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How Smyth justified the abuse

17 February 2017

Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown consider the causes of the Iwerne Trust scandal


Accused: John Smyth QC, a former chairman of the Iwerne Trust, is facing multiple allegations

Accused: John Smyth QC, a former chairman of the Iwerne Trust, is facing multiple allegations

AS THE extent of the physical abuse of young men allegedly committed by John Smyth QC, a former chairman of the Iwerne Trust, has come to light, the question of causes arises (News and Press, 10 Feb­ruary). Given the centrality of a particular form of doctrinal in­­struction in the circles that sup­ported Mr Smyth, it is natural to ask whether theology played a part.

When they signed off their report on Mr Smyth in 1982, the Iwerne trustees were in no doubt that this was the case. The eight victims who wrote an open letter to The Daily Tele­graph on 6 February say that “every detail” of this report is correct. The investigating journalist for Channel 4 News gave us access to the document, which has not been made public.

The report, compiled by the Revd Mark Ruston, takes issue with Mr Smyth and what it calls “the operators” of the system of beatings. Its objection is that “the practice destroys the direct access of the believer to the Lord — Hebrews 19, etc. — and makes the way to be through one of the operators through whom sins are shared.”

To the authors of the report, this smacks of the Catholic practice of confession and penance. They argue not with the idea that the Lord requires repentance and brutal punishment for sins such as masturbation, but with the idea that a mediator is needed.


TO UNDERSTAND how this seemed plausible, one needs to travel back to the world of the public schools before social at­­titudes to children began to change, and protection of children began to be more firmly enshrined in law.

Many of the “top” schools prac­tised compulsory chapel and com­pulsory beating as a means of char­acter formation. The con­nection between the two might not be apparent to the disembodied intel­lect, but it was painfully obvious to the boys.

What is more, the society (let us not call it culture) of the boys was entirely hierarchical. They were fettered in a great chain of being, extending from the wormlike new boys upwards to the godlike pre­fects, and then beyond even the prefects to Jesus and his angels in their celestial common room. Power and deference were the context of all social relations, and of all under­standing of sexuality.

However deviant a growth it may have been, the supposition that Mr Smyth’s approach was rooted and grown in this soil is supported by the report’s revelation that he prepared his victims in two stages. From the age of 14, they would be schooled in the normal teachings of the Evangelicals. When they reach­­ed the age of 17 or 18, he would induct them in his particular version of patriarchal discipline, picking out particular verses such
as Luke 12.47: “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not make ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beat­ing.”

By the time they had been subject to all this, Mr Smyth’s targets would, as the report puts it, “vol­untarily accept such treatment as God’s appointed way of blessing”. They were not just victims: they were chosen ones.

A piercing light is shed on this by the spiritual autobiography of a troubled Anglican, published pseu­dony­mously in 1970 as The Returns of Love. It was considered in Evan­gel­ical circles at the time to be a dangerously liberal and sympathetic guide to homosexuality: the pub­lishers IVP withdrew it after a year. It takes the form of letters to a younger man who is the object of the sexual attraction that is the thorn in the author’s side, a tempta­tion he can never act upon.

The author displays a mixture of self-abasement and spiritual pride. He dismisses all feeling as dangerous and despicable (”nauseat­ing slop”), insists on manly endurance, and places the Christian disciple in the lower, hellish reaches of an ex­­clusive and purportedly heavenly school.

He is, at the same time, a worm desperately seeking for rules to obey, and an aristocrat profoundly scornful of the rest of humanity — including those who “have no com­punction about contradicting the Shepherd and saying that the answer is to abandon the old paths of righteousness in favour of some new morality”.

Of course, in the true Evangelical gospel, one might say that “suf­ficient grace” means that Jesus has accepted all the beatings. That is not what Mr Smyth thought, and the proof-texting method of the con­servatives would have made it hard for his subjects to disagree with his selection of Bible verses proving his point.

The unquestioned authority of the “officers” in the “Bash camps”, and the ethos of submission bred in the public schools, played a part. The report comments that Mr Smyth’s favourite texts were biblical passages about the authority of fathers over their sons, and not “sparing the rod”.

Proverbs supplied some of the material, and Hebrews 12.5-11 was his particular favourite: “We have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”

In The Evangelicals (Hodder & Stoughton, 1969), John C. King wrote: “Controversy is eschewed by ‘Bash campers’; it is held to be noisy and undignified — and potentially damaging. As a result many issues which ought to be faced are quietly avoided. Any practical decisions that must be made are taken discreetly by the leadership and passed down the line. The loyalty of the rank and file is such that de­­cisions are respected; any who ques­tion are liable to find them­selves outside the pale.”


IT IS hard to avoid the conclusion that the mix of doctrine, structures, and motivation which public-school Evangelical Christianity relied on was central to the way in which Mr Smyth’s beatings were justified, and to the way in which victims, by and large, accepted their fate. But the theology on its own did not give rise to the beatings, or to the cover-up. It was the theology as inculturated into that little world of guilt and ambition which made it all possible.

That culture has now retreated beyond recovery, devastated by the transformation of the public schools and public morality. Changed at­­titudes towards women and gay people — and, in some ways, class — undermined its founda­­tions. It lives on in small, defensive pockets of the Church. There are too many resources available to young people who wish to escape from it to allow it to become the danger it once was.

The Church of Eng­land is being forced to face the full reality of abuse in the Iwerne Trust and other institutions. The danger is to be pan­­icked by appalling publicity into a reaction that leaves unhelpful power structures and habits of mind in place.

The Roman Ca­­­tho­lic Church has been criticised for calling into being a brave new world of “safeguarding” without showing any appetite for serious reappraisal of the culture that led to the crisis. It is easy for any institution to take refuge in procedural rather than fundamental reform, when what is called for is a reform not only of structures, but of hearts, minds, and ideas.


Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. Andrew Brown writes for The Guardian.

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