The Riot Club is a film about an elitist drinking club at Oxford University. At one of their gatherings, events get badly out of hand and a pub landlord ends up being killed. In the ensuing investigation, the students agree to not cooperate with the authorities in order to protect the club.
Bleeding for Jesus is the shocking story of how John Smyth abused scores of young men within context of conservative evangelical Christianity. In some ways the austere and moralistic culture could not be more different to The Riot Club’s open debauchery and hedonism.
But actually many of the themes are very similar: private-school elitism, all-male institutions, sexual violence and a cover-up to protect an institution. Just as in The Riot Club, the themes of class, entitlement and privilege are inseparable to the events it describes.
John Smyth QC was a high-flying lawyer who made his name in the 1970s providing the legal expertise to Mary Whitehouse’s moral campaigns. He lived close to the prestigious private school Winchester College and got involved in its Christian Forum. He also became a leader in the exclusive Iwerne camps which only accepted boys from the top 30 private schools in the country.
With these connections, Smyth invited selected boys back to his house where he persuaded some that they should be beaten in his garden shed as part of their Christian discipleship. Smyth was a sadist who took sexual pleasure in controlling and punishing young men. He became Chairman of the Iwerne camps and abused at least 27 young men during this time.
What is equally as appalling as Smyth’s abuse is the failure of any of the institutions in which he participated to address his behaviour. When Smyth’s abuse was finally exposed in 1982, trustees of Iwerne are involved in covering it up and helping him move to Zimbabwe.
There, Smyth goes on to establish new camps and abuse even more boys. When his behaviour is challenged, Smyth moves to South Africa but even then he continues to groom and abuse.
Andrew Graystone is a Christian journalist and broadcaster who has researched Smyth’s abuse for the past 6 years. He relentlessly exposes the failure of the Iwerne camps, the Titus Trust (the new name for the organisation who run the camps) and the Church of England to adequately address and act against Smyth’s appalling behaviour.
Bleeding for Jesus is chiefly a work of reportage and this grim story is told with a forensic level of detail. For the bulk of the book, Graystone lets the story do the talking.
Apocalypse literally means ‘unveiling’. The scandals surrounding Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher are apocalyptic moments for the conservative evangelical ‘constituency’ (as they call it) because they unveil far more than just two individual ‘bad apples’.
As Graystone quotes abuse survivor Lee Furney:
‘Bad apples grow on diseased trees’
Whilst never part of this constituency, I have spent considerable time adjacent to it. And through friends and from responses to my recent article about my brother, I am aware of how these scandals are causing some genuine self-examination among conservative evangelicals.
I think two cultural steps are most relevant:
De-construction of arrogance. Even many within it would admit that the conservative evangelical culture is not hall-marked by humility or a generosity towards other traditions. It tends to look down on or patronise other perspectives and consider them ‘unsound’.
De-construction of privilege. There are already too many institutions which perpetuate inequality without having Christian initiatives only for children from private schools. I have been involved in Christian youth camps for decades and most are already too middle-class. The Titus Trust’s policy of not accepting children from state schools is simply not tenable.
I hope that Graystone’s book is part of helping these forms of cultural change to happen. But alongside my admiration for this book, I would raise three areas of criticism:
Firstly, there has already been a number of claims of factual inaccuracies. One example is James Stileman, former Director of the Titus Trust, who has published a list of 26 corrections to Graystone’s claims.
This example relates to Stileman’s relationship with the late Simon Doggart, who was both a victim of Smyth and an abuser of others:
What the book says: “This information was a hammer blow to Stileman. Doggart had been his close friend and golf partner for years, and they were godparents to each other’s children…..Now it looked as if Stileman would have to challenge his old friend about his abusive past.”
This is completely untrue
I was not a close friend of Simon Doggart, I never played golf with him and we definitely weren’t godparents to each other’s children.
Some of Stileman’s claims of inaccuracy are significant and it is understandable for anyone implicated in such matters to be concerned with factual accuracy. The demands of truth go in both directions.
2. Weak analysis
If the book’s strength is its reportage, then its weakness is its analysis of the links between conservative theology and abuse. Take this statement:
‘One factor is the evangelical theology of bodily atonement for sin, that slips so easily into physical abuse. The idea that violence wrought on the Son of God was somehow redemptive invites the vulnerable to believe that pain itself can deal with sin.’
The possible links between evangelical theology and violence, especially the idea that Jesus died to appease God’s anger, are a legitimate point of discussion. But it requires a far more careful and focussed attention than Graystone provides.
In this book, conservative theology is only cast as oppressive, whereas I would argue much of it also serves to value, protect and inspire. It means that rather than sounding measured and evidenced, Graystone’s anger overspills into comments which sound dismissive and tribal.
3. A cult?
Thirdly, whilst I believe that criticism of Iwerne’s theology, culture and elitist criteria is valid, I am not convinced that the camps can be described as a cult.
The term needs to be used precisely to have any value and the Cult Information Centre provides a very specific five-fold definition. Elements of Iwerne may be ‘cult-like’ but it is going too far to compare it with groups like the Moonies or the Branch Davidians.
A strength of the podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, is its balance and its acknowledgement of the strengths of those it criticises.
Similarly, Graystone’s argument would have been enhanced by acknowledging what generations of young men have appreciated and gained from the Iwerne camps. The absence of any positives means the book has a lack of balance and an edge of bitterness which diminishes it.
Disturbing and important
These criticisms aside, I believe that Bleeding for Jesus is a very important book. Graystone has done a significant job in unveiling Smyth’s catalogue of abuse and highlighting the culture which enabled it. I think it is an important read for anyone involved in church leadership.
Whatever our tradition or background, the whole Church must engage with reality and humbly learn the lessons from such terrible episodes. It is our responsibility to ensure that no one again causes the damage that John Smyth did.