The Bishop of Guildford’s testimony and lessons about unhealthy Christianity

Yesterday, Andrew Watson, the bishop of Guildford, issued a statement stating that he is one of the survivors of John Smyth’s appalling activities in the late 1970s and early 80s. He said this has placed him in a unique and challenging position when it comes to the events of the past few days.

He added: “I don’t begin to believe that he (the archbishop of Canterbury) knew anything of Smyth’s violent activities until his office was informed in 2013.”

Not pawns in a political game

Andrew 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.”

Andrew may have had people like me in mind when he cautioned about survivors not being used as pawns, pawns in a critique of the HTB conservative evangelical wing of the church. I appreciate Andrew’s courage in revealing the abuse that he suffered at John Smyth’s hand. However, his statement also arouses my curiosity.

Several people have contacted me to question my motives and to defend the Archbishop of Canterbury, as does Andrew in his statement. The fact that people feel the need to leap to the Archbishop’s defence arouses my suspicion. I am very happy to believe that the Archbishop knew nothing until 2013. I would be equally surprised if the information about Iwerne wasn’t common currency around the conservative evangelical networks.

I’m even more curious that Andrew says abusers espouse all theologies and none and that “absolutely nothing that happened in the Smyth shed was the natural fruit of any Christian theology that I’ve come across before or since.”

Is Andrew really claiming to be unaware that the evangelical theology of substitutionary atonement has given rise to abusive movements in the Christian church and enlisted as a justification for abuse?

The C of E’s obsession with homosexuality

Giles Fraser, interviewed on Channel 4 News yesterday evening and asked about Andrew’s denial, said that it is a question of theology, that there is bad theology at the heart of these beatings, and the Church of England’s obsession with homosexuality is related to this evangelical theology. He added that the way in which the Christian faith is presented makes these things happen. This is a watershed moment for the church and it needs to stop saying that it’s just about a few bad apples.

Giles was also beaten at school, waiting for his beatings outside the school chapel. He is still angry about it 40 years on and his scars run deep. He thinks he is a lesser person as a priest for not knowing how to do priesthood in these circumstances, how to live and teach and preach forgiveness when at its heart, Christianity is all about love and forgiveness and not about abuse.

The hierarchy of the Church of England is on the defensive.

Many theologians and others have written about the abusive dimension of Christian faith and teaching. I have grown up in a culture which creates an abusive ambience towards me as a gay man, and does so unconsciously, or at least, is so habituated to its treatment of gay people that it is able to overlook the abusive effects.

Unhealthy Anglo-catholic culture

In the dioceses of London and Southwark in the 1960s and 70s and 80s, and in some of the Anglo-catholic theological colleges, a very camp culture was present. In my post-ordination training group in Southwark Diocese, a group of black-clad gay Anglo-catholics sat giggling and camp in the back row every month. Two of the most sexually active of them (with men) later married and had children, and later still, were ordained as bishops. The unhealthy, abusive scenario isn’t the exclusive preserve of conservative evangelicals.

There was, thank goodness, an even larger network in Southwark (initially of gay male clergy) and from 1991, including lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, who met socially and created a healthy, supportive body integral to life in the diocese.

I had been less familiar with the evangelical world, but thanks to Changing Attitude I met members of the LGCM Evangelical Fellowship and other LGBTI evangelical Christians in various contexts. Jeremy Marks of Courage became a good friend. These new friends taught me the difference between evangelicals in general and conservative evangelicals in particular, where the obsessive anti-gay movement resided. I learnt about the contrast between the camp, closet, Anglo-catholic networks and the various ways in which conservative evangelical lesbian, gay, and bisexual people constructed or denied or suppressed their sexuality – the ex-gay movements. The outcome of this was a very different culture which was as unhealthy as the misogynistic Anglo-catholic variety.

Christian teaching is responsible for these unhealthy constructs of Christianity which leads to the abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. Inevitably, some of these people ( and certainly in numbers way beyond the singular example of John Smyth) act out their suppressed homosexual desire in inappropriate ways, as people have been reporting to me this week. Others act out against those who live unashamedly and confidently as Christian LGBTI people.

Generic, widely accepted Christian theology and teaching are also responsible for very unhealthy constructs of Jesus and his teaching. Orthodox, traditional Christian teaching is responsible for 2,000 years of abuse against people, not only abuse against sexual and gender minorities, but against the innate spirituality of humanity. That’s a big claim. A blog about this will follow later this week. For me, this has become the critical underlying question.