Smyth Scandal Rumbles On

Screenshot from Channel Four |
Screenshot from Channel Four

Postcard from London

By John Martin

John Smyth, a lawyer alleged to have beaten boys from elite English schools who attended evangelical summer camps, has died of heart failure in Cape Town on Aug. 15. His death has abruptly halted attempts to bring him to the United Kingdom for police questioning, but this scandal rumbles on.

Archbishop Justin Welby was a junior officer at camps Smyth led, but has said he was unaware of such abuse.

This is a scandal with long tentacles. It touches the great and good in U.K. church life and it is an example of secrecy pervading some Christian circles. Why was a confidential Iwerne report into his activities, compiled in the 1980s, never made public or passed on to the police? Why was Smyth allowed to leave the U.K. and help found a camping movement in Zimbabwe?

Many of these issues will be pursued. Pundits have opined that the Church of England should commission an inquiry. But even this is not straightforward. Plenty of Anglicans were involved with the Iwerne Trust that ran these camps, but it was originally an interdenominational agency under the umbrella of Scripture Union. Iwerne Trust no longer exists.

The Titus Trust, which now runs activity holidays for children and young people from independent schools and is acknowledged as Iwerne’s successor, has issued a statement expressing regret that Smyth’s death “has robbed his victims of the opportunity to see justice done.”

“Since 2014, when the board of the Titus Trust was informed of the allegations, we have done all we can to ensure the matter is properly investigated by the relevant authorities,” the statement added. “We sympathize deeply with Smyth’s victims and continue to pray that they find healing and freedom from the harm that was so unjustly inflicted on them. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the news of John Smyth’s death.”

A group of men who say they were groomed and beaten by Smyth have launched a legal claim against Titus Trust.

“I have personally written to every individual Titus Trustee more than once, pleading for them to do their duty as trustees and as Christians, and help the victims,” said victims’ advocate Andrew Graystone. “Not one has responded. The refusal of the trustees to offer any help to Smyth’s victims has massively compounded their suffering.”

The Rev. Eric Nash, known to his friends as “Bash,” devoted his life to bringing the gospel to boys from the top 30 British elite fee-paying schools. He launched summer camps to reach this target group. Attendance was by invitation only.

He wanted to influence the nation by reaching the few to reach the many. Alluding to Jesus’ parable of the talents, Nash would pray: “Lord, we know that thou dost love one-talent and two-talent men, but we pray that thou wouldst give us a five-talent man.”

To this day those who attended the gatherings are called “Bash campers.” Many of them had an important influence on turning around the fortunes of evangelicals who between the wars had lost their way in British church life.

An estimated 200 Bash campers entered the ministry of the Church of England. Among the best known were Michael Green, John Stott, and David Watson. Bishops included hymnwriter Timothy Dudley-Smith, David Sheppard and Maurice Wood. Latter-day Bash campers include the rectors Hugh Palmer of All Souls’ Langham Place and William Taylor of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate and vicar Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton.

In another era the chief influence exercised by Bash campers was in student outreach, in particular through InterVarsity Fellowship (now Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship). Today, however, Iwerne’s chief legacy is the Alpha Course, founded at Holy Trinity Brompton and expanded through Gumbel.

David Fletcher, who succeeded Nash at Iwerne, has described Alpha as “basically the Iwerne camp talk scheme with charismatic stuff added on.” Nash’s surviving notes from talks invariably end with the ABC: “Admit your need of Christ; Believe that Christ died for you; Come to Him.”

Iwerne camps and their progeny certainly had a significant role in shaping the thinking of U.K. evangelicals.

When I took over as editor of The Church of England Newspaper, I was taken aside by John King, who held the job for many years. He said I needed to exercise care about the influence of Bash campers, by then a still influential though largely invisible network.

The Bash camps’ invitation-only template applied elsewhere. Archbishop George Carey once told me that as a young man he declined an invitation to join Eclectics, a society for young evangelical clergy founded by John Stott, because its membership was by invitation only.

David Winter, erstwhile editor of Crusade magazine who became head of the BBC’s religion programming, said that Nash and his camping movement created an “oddly male, oddly elitist, and oddly simplistic world.”

John King has written, “Many ‘Bash campers’ went from school to Cambridge and became pillars of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, so that it was possible, when the movement was at its zenith, for a boy to go from public school to Cambridge, to ordination, to a curacy and to a parish of his own without encountering the kind of life lived outside those particular circles.”

King added that Iwerne discouraged conflict. “As a result, many issues which ought to be faced were quietly avoided.”


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