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Andrew Brown: The John Smyth ripples spread to New York

27 October 2017


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

THIS one has been coming for a while: the New York Times took a swing at Justin Welby over the John Smyth affair, but didn’t actually land a knockout punch.

For a front-page story, it had little hard meat. “The Anglican Church has been embroiled for most of this year in a scandal involving decades-old abuses that occurred in elite Christian holiday camps for boys where Justin Welby worked in his 20s, before eventually assuming his current post as the Most Rev. Archbishop of Canterbury.

“The archbishop has said that he knew nothing of the abuse until 2013, when the police were informed about it, and he apologized in February for not having done more to investigate the claims further.

“But now the grown men who were victims of the abuse as boys are coming forward to challenge the archbishop’s version of events, casting doubt on his claims of ignorance.”

The NYT story cannot prove what the Archbishop has denied: that he knew anything about the beatings (which did not take place at the camps) or the cover-up at the time they occurred. None the less, the public-relations problem remains. Many of the men who were damaged by Smyth are now angry, articulate, and financially independent.

The most ominous passage in the NYT report is this: “A senior Church of England figure who has questioned the archbishop’s account said that many people had heard about the accusations against Mr Smyth at the time, but they knew to keep it ‘hushed up.’ He withheld his identity because he was not permitted to comment on the issue while the police investigation was ongoing.

“The Iwerne insider, who was friends with Mr Ruston during those years, said that all the senior members of the trust, including officers like Archbishop Welby, had been made aware of the allegations against Mr Smyth, even those who had been abroad.”

If that were ever proved, we would have a first-rate scandal. On the other hand, if there were any documents that could prove it, they would surely have surfaced by now. There are at least four teams of high-powered journalists still going after this story.


COMPARE that with another story of Charismatic healing turned abusive, this time from California. Buzzfeed had an extremely long takedown of a signs-and-wonders theological college, the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, where students from all around the world flock to learn how to perform miracles, with predictable consequences.

A Christian hired a student from the college to babysit while he had dinner with his wife, and was interrupted by a phone call to say “the Antichrist was in their home and also that the sitter’s own closet was filled with demons that needed to be exorcised”.

There were some very much more sinister consequences, including a couple of deaths: one young man died on the pavement from an asthma attack after students from the college found him and spent 15 minutes praying for him instead of summoning an ambulance; another fell off a cliff at a student party, and, again, his friends climbed down to find and heal him rather than summoning competent help; so he spent six hours alone in the darkness, bleeding, and — it would emerge — paralysed.

The reporter herself goes to the healing centre with a stiff knee, and, after being extensively prayed over, says that it is a little better, mostly to get out. She sees, as she leaves, that there is a form for the prayer team to fill out at the end of the session: “A checklist labelled ‘Miracles Performed’ . . . includes healed shoulders and knees, zapped tumors, cured cancer, and limb-straightening, as well as soul-saving. At the very bottom of the list is ‘Limb regrown’.”

When she gets back to New York, her knee is, in fact, a little more flexible.


JONATHAN PETRE once more displayed his knack for magicking a story out of nothing. In his capable hands, the headmaster of a minor public school chuntering about the burden of paperwork became “Top headmaster blasts terror rules that meant he had to vet a sermon by Eton’s Church of England chaplain”.

What I thought was particularly clever about this was that Petre managed to get it into The Mail on Sunday, which is not normally enthusiastic about civil liberties, or reluctant to demand the vetting of academics.

This is the first time I have seen the Prevent strategy attacked in the national press for its effect on people who are neither Muslims nor left-wing (to make a giant assumption about the chaplain at Eton). In further iterations of the story, it was the fact that a bishop’s sermon at a confirmation class had to be vetted which was emphasised most.

I cannot help feeling that the bishops should be flattered. If their sermons cannot stir an adolescent audience to dangerous idealism, what are they good for? The great Communist journalist Claud Cockburn wrote that one reason he had joined the party was the effect of listening to the Magnificat in compulsory chapel. Putting down the mighty from their seats seemed like a project that he could sign up for.

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