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Yes, theology is relevant to the Smyth story

10 February 2017

“Horrific”: The Daily Telegraph’s front-page story, on Thursday of last week

“Horrific”: The Daily Telegraph’s front-page story, on Thursday of last week

THERE was a great deal that was genuinely shocking in the John Smyth story. The fren­zied violence of the beatings, and the silence and submission of the victims, none of whom seem to have considered going to the auth­orities until one of their number actually tried to kill himself; the decision by the Iwerne Trust not to report anything to the police or even, so far as is known, anyone in the Church outside a very tight circle of public-school Evangelicals, while a senior figure “warned off” Mr Smyth so that he could go to Zimbabwe, where he was investigated for the death of an­­other young man; and the outrage of conser­vative Evangelicals that any of this could have anything to do with their theology.

It is this last, the question of wider guilt by association, that is most interesting to me. This is in part personal — I was beaten enough at school by pious Christians to feel a clear flame of delight spring in my heart when any of the perpetrators gets nailed — and in part professional: the story was run hard by The Daily Telegraph as something that con­cerned “the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘de­­lightful’ friend”.

I thought at first that this was entirely un­­fair. There is no reason to suppose that the Archbishop knew anything of what went on. The secrecy with which the allegations were investigated seems to have been absolute, as was the trust in authority which made it all possible. That is a corrupt and immoral atmo­sphere, but it does not make Archbishop Welby complicit.

Certainly, the decision to suggest that Mr Smyth depart for the “global South” casts an interesting light on conservative Evangelical attitudes towards homosexuality, and the pos­sible corruption of innocent Africans by the West. Before anyone says that the abuse had nothing to do with sexuality, consider this passage from the Revd Mark Ruston’s report, about a boy who was promoted from floggee to flogger: “S, wanting to ‘be the best for God’, beat as hard as he could. Immediately after the beating, the man lay on the bed, while [Mr Smyth] and/or S would kneel and pray, link­ing arms with him and kissing him on the shoulder and back. [Mr Smyth] and S saw this as a ‘ministry’ from God.”

But The Daily Telegraph’s publication of an open letter suggests that it will take more than the Archbishop’s statements so far to satisfy at least eight alleged victims. It urges the Arch­bishop: “You have to ask yourself. . . Can I look myself in the mirror and honestly say that I did everything I could to report to the correct authority all the things that I knew? And, if I didn’t, then thinking very carefully about this — whose side have I been on, all this time? The side of the victims. Or the side of the abuser?”


ONE of the things that seem most to have outraged Evangelical opinion in this scandal was the speed with which liberals used it to discredit Evangelical attitudes towards sexual­­ity generally, and, in particular, certain Evan­gelical theologies.

Now, there is a narrow defence that is com­pletely solid so far as it goes, which says that the doctrine of atonement need not lead to this behaviour, and in some cases would make it impossible: after all, if Christ’s suffering really did satisfy God, there is no need for any­one after him to suffer.

This is not, I think, the understanding of the Book of Common Prayer, on which almost all the people involved will have been raised: the service for the visitation of the sick, although rarely heard, is extremely clear about the godliness of beating boys. (The “Curate” exhorts the patient along the lines of Hebrews 12.)

But the wider idea behind that defence — that theology can be detached from emotion, and from the imaginative or human patterns in which these ideas appear in the world — is either sinister or ridiculous. In fact, it is part of the general tendency of a certain sort of fundamentalist (and there are many atheist examples) to suppose that all emotion is squishy and disgusting, and only a rigid adherence to revealed truth can guide us.

Anyone who was beaten by Christians at an expensive school knows perfectly well that this took place in an atmosphere of Evangelical zeal. The authoritarian manipulation of chil­dren’s instinct for loyalty was central both to the culture of those schools and to other more Charismatic styles of Evangelicalism.

In some cases, this led to great good and great self-sacrifice. It could develop moral courage as well as destroy it. None the less, it provided the only cultural and imaginative world in which the abuse could have con­tinued for so long at first unreported and then covered up. To quote the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, the abuser preyed “on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives” — and you can’t claim that that had nothing to do with theology.

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