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Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and the cult of the Iwerne Camps, by Andrew Graystone

01 October 2021

Andrew Brown reviews a story of sadism and insouciant cover-up

THE mystery of John Smyth’s sadism is that the victims were in some sense willing. All of them walked to the shed at the bottom of his cottage garden knowing something of what would happen, even though the experience of overwhelming pain can never entirely be anticipated or recalled. All of them stripped naked and saw him strip in turn. Did they scream while he was beating them? The beatings could go on for hours. One, at Iwerne Minster, continued for hundreds of strokes of the cane. But, afterwards, none of them squealed.

When the flogging was over, when they had accepted their adult nappies and consoling cups of tea from Anne Smyth, who would wait with these in the kitchen for her husband’s victims, not one of them complained.

Some fled. For many, one beating was enough. But none of them told anyone at school. And there were many more who returned for more beatings, long after they had left Winchester. They were faithful unto death or at least up to the point of attempting suicide. It was Andy Morse’s first suicide attempt that first cracked the wall of silence and shame which had protected Smyth. In most presentations, including Andrew Graystone’s, the notable feature of that tragedy is that he tried to kill himself rather than face another beating. But it is just as remarkable that he tried to kill himself rather than break ranks.

So far as I can work out, the lever that Smyth used was pride. Whatever the notional Christianity of the public schools, their actual code of conduct owes more to ancient Greece, and their only ineradicable shames are cowardice and failure. In Auden’s description of the Homeric ethic: “One enjoys glory; one endures shame. He may; she must: there is no one to blame.” All that finally mattered was to become — and remain — one of the glorious.

Iwerne recruited exclusively from the best schools. Smyth preyed on the aristocracy of those places. His victims were the good-looking ones, the successful ones: good at games, and excellent at political competition. They were to be leaders and exceptional as Christians. They were to be heroic in their faith, in their self-discipline, and in their capacity for suffering; and, in return, the great headmaster in the sky would make them His prefects.

Such men could be judged only by their peers. Policemen or — worse — journalists had no business prying. When Smyth was reported, it was almost always only to the authorities of the Iwerne hierachy, never to the law or to the common people.

The second part of the Iwerne story, and the one in which Graystone casts most light, is the account of the cover-up. Anyone who lived through the Iwerne clergy’s years of lecturing us on how Africans were stalwart in their rejection of homosexuality will read with bitter enjoyment the passages describing how people at the heart of the Iwerne network who knew Smyth to be a dangerous sexual pervert sent him away to Zimbabwe to prey on African children rather than risk a scandal here.

I am still astonished at the case of Susie Colman, who, the book assures us, now regrets that she used her family money to subsidise Smyth’s second career in Southern Africa, while at the same time rising to be the safeguarding minister at HTB. But no one comes out of the second half of the book well.

Most of the people involved in the cover-up managed to conceal even from themselves that this is what they were doing. With the exception of a few brutal realists, those with most to lose from a scandal, they all behaved as if there were nothing to hide about what they were hiding. Alasdair Paine, for example, himself a victim, was one of the first men to discover (some of) the scope of Smyth’s activity in 1982 and to report it, though only to his Iwerne vicar; in 1993 he wrote to concerned pastors in Zimbabwe to denounce Smyth: “the secrecy, the nakedness, the psychological domination and the brutality were all marks of perversion of a most vicious kind.”

But, by 2013, he had lost any sense of urgency in communicating this news to the English Church, even though Smyth was still operating in South Africa. It took him from March 2012 to July 2013 to report to the diocese that another survivor had contacted him. When he did so, he did not mention that he knew of at least 20 other victims, something that might have produced a bit more urgency in the diocesan response. Or maybe not. It might have further paralysed the diocese with the fear that it might be landed with responsibility, possibly financial, for what had been done to 20 young men who were members of the Round Church’s congregation at the time.

He now complains that he was outed in this book as a survivor without his permission; Graystone takes the view that he had already been outed some years before. He did not, however, interview him directly, which, I think, he should have done: he just let the record speak for itself.

Graystone has done a wonderful job in excavating a ghastly piece of the Church of England’s history. Will anyone care? It’s only a scandal if you expect better behaviour from Christians than from anyone else. This cruelty among the rich and privileged was much less awful than some of the things that were happening at the same time to poor children in the care of the State; and both were covered up with equal zeal.

One good effect, I suppose, will be that no outsider will ever entirely trust an Iwerne man again; but there is no evidence that this story has made any of the Iwerne people doubt their own righteousness. The only hint of redemption in this book comes with the realisation that some, at least, of the victims have forgiven some of those who beat them and even some who ignored them.


Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and the cult of the Iwerne Camps
Andrew Graystone
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