Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Welby’s claims of ignorance of abuse not credible bishop charges

Bishop of Buckingham said he was “absolutely sure” Justin Welby “talked about” abuse at the Christian summer camp where he served as a counsellor in the 1970s.

The Bishop of Buckingham has declined to clarify his assertion the Archbishop of Canterbury was not being entirely straight forward when he denied any knowledge of sado-masochistic abuse by an individual who led boy’s church camp where he once served as a counselor.

The Rt. Rev. Alan Wilson also charged the abuse at the socially exclusive “Bash” camps in the 1970s was fueled by their conservative evangelical worldview, which promulgated a “nasty” and “punitive” doctrine of a vicious God.

Asked if he would clarify or expand upon his remarks made In an interview broadcast on 3 February 2017 by Channel 4 News, the Rt. Rev. Alan Wilson, told Anglican Ink: “I said exactly what I said, no more no less.”

Over the past week Channel 4 news has run a series of exposes of abuse in the 1970’s committed by a leader of summer camps run by the Iwerne Trust. Founded in 1932 by the Rev. E.J.J. Nash, the “Bash” camps invited boys from Britain’s top 30 public schools to programs that sought to mold their character and worldview. Over 7000 boys have attended the camps including many influential church leaders such as John Stott, David Sheppard, Michael Green, David Lucas, and Justin Welby.

In the late 1970’s Justin Welby served as a dormitory officer or counsellor at camps led by John Smyth, QC, a prominent barrister and campaigner on public morals.

In its investigation, Channel 4 reported that Smyth savagely beat some of the boys, seeking to purge them from sin through canning. An internal investigation conducted by the Iwerne Trust in 1982 after one young man attempted suicide documented Smyth’s misconduct.  The report found that there had been no cases of sexual abuse committed by Smyth and that all of the alleged assaults took place at his Hampshire home —  not at the Iwerne camps. He was pressured to leave the country, moving first to Zimbabwe then to South Africa. No complaints were filed with the police, however, and the abuse was not reported to the authorities until 2013.

In a statement released last week, the Lambeth Palace press office said Archbishop Justin Welby had no knowledge of the abuse until 2013.  “John Smyth was one of the main leaders at the camp and although the Archbishop worked with him, he was not part of the inner circle of friends; no one discussed allegations of abuse by John Smyth with him. The Archbishop left England to work in Paris for an oil company in 1978, where he remained for five years. He began training for ordination in 1989.  The Archbishop knew Mr Smyth had moved overseas but, apart from the occasional card, did not maintain contact with him,” the statement said.

In an interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News, Bishop Wilson cast doubt on the archbishop’s claims of ignorance.

“He was very young when all this happened,” Bishop Wilson said, adding “I think the Archbishop’s said what he can personally about it. I accept that.”

Pressed by Ms Newman to state if he believed the archbishop did not learn about the abuse until 2013, Bishop Wilson said: “When you are young you accept things from people you look up to and admire. All of us do that.

“The theological blind spot is the most extraordinary bit of this. I’m sure he acted in good faith by the standards of the day and the way that he was at the time. That kind of close behaviour between people who were involved with these camps – I’m sure they knew one another and I’m absolutely sure they talked about it.”

The greater issue for Bishop Wilson, however, was the influence wielded by products of the Bash camps in the life of the Church of England.

“These camps and [Smyth] activities had extraordinary influence among senior evangelicals in the Church of England of my generation. Pretty much everybody who was anybody in the leadership of public school Anglican evangelicalism had something to do with John Smyth’s operation.”

He stated the “bigger question is what lies behind it really about the mentality of these people who have been immensely influential in the Church of England.”

The “theology that these people.” conservative evangelicals, “bring to the table very often has an element of violence and sort of nastiness in it, a kind of element of punitive behaviour. God is seen as this punitive figure who is somehow out to ‘get’ people and I suppose it does blind people to what’s going on in front of them sometimes, when there is that kind of violent basic theology.”

Reaction to the bishop’s comments on social media has been harsh, with some saying his suggestion that the archbishop had been untruthful made Bishop Wilson’s position in the House of Bishop’s “untenable”, while his suggestions that doctrines such as penal substitutionary atonement arose from dark psychological needs were problematic.

This has not been the first brush with controversy for the Bishop of Buckingham. His outspoken support for changing the church’s teaching on human sexuality has led to a quiet rebellion in the diocese of Oxford. Some parishes under his jurisdiction have asked the Bishop of Oxford to send another bishop to their churches for visitations and confirmations, as the Bishop of Buckingham does not have their confidence.

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