TWO DISTURBING REPORTS have recently been published on serious failings in dealing with abuse in Christian circles. These describe how worldly imbalances of power and privilege were embraced within sections of the church and wielded, sometimes brutally. Despite welcome measures to improve safety in some organisations, aspects of this culture persist.
Meanwhile top Church of England leaders have, with some exceptions, tended to ignore a rapid loss of human rights and weakening of democracy nationally, despite drastic effects on those already facing damaging inequalities. This includes an attack on the right to protest and move freely, threats to minority ethnic UK citizens and plans which may bar many people from voting, though brutal measures against asylum-seekers have attracted slightly more criticism.
Despite findings of alarming failings in the government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, in which profit and cutting public services often took priority over human life, there has been no change of tack. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, praises “greed” as a driving force for society. Yet bishops have mainly stayed silent.
Local congregations are often more willing to act and those in senior positions are often personally compassionate. Yet in the wider world as well as internally, the institution frequently overlooks or even reinforces injustice, glossing over the realities of oppression and cruelty. There is a risk of turning from the Divine, who overturns hierarchies (Luke 6.20-26, 22.24-27, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31) and is willing to suffer humiliation and death so that all may have life, to a god made in the image of prestigious and powerful men.e state
A close relationship with the state is one factor, as well as skewed theologies of unity and mission. And confronting those who dominate can be hard. But avoiding this harms not only people abused or marginalised but also a far wider group, including even some of those in the ranks of the powerful yet at a cost to their emotional and spiritual wellbeing. And the church’s ability to reflect and share the good news of God’s love is undermined. Urgent action is needed.
John Smyth and the Scripture Union
Much has been written in recent years about John Smyth’s abuse of boys and young men in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of whom were brutally beaten, after they came into his orbit at Iwerne Camps and elsewhere. He was allowed to escape justice; evidence indicates that he went on to abuse boys in southern Africa, after moving there.. He died in 2018. Iwerne, for boys from top private schools, was connected with the Scripture Union (SU), of which he was also a trustee at one time, so it commissioned an independent case review. Gill Camina of Universal Safeguarding Solutions undertook this.
He was for a while a licensed lay minister in the Church of England, several of whose future leaders would undergo some of their spiritual formation at Iwerne. The culture surrounding Smyth is especially important since Conservative Evangelicals (CE) opposed both to women’s ordination and affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people still wield disproportionate influence in this church.
A report in the early ‘80s on “horrific beatings”, once allegations surfaced, was seen by few people. The newly-published review’s executive summary stated, “The accounts of victims consistently describe the requirement for all parties to be naked during the beatings and describe Smyth kissing, stroking and fondling them after beatings in contrast to the brutality and trauma of the beating they had just experienced.”
Apparently, “the expressed Iwerne leadership policy position throughout the period of the review was that the ‘Kingdom’ and God were best served by avoidance of any sharing [of] information outside of Iwerne and the need to protect the reputation of the organisation.” Deference to those who held this view may have been due in part to “social class and status. The evangelical Anglican church leadership in England and Wales was, and continues to be, demonstrably dominated by wealthy, socially elite, highly educated white males… The individuals who received full disclosure of Smyth’s abuse have all been described by victims as having ‘huge social polish’ which made them very convincing, dominant and persuasive.”
The summary said, “It is critical that risks related to social class, socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, familial faith settings, culture and disability are acknowledged, accepted and considered if future safeguarding concerns are to be responded to appropriately.”
While elitism exists in other church factions, the idea that leaders had unique access to biblical truth, and were training those who would go on to claim the nation for God, left victims even more isolated. Factors included “an over-developed sense of group allegiance and belonging”, “a strongly cultivated suspicion of and disregard for ‘outsiders’” and “the misuse and misrepresentation of Biblical Scripture to justify and celebrate the infliction of suffering and pain. Those who did not believe in the absolute truth of Scripture were presented and described as ‘the enemy’… and therefore it was almost impossible for the victims/SU/non-ordained professionals to challenge anything that was presented as supported by Scripture.”
Emmanuel Church Wimbledon
David Fletcher, who was a leading figure at Iwerne, is the brother of Jonathan Fletcher (JF), the disgraced Church of England priest formerly in charge of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon (ECW). When reports surfaced that he had used his position to pressure young men into naked beatings and massages, ice baths and so forth, and his permission to celebrate communion was withdrawn. But he remained hugely influential in the CE world.
Independent Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight was commissioned by ECW to undertake an independent Lessons Learned Review, which describes specific failings and also the background against which this happened. According to this JF, former vicar at ECW – part of the Church of England but with some independence as a proprietary chapel, could be kind, hospitable and charming but also bullying and domineering. In parts of the wider CE world, he exercised “great influence over career placements and being referred to as a ‘king maker’. JF’s approval was prized and noted by many as essential for career progression in this constituency.”
The review described how “The focus on public-school background and the connection for many to Iwerne, where for some relationships with JF were established, framed the context and served as a catalyst to some of the harmful relationships later reported. Importantly, it was also a place where models of leadership, discourses of protecting the gospel and the celebration of masculine Christianity were embedded in the lives of many.” The diocesan leadership “was seen as ‘liberal’ and therefore also seen with some suspicion. This resulted in a negative lens around safeguarding to a large extent as something imposed by the Diocese.”
For some, ECW provided a sense of family, with JF as a father-figure. What is more, “the interconnectedness of Iwerne and other parts of the CE world” played a part in what happened”, as “‘protecting the gospel’ or ‘protecting the network’” were “seen as the ultimate goal” and institutions “prioritised over individuals.”
The narrow theological approach added to the pressure on those in his circle. In addition to “a shame culture in Bible studies… the focus on ‘sound, solid and orthodox’ theology, for some, resulted in a pressure to get every answer right.”
Many people who gave evidence expressed ongoing fear, in part because of ECW’s “ongoing relationships with many organisations in the CE constituency including Iwerne, The Proclamation Trust, ReNew, Reform, Cornhill, Church Society and GAFCON… JF’s strong influence on individuals’ careers was a key theme in the interviews.”
Elitism was apparent: “ECW was, to a large extent, a church comprised of successful professionals; there was not a great amount of diversity in terms of ethnicity, education, class or background. Within ECW there was reported to be the inner ring of those who were favoured by JF…The characteristics of those were that they were men, predominantly with public school backgrounds, often sporty and most of whom had attended Iwerne camps. These were frequently referred to as ‘bright young things.’” Gender inequality was part of the theology: there were “no women in leadership… It was clear that some women had experienced significant pain from their positioning within ECW and the lack of recognition of their abilities, gifts and place within the Church.”
An appendix mentioned that, in 1983, JF was invited to become a member of Nobody’s Friends. This is a Lambeth Palace dining club bringing together various members of the British establishment. Other writings have examined his influence earlier, when a curate in Cambridge, on future evangelical leaders such as Nicky Gumbel, who became a key figure through his work in Holy Trinity Brompton, and probably Justin Welby (an ex-Iwerne volunteer), now Archbishop of Canterbury.
A ‘Christian’ culture at odds with the Gospel
That such scandals have come to light is due largely to people who have either emerged from, or stay within, the CE world, while rejecting the cruelty and deception represented by John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher. While each individual is unique, in 2019 Charles Foster, a barrister and ethicist, powerfully described his damaging experience of Iwerne, even without falling victim to Smyth.
Iwerne camps “were established by E.J.H. Nash (‘Bash’). ‘Lord’, he prayed, ‘we claim the leading public schools for your kingdom’. The assumption was that if you convert the ‘elite’, the rest of the world will follow, since that’s how society works…
“Iwerne was profoundly authoritarian… The ultimate accolade was ‘He’s sound’ – by which we meant that all his thoughts were diligently shaded from the light of reflection, scholarship, and experience.” In his view “The theology was banal, stern, and cruel – a set of suffocatingly simple propositions held with steely eyed zeal. Its insistence on penal substitution and nothing but penal substitution embodied and tacitly encouraged the notion that ultimate good depended on violence.”
Foster wrote of a theology detached from caring for the hungry, stranger or prisoner, which sought instead to serve both God and Mammon and in which emotion was taboo – a relief for those left emotionally stunted by their schooling and conditioning. While some will have had more positive experiences, this and other personal accounts illuminate both the pull of this approach – offering a kind of security and assurance of being special, provided one conforms – and its dangers.
Yet why has the wider Church of England leadership been so slow to act, both on ensuring consistent responses to abuse and more generally challenging this damaging theology, in which a kind of upper-class masculinity is idolised and the Holy Spirit held at bay?
Reasons perhaps include still feeling some loyalty to, or fear of offending, those such as Jonathan Fletcher, for those once under their spell. While Welby is now a far broader evangelical, like several others who have grown away from those roots, there may still be some bonds of friendship or familiarity. Shared aspects of identity, including as influential and respected establishment figures who could use their gifts and position for God’s glory, may be another tie. It may be harder to empathise with those on the margins in some way. This may be especially so if a distorted belief in unity as the prime Christian virtue is held, not as Divine gift but rather achieved through giving in to those used to being on top.
There is also a view of mission as mainly numbers-driven and some CE churches as especially efficient (though it is not so evident when people drop out or are driven away). Also an approach which sidesteps issues of power and privilege may be seen as maximising church resources. Yet at a time of national crisis and when many wonder how much this Church values love and justice, radical change is vital.
Jesus’ invitation, in the Gospels, to take up the cross (Matthew 16.24-26) is not easy for people or institutions, even churches. Now, as two thousand years ago, it is risky to abandon respectability and safety and challenge the powers-that-be when they refuse abundant life to all. And dying to the old ways of callousness, violence and oppression (Romans 6.5-8) can be painful. Yet, in Christian tradition, this can be a glorious gateway to being fully alive.
* See also the searing voice of survivors in Letters to a Broken Church, edited by Janet Fife and Gilo (Ekklesia Publishing, 2019).
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016) and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.