Cathy Newman and Channel 4 News have been offering some good reporting in recent days, investigating the case of John Smyth.
The late Mary Whitehouse's go-to lawyer, he has been accused of savagely beating teenage boys and young men in Britain, and other allegations of inappropriate behaviour have emerged in in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
So far he has made no statement admitting or denying the allegations.
Today I have come across two article that fill in the social and religious background to the affair.
Matthew Scott was a pupil at Winchester, the school to which Smyth attached himself. He describes the religious atmosphere of the place of the wider upper-class circles in which the man moved:
Smyth’s apparent taste for flagellation first came to the attention of the Church in 1982 after his behaviour was reported to the Iwerne Trust, a Church organisation that, amongst other things, organised “Christian summer camps” for public school-boys. One of the aims was to foster their leadership potential. Mr Smyth was the Chairman of the Trust.
To my mind, even without the beatings, the camps sound perfectly horrible on every conceivable level, and so they apparently were for some of those who came under the spell of Mr Smyth.Meanwhile, Giles Fraser is critical of the church authorities' haste to deny any connection between abuse and some forms of religious teaching.
And he says that failure to face the truth arises naturally from the movement of which Smyth was a member:
Beatings aside, the other problem with the Smyth holiday camps was that they discouraged theological reflection. The camps were founded by Rev Eric Nash – or Bash as he was unfortunately known. He called himself the “commandant”, his deputy was the “adjutant”, other leaders were “officers”.
Even among evangelicals, he was noted for his hostility to the critical reflection of theology. He “regarded theologians with suspicion and mistrust”, said Rev Michael Green.
Moreover, as John King wrote in his book The Evangelicals, “controversy is eschewed by ‘Bash campers’; it is held to be noisy and undignified – and potentially damaging. As a result, many issues that ought to be faced are quietly avoided … any who question are liable to find themselves outside the pale. It does not give a place to the process of argument, consultation and independent thought.”
From Alpha to archbishop, these camps produced the current leadership of the Church of England.Let us end by noting that evangelicals fought to keep corporal punishment in British schools even after the teaching unions had given up on the idea.
Oh, and Smyth's son is pastor of the Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which is cut from the same religious cloth and has in the past had its own problems with accusations of abuse.