Edward Dowler’s personal experience informs his view of Bash Camp bibliology
Andrew Graystone’s eagerly awaited book is, in the words of one survivor, ‘the book that Smyth victims have been longing to see, the story that we have been aching to have told’. Based on comprehensive research, it is a fascinating account of the career of the late John Smyth, a leading Christian barrister whose clients included Mary Whitehouse, and a serial sadist who, throughout his long life, and in two continents, assiduously groomed a large number of boys and subjected them to vicious beatings.
Graystone meticulously charts Smyth’s involvement with the camps run at Iwerne Minister in Dorset, of which Smyth was a leading member as well as chairman of trustees. These were established in the 1930s by the conservative evangelical clergyman E.J.H. Nash, with the aim of bringing the country to Christ through evangelism of boys at leading English public schools who would go on to occupy senior positions in British society. Graystone contends that the methods and theology of the Iwerne camps were integral to the particular form that Smyth’s abuse took, and subsequently also that of another very prominent Iwerne leader, the Revd Jonathan Fletcher.
For anybody involved in church ministry of any kind, Graystone’s narrative is a luminous case study of a safeguarding train crash, marked by wilful blindness, panic and cover-up. It is also a gripping and compulsively readable narrative about a really frightful individual and his many victims, some of whose lives have been ruined and, in at least one case, may have met his death as a result of Smyth’s actions.
Graystone’s book was of particular interest to me because as a teenager I attended the Iwerne Minster summer camps for three consecutive years. I never met John Smyth, who, as the book reveals, had at the time of my first year at Iwerne, been hustled off to Zimbabwe where, unsurprisingly, he proceeded to abuse many more victims. However, I remember well many of the other people mentioned in the book, and the atmosphere that Graystone skilfully evokes is one that I certainly recognise.
By the time I stopped attending the Iwerne camps I had become somewhat wary of the culture of the Iwerne network, and most of all theologically dissatisfied with the brand of Christianity, whose key emphases Graystone ably depicts.
First of all, I reacted against a particularly narrow view of the Bible as ‘God’s Word’. Here I would want to tread carefully since many writers of the early Church (among others) would not necessarily have disputed that description of the Scriptures. Yet, whilst the Church Fathers see the Bible as a treasure trove of mysteries which will inspire, entice, cajole, reprove and ultimately lead us into the greater mystery of the God to whom they point, the Iwerne approach saw the Bible as a rather flat book of answers: oddly somewhat like a code. Graystone says of Nash that ‘he read the Bible as if its authors were hearing directly from God, and then speaking directly to him… the human authors of the Scriptures were just a necessary inconvenience that God had had to resort to in order to put ink on the pages of his leather-bound King James Bible’ (p.222). This seems to me not to do justice to the subtlety of the Church’s understanding of the way in which the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of the Bible.
Secondly, I reacted against the way in which the Iwerne network presented their central theological message of Jesus’s atoning death on the cross. Here is the way Graystone describes it:
Nash would often illustrate his understanding of sin by balancing his heavy black leather-bound King James Bible… The heavy Bible that had sat on Nash’s left hand representing the weight of sin on the individual was dramatically transferred to his right hand, representing Christ who took the burden onto himself instead… As Isaiah had it, ‘the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’.
Again, I would only want to criticise this in a nuanced way as it seems to me incontrovertible that such an understanding of Christ’s atoning death is indeed present in the New Testament. But, whereas in the Scriptures, this approach is held within a more complex theological, philosophical and, importantly, liturgical framework, in the hands of the ‘officers’ of Iwerne Minster it was totalised: it became the single lens through which Christ’s crucifixion was understood.
As a teenager, it always slightly puzzled me that when – as happened with somewhat monotonous regularity – Iwerne officers used Nash’s signature method of illustrating Christ’s sacrifice within the context of Isaiah 53.6, because the Bible itself was being used to represent the weight of human sin. Thus, the two wires of biblical literalism and atonement theology seemed to become crossed with one another: something that itself seemed a sign of the flat-footedness of the Iwerne approach to symbols, sacraments and mysteries.
In the coming weeks and months, Graystone’s fascinating account will no doubt herald an open season on what he describes as ‘the cult of the Iwerne camps’. As I have indicated, I personally became disaffected and would never return – although I would also say that there was no cult-like attempt to draw me back in. However, I also continue to feel gratitude for many elements of this particular type of Christian formation.
One of these was the commitment to clarity of exposition. At school Christian meetings at which Iwerne leaders were invariably invited to speak, we would have, as one of my teachers habitually put it, a “clear talk”. I continue to value that clarity, and try to replicate it whenever I preach or write. For sure, in my view it must lead on to a greater perception of the mystery of God – a formulation with which the Iwerne leadership would not have been comfortable. But an awareness that we can never fully comprehend God is one thing, whilst fuzziness, obfuscation and sloppy thinking are quite another. Many modern Christians seem to be hampered through never having received basic and clear catechesis, or the ability to give a basic doctrinal account of the content of their faith. It is difficult to progress from such a point.
Similarly, I value the insistence of the Iwerne system on the absolute necessity for individual Christians to have a personal encounter with Christ and a relationship with him. Such a relationship, I have come to believe, must include a living sense of participation in the sacramental life of the Church since, by the work of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments extend his life into the life of the Church – this was a theme entirely absent from teaching at Iwerne Minster. And yet, they were surely correct to emphasis the need for personal encounter and relationship with Christ. And this is not something confined to those who would identify as ‘evangelicals’. For example, Pope Benedict XVI writes his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, that ‘being Christian is not an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’.
A final comment concerns the coverage of sex and sexuality that are so central to this book. Andrew Graystone has the following (among many other things) to say about the attitude of the Iwerne Minster leadership: ‘The sin of extramarital sex had a particular potency, because (as St Paul apparently taught) when you have sex with anyone you leave something of yourself behind’ (p.16). This strikes me as an extremely unsatisfactory sentence. First of all, Graystone might have looked at the relevant passages in Paul’s writing, in particular perhaps 1 Corinthians 6, before throwing in such a casual reference. Secondly, he seems to dismiss what is surely a defensible view from a theological or any other perspective: that the communion of two persons who have sex with one another is deep enough to have an enduring effect on both of them.
Graystone’s view is clearly that the sexually repressed, public school Protestantism of the Iwerne camps led naturally to the abuse he depicts, and he persuasively demonstrates the connections between Smyth’s actions and some of the practices and theology of the Iwerne camps. However, I believe (perhaps it is the former Iwerne boy speaking) that such is the pervasiveness of human sin, that abuse can spring from of a whole range of contexts, and is far from confined to environments that seem conservative and repressed and seek to push back against hyper-sexualised modern culture. Would it not be right, on balance, to note that abuse also frequently springs from the highly permissive, sex-saturated, liberal, atheistic western liberal culture that surrounds us? There are – and perhaps again my reaction against the Iwerne experience is speaking here – no easy answers.
Where, then, is evil; where does it come from and how did it creep in? What is its root, its seed… if the good God made all things good?
Augustine, Confessions, Book VII.5.7.
The Venerable Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings.