Feet of clay, by Ben Jeapes
The Christian holiday camps at Iwerne Minster in Dorset - camps aimed specifically at public schoolboys (see below) - were indispensable to my growth as a Christian. They helped bring scripture to life, and helped me see this dusty old religion thing as actually being alive and exciting. I learnt about grace. I learnt that Jesus really was God. I saw why the Holy Spirit was so important. I am not the only ex-public school Christian to have a Iwerne-shaped hole in his heart, and nothing but positive memories of the place.
And yet, a story broke last week that one John Smyth QC, the former head of the Iwerne Trust, abused several of the boys under him. Once the allegations began to be made, he was quietly removed from his position in the Trust. This was in 1982, which is a couple of years before I started going to the camps, and he subsequently left the country. Justin Welby - also a former Iwerne boy and adult leader, who met Smyth several times - has apologised on behalf of the CofE without reservation, even though it’s not actually anything to do with the CofE apart from by association.
I don't want to make someone else's tragedy all about me. But here's how it is: I am having to face up to the fact that people (one person in particular) I looked up to, and from whom I received sound teaching, and who have an undoubted love for Jesus Christ, and for whom I will always have the deepest respect and affection, are also people who chose not to report Smyth to the police.
I fully accept that understanding of such issues was very different then to what it is now. I realise they probably in fact went above and beyond what was legally required of them to get this man away from the camps, and I gather that one reason for the non-reporting was that the parents of the boys themselves requested it.
But I'm also a product of today's CRB culture, with my consciousness raised by diocesan best practice and a modern awareness of the issue. And again I say, hum.
I only went to a couple of camps. One very good reason is that I just got too old - I left school. Yet, I could have maintained links as an adult - but I chose not to. Iwerne had taught me too well. I couldn’t quite swallow the Iwerne brand of evangelism, precisely because I’d read the Bible as Iwerne recommended and come to different conclusions.
The Iwerne model is entirely scriptural, for a given interpretation of scripture. St Paul can write with a straight face that he has evangelised the provinces of X, Y and Z, when what he means is he has made a few key converts in those provinces, founded some churches, and he is now confident they will continue the good work. The logic translated into 1930s Britain very nicely: evangelise the future leaders of the country, and the country will be evangelised.
In my opinion, the evangelise-the-leaders approach actually does God down. “My strength is made perfect in weakness”, and all that. And any fool can see that the last thing public schoolboys need is to be closeted with other public schoolboys in their spare time and fed a public schoolboy-oriented worldview. I thought it then and I think it even more now.
So I suppose that from an early age I was quite used to taking even Christian leaders that I trusted with a pinch of salt. Test everything, says Paul in 1 Thessalonians. How true.
I have never had a problem with the notion that a spirit-led individual can be nigh-on infallible in the area where the spirit leads, and simultaneously completely wrong in other areas. Ian Paisley was a fearless preacher of the gospel. Mother Theresa was just plain wrong on contraception. I know deeply Christian people on either side of the debate about homosexuality, or ordaining women, or …
Iwerne gave me excellent teaching from excellent people. They kickstarted my faith: to paraphrase Paul again, they got me started on a milk diet, before I was ready for meat. And I will state as a fact that none of the staff would have tolerated Smyth’s activities or perverted theology (he is alleged to have told the boys that he beat them because they had to suffer because Christ suffered) for one second. I'm sure they were devastated when they found out - but only apparently to the point of shifting the problem somewhere else.
And now, here we are and here they are. I’m glad I have never idolised anyone, because even the glossiest idols have feet of clay.
Apart from wanting to tell someone, anyone, why am I putting this on the ACW blog?
Well, we're a writers' organisation, and it guides me as a writer. Writing villains, or just writing realistic, flawed humans.
We are humans. We are messy. We are not designed to be pigeon-holed.
Which excuses nothing.