Systemic abuse in church and culture

On the Sunday programme, Andrew Graystone was asked whether the abuse should affect our judgement about this structure in the church. The vast majority of those who have been through the Iwerne system were not abusers nor abused, he said. But confirming Giles Fraser’s witness, he said the culture and theology which Iwerne shares with our wider culture has in some ways led to this situation.

One ingredient is

“the sense of treating children or any other group as juniors. It’s in the nature of Iwerne that children are seen as apprentive adults or adults in the making and when any group is perceived as less than fully formed humans they become vulnerable to abuse.”

The second idea within our culture is

“the idea that the world can be saved through violence. A politics or a theology that says we can put the world right through exerting power over others lends itself to abuse and a theology that says Christ suffered and therefore so must you is also liable to create a culture that’s abusive.”

Ingredients of this unhealthy and abusive culture are to be found in the present House of Bishops, and we can now see why thanks to the revelations about the Iwerne camps.

Some members of the House also contain ingredients of the “wholesome muscular Christianity” ethos which explains the addictive conservative evangelical fascination with homosexuality. This obsession was exported to the countries of the British Empire which accounts for the Nigerian and Uganda obsession with homosexuality, an obsession which I now holding the English House of Bishops to ransom. Those who submit to the ransom do so because they are infected by their fear of homosexuality and their familiarity with abusive power.

The bishops are now proposing to continue this practice the behind the scenes, yet again creating an internal group to discuss us and make decisions about us in our absence. This is abusive and this time, it cannot be allowed. The wisdom of other, inclusive of LGBTI people, must be heard.