Book Review: Bleeding for Jesus

Bleeding for Jesus

John Smyth and the cult of the Iwerne Camps

Andrew Graystone

Darton, Longman and Todd, 2021 (ISBN: 9781913657123, 250pp, £12.99)

This book is the latest instalment of a long-running tragedy. It comes six years after the author was first made aware of the abuse of John Smyth and four years after the resulting Channel 4 News reports which he assisted. Since then, Graystone has received further contact from Smyth victims, which has allowed him to flesh out various aspects of the narratives. The main period of abuse in England seems to have been 1978-1982, followed by further abuses in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Meanwhile, the narrative of the handling (or mishandling) of the legacy largely picks up in 2012 and is ongoing nine years later. 

To have all the public details of the Smyth matter brought together in a comprehensive fashion is valuable. Too much discussion of the matter has been sustained by short, guarded statements, hushed conversations over dinner party tables, ‘nod and wink’ confidences, social media frenzy, and gratuitous speculation. To his credit, Graystone states clearly and unequivocally the nature of the abuse: Smyth’s brutal caning of dozens of young men with the warped justification that the activity was a means of sanctification. The perversion of Christian discipline which this represented was recognised by many of those involved by early 1982 and stated explicitly in a memo written by Mark Ruston and circulated to trustees of the Iwerne Trust. 

Graystone’s opinion is that Smyth’s abuse was motivated in great measure by the theological distinctives of evangelicalism. He alleges that although Smyth was married (and apparently happily so), his abusive behaviour was the expression of a homosexual inclination unnaturally constrained by his religious environment. In this respect the book veers close to polemic and unhelpfully weaponises a case of serial abuse for deployment in the church’s internal war over sexual ethics. The vast majority of evangelicals, including those with genuine homosexual attraction, do not become abusers. Smyth’s case cannot be generalised in the expansive manner which Graystone attempts.

Despite evidently wide research, the book is also hampered by several factual errors and misapprehensions: the Titus Trust works in independent schools, not just boarding schools; GAFCON has not threatened to break from the Anglican Communion – it is the majority of the Anglican Communion; Iwerne Camps no longer exist, having been wrapped up this year; etc. Alongside such straightforward errors are a swathe of surprisingly unreferenced assertions: Stott’s declaration of his asexuality; directives for the self-identification of ‘gay’ evangelicals; Winchester College forfeit systems; the self-segregation of VPS staff at SU conferences; etc. 

Finally, the errors and assertions are completed with a thick layer of Graystone’s own prejudicial opinion; the gospel taught by SU camps was ‘narrow’; male church leaders form a ‘gentleman’s club’; diversity of sexual expression is ‘beautiful’; and, above all, that Iwerne constituted a sect and (as the title states) a cult. These overreaches undermine the book. Graystone is not alone in seeming to feel justified in using Smyth to indict the whole evangelical world; many commentators have jumped on the bandwagon to denounce their favoured figure of hate. This behaviour is a grave disservice to victims of the abuse and an ill-judged muddying of waters might otherwise have been significantly cleared.

The next main stage in this sorry affair is likely to be the publication of the Makin Report in 2022, the independent inquiry commissioned by the Archbishops’ Council. Whether that will serve to bring any closure, especially to the victims, remains to be seen.

Edward Keene, Little Shelford