Smyth, Fletcher, Iwerne, and the theology of the divided self

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John Smyth

I have been following the John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher sagas obsessively. I would like to be able to say that this is out of concern for the victims. But although I do feel deeply for them, my main interest, I must admit, is in the light that the sagas shed on my own past – and particularly the time I spent at the Iwerne camps.

Iwerne, for anyone who doesn’t know, runs Conservative Evangelical holidays for pupils (boys only in my day) from the top few public (i.e. independent) schools. They 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.

I was involved in the Iwerne camps for several years from Summer 1982,  as a ‘Senior Camper’ (general dogsbody) for a year, and then as an ‘Officer’. I gave talks at Iwerne camps and at Iwerne schools. For two years I lodged in Cambridge with Mark Ruston, Vicar of the Round Church (the Iwerne church in Cambridge where Jonathan Fletcher had been a curate), and author of the 1982 report on John Smyth. Justin Welby had lived there a few years earlier. After Cambridge I attended St. Helen’s Bishopsgate for a while.

I escaped from Iwerne’s orbit thanks to a lot of travelling, a lot of forbidden books, and a dark, painful epiphany in a Middle Eastern desert. I repudiated first Iwerne’s insupportable politics and corrosive misogyny. The allure of its algorithmic theology – a tweedy, brisk, Colonial spin on a 16th century Swiss reaction to some mediaeval Roman Catholic abuses – took longer to fade. Though I’m free, the scars remain.

Iwerne was profoundly authoritarian – as the use of the title ‘Officer’ indicates. Unquestioning obedience to the upper echelons was expected. 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. Camp talks were vetted privately for orthodoxy beforehand, and subject to detailed public criticism afterwards.

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. Without penal substitution, John Smyth would have had no thrashing shed in his back garden.

We loved hell, and needed it. We were glad that it was well populated – particularly by people who hadn’t been to major public schools – because that emphasised our status as members of an exclusive club of the redeemed. If hell hadn’t existed, or had been empty, we wouldn’t have felt special. We were elected – socially and theologically – and proud of it: if everyone were elected, it would make a nonsense of election.

The theology chimed perfectly with our politics, our sociology, and the grounds of our self-esteem. We were sheep, and delighted that there were goats. And we never, ever, read the rest of that parable. If someone was hungry, we had better, more urgent, and more eternally significant things to do than feed him. If someone was a stranger, we wouldn’t dream of taking him in: he might not have gone to a strategically significant school. If someone was in prison – well, that was the sort of thing you expected from the lower orders, not from us, and our time would be better spent evangelising stockbrokers at the Varsity Match than visiting him. And as for the Sermon on the Mount? An embarrassment, to be spiritualized into impotence. Blessed are the sleek. Blessed are those who earn. When I should have been handing out soup and blankets at a homeless shelter I was listening to fulminations about the Social Gospel (always capitalized, and apparently more deadly than rabies). Not only can one serve God and Mammon, one should: just ask the banker-prophets filling the pews at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.

Humans were denigrated: they were wholly fallen. They were therefore wholly straightforward – and their needs could thus be met by childishly simple theological formulae. Any books that pretended that there was much in humans to explore or describe were suspect. Shakespeare should have put down his pen and picked up his Scripture Union notes. Humans were made in God’s image, and since God was easy to summarise and explain, so were humans. God wasn’t the ground of being. He was a headmaster, and we liked it that way, since headmasters were one of the only things we really understood.  Mystery and nuance were diabolical. To be moved by anything beautiful was unsound and effeminate. Beauty itself was a snare.

Emotion was taboo – whether religious emotion, in the form of charismatic experience or otherwise, or more general human emotion. For most of us it was a relief to hear this: our schooling and conditioning had left us emotionally stunted, and it was good to know that this stuntedness was what God wanted. Romantic relationships were belittled. A speaker assured us that it was better to be out telling public schoolboys about Isaiah 53 than to be ‘whispering sweet nothings in our girlfriend’s ear as we chewed it off’. We all sniggered nervously and obediently, longing for an ear we could chew without emotional engagement. If we could not be as the single, celibate speaker was (and it was grudgingly recognised that not all could aspire to that high calling), we should marry one of the Laura Ashley-clad lady helpers from Iwerne, and mitigate our guilt by producing new public schoolboys to become Iwerne officers.

We instrumentalized people. The lady helpers cooked at the camps, and were potential incubators of the next generation, and so were tolerable. If someone could be used for ‘the Work’, he was flattered, favoured, and promoted. But at the first sign of ‘unsoundness’ (perhaps a rumour that he’d been a bit too cosy with a non-Christian girl, or had been seen on the London train with a Buddhist book, or if he’d asked in exactly what sense the Iwerne gospel was Good News for homosexuals), out he’d go into the outer darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of Comprehensive school teeth. The speed with which we dropped them, and the rigour of the quarantine, suggests that our main worry was infection.

The high command was shrewd, in its way. It knew that it would take little for the fallacies of its position to be exposed, and it took steps to avoid exposure. It built high-walled ghettos, from which the cultists would emerge solely for the purposes of evangelism, lectures, and rugby, and to which they would retreat at nightfall. Officers, at least in Cambridge, were expected to attend a weekly prayer meeting during term time, at which intelligence from the various ‘camp’ schools was exchanged. This helped the top brass to keep an eye on its officers, and ensured that the officers were kept emotionally tethered to the schools from which they had come themselves – which fostered a sort of nostalgic infantilism, and helped to shroud the intellectual and moral insupportability of Iwerne’s theology.

Why did I put up with it for so long? I have asked the question repeatedly over the years. Part of it was the lure of the Inner Ring: the Masonic secrecy; the flattering insistence that we were the elite; the spiritual stormtroopers of the nation. Part of it no doubt stemmed from our insecurity. We were all from the public schools that were Iwerne’s constituency, and hence emotionally immature and damaged. We needed personal and theological assurance more than most – perhaps particularly because we had to keep up the pretence of poise and infallibility. And, like most people, we loved easy answers.

Broadly there are, I think, three groups of Iwerne alumni. First, there are those who remained inside their ghetto. They have lived timorous (though often stridently dogmatic and chauvinistic) lives – constantly fearful of invasion. They don’t marry, or they marry within the clan, and tend to have jobs that make few demands on the imagination – for you never know where the imagination might lead. Second, there are those who left the ghetto, found that they couldn’t cope without its synthetic certainties, and had some sort of collapse. And third, there are those who left the ghetto, looked back at it in disgust, with regret at the wasted years, with bemusement and remorse because they were taken in, and with a huge sense of relief that they escaped. For them, every free post-Iwerne act is all the more piquant because it is an act of defiance. Mercifully I am in this third class, but I hate the disgust and bitterness that comes with membership, and I’m worried that this blog puts them shamefully on display.

So Iwerne, and the Conservative Evangelical world that Iwerne still dominates, were my worlds for a while. They are Jonathan Fletcher’s worlds, and were John Smyth’s. Jonathan Fletcher’s brother, David, ran the Iwerne camps while I was there. Jonathan is one of the High Priests of Conservative Evangelicalism: Iwerne is his power base. John Smyth was the Chairman of the Iwerne Trust.

I met John Smyth myself only once – probably in 1982. I went to his house to ask his advice about going to the Bar. Nothing untoward happened.

I never heard of the Smyth allegations until the Channel 4 story broke, but when I did hear them I wasn’t surprised. I knew why Smyth had told those boys to go into the shed, and why they had gone.

My wife asked me the other day whether I thought that Smyth was a simple sadist, or whether he actually believed the theological justifications that he mouthed. I am sure that both were true.  He had been trained to be incapable of the (elementary) reflection necessary to realise the dissonance between sadism and Christianity. In our culture, reflection was actively discouraged. Introspection was regarded as egotistical, and a highroad to heresy. Real men got on with manly sports (to burn off their libido and to make them too tired for dodgy philosophising) and with the promulgation of the algorithms.

I recently watched one of the few videos of a Jonathan Fletcher sermon that remains live on the internet. Despite everything that has emerged about him, and despite my own repudiation of his creed and his circle, I was moved. I didn’t and don’t doubt his sincerity for a moment.

That he could believe wholeheartedly what he said, while still behaving in the way that it appears he did is, as in Smyth’s case, a sign of compartmentalization – a compartmentalization that can only be sustained by systematic insistence that self-examination is effeminate and dangerous. There are strange, complex, seething things in the human psyche, we were told. Keep them out of the living areas! They’ll make a mess. Wholeness entails the breaking down of the barriers between the compartments of oneself. A whole person would know that the evangelical algorithms were literally unbelievable, and so we were taught that we should not be whole people.

Walled up behind my own Iwerne reception room were, amongst other things (some tawdry, some glorious), The Tibetan Book of the Dead, some proscribed girlfriends, a taste for animism, and the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. I hope that some of my own walls are coming down. It is slow work, but it helps not to have a philosophy and a hierarchy that insists that God built them.

I sometimes bump into some of the ghettoized people. They have an easy air when they’re on their own territory, with their own people. But get them slightly wrong-footed – lurching against  one of those scrupulously erected internal walls – and the panic rises.

I had lunch with one of them last week. ‘What do you make of the Jonathan Fletcher business?’ I asked. ‘Very sad’, he barked, ‘Now about those building plans….’ There was no getting him back to it. There was too much at stake. It would have demanded a re-evaluation of the algorithms, and the algorithms mattered more than the truth about Christianity, or the truth about himself, or the truth about the kind of creatures humans are.

Some of the best people I have ever known were fed into the Iwerne machine. Such talent, energy, discipline, and goodwill. I mourn for what they might have been – as I mourn, with less reason, for what I might have been had I not been drawn into Iwerne. Some of them are amazing still: the compartments to which they admit me are tastefully furnished and cosy. But if they had been whole!

What I want to know of Smyth, Fletcher, my former and current Iwerne friends, and myself, is this: when you use personal pronouns, what do you mean? When you say ‘I believe’, ‘I love’, or ‘I am saved’, which compartment is speaking?

Vaughan Roberts (himself a Iwerne man – one of the best; an abiding friend for whom I have great respect) made a statement at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly about the Jonathan Fletcher allegations. He said that a ‘lessons learned review’ would be necessary. That review will no doubt deal with questions such as why Fletcher was allowed to minister so widely after his licence to do so had been revoked, and more generally about the Church of England’s safeguarding policies. All very important, of course, but not as urgent and repercussive as many others. What is this theology of Jekyll and Hyde: of the Royal Courts of Justice and bloodstained canes in a Hampshire garden: of buttoned-up exegesis and naked massage? What are we? And how did ‘life in all its fullness’ come to mean a shrivelled, cramped life, characterised by fear of the Other, and maintained only by walling off all the parts of the self that might criticise the tyranny of the algorithms and wish for something better?

Charles Foster is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, a practising barrister, and a writer. He read veterinary medicine and law at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and holds a PhD in medical ethics and law from Cambridge. His research is mainly concerned with questions of identity and personhood in law and ethics, and his latest non-academic book is Being a Beast – an attempt to enter the sensory worlds of non-human animals. He has six children, lives in Oxford, and spends a lot of time in the sea, up mountains, playing folk music in pubs, and in Greece. His website is at www.charlesfoster.co.uk