When our diocesan bishop revealed that he had been one of the boys beaten by John Smyth at the Iwerne Camps in the 1970s, there was around the diocese first mild surprise and then sympathy. It seems all to the good that a Church leader can talk about horrible things of this kind openly, and a sign of how far we’ve come since the time when clergy were supposed to present themselves as impervious and distant, for the good of the flock.
Towards the end of his statement, Bp Andrew pleads that those who went through John Smyth’s abusive behaviour should not be ‘used as pawns in some political or religious game’. He surely has in mind articles like this one from the ever-reliably-outraged Fr Giles Fraser connecting Smyth’s violence to a toxic Imperial vision of masculinity underpinned by Evangelical Christianity, a visceral reaction against the poofiness of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. Fr Fraser (as usual) paints a compelling picture, and there is no doubt that Smyth made sure his victims voluntarily submitted themselves to his ‘discipline’ by using the standard Evangelical theology of the camps. Bp Andrew’s claim that abusers operate within all religious frameworks and none is of course true, but it glosses over the extent to which religious language and ideas facilitate abuse in these cases and is even used very effectively to make the victims collaborate in their own suffering. The common elements include removing children and young people (and in other versions of this kind of thing, adults too) from contexts of normality into an abnormal one in which their normal relationships don’t count, creating circumstances in which authority is not questioned, and rearing them in an ideology which works to removal critical thinking.
In this case, more specifically, I think there is some meat to the allegation that the Imperial cult of ‘manliness’ and Christianity were connected, even long after the Empire ceased to be relevant. You can see this again and again in the biographies of public-school chaps from the late Victorian era onwards. But that was just one facet of a wider culture in which the beating of children was accepted and expected, which Christianity didn’t produce, however much it may have collaborated with it.
Our curate Marion told me that her husband (an Old Wykehamist) came from exactly the same social and educational echelon that would under normal conditions have taken him to the Iwerne Camps. ‘I don’t think he’s ever been as grateful for being brought up a Roman Catholic’. Because nothing like that ever happened in the Catholic Church, of course …