“Bleeding for Jesus” by Andrew Graystone – a review and some comments
I don’t often review books on my blog; I’ve tried to steer clear of being a book review blog. Others do it better than I could ever hope to; plus my reading is so eclectic that there would be no discernable pattern for readers. But this book needs to be mentioned here. I’ve talked a bit about spiritual abuse, here and in some of my novels (especially “Square Peg” which draws liberally on my own experiences), so it feels as if this is the best forum for my thoughts on this book. I have done a brief review on Amazon (which was not yet showing when I began writing this) and hope that may help anyone wavering over whether to buy it.
This is the blurb:
A Christian barrister and moral crusader who viciously caned young men in his garden shed. An exclusive network of powerful men seeking control in the Church of England. A shared secret of abuse that casts a dark shadow over a whole generation of Christian leaders. This is the extraordinary true story of John Smyth QC, a high-flying barrister who used his role in the church to abuse more than a hundred men and boys in three countries. It tells how he was spirited out of the UK, and how he played the role of moral crusader to evade justice over four decades. It reveals how scores of respected church leaders turned a blind eye to his history of abuse. Journalist and broadcaster Andrew Graystone has pursued the truth about Smyth and those who enabled him to escape justice. He has heard the excruciating testimony of many of Smyth’s victims, and has uncovered court and church documents, reports, letters and emails. He has investigated the network of exclusive ‘Bash camps’ through which Smyth groomed his victims. For the first time, he presents a comprehensive critique of the Iwerne project and the impact it has had on British society and the church. https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1913657124/
I read the book in a couple of sittings. It’s not terrifically long (less than 250 pages) and is well written in an engaging but not frivolous style. I know that the publishers rushed through the publication (for a variety of reasons) and there’s some small issues with editing; some repetition of material without clarifying why that has been mentioned again, and also a conflation of Plymouth with Portsmouth in reference to a bishop. These are small and relatively unimportant matters. The entire book is shocking. One reason that I had two disturbed and sleepless nights after reading it was the realisation of various gigantic missing pieces in my own experience of spiritual abuse (which I do not wish to detail here) and a greater understanding of how the evil that came through the Iwerne camps filtered out into the wider church community and damaged many lives beyond the immediate reach of the camps and the leaders there. Imagine the mycelium of a malign and toxic fungus reaching through most of the trees in a forest and you get why I felt so shaken and horrified. The abuse itself detailed in the book is shocking enough. The cover-up that has ensued is also deeply shocking.
As a young person I was unaware of the existence of the Iwerne project for a very good reason: I was a state school student. Iwerne dealt exclusively with the boys and young men who came out of what were considered the top 15 private schools in the UK. Their intent was to recruit those who would be leaders in society, whether as clergy, as lawyers, doctors and so on, at the highest levels. The idea was that if they had such men (for until later it was universally male and much of the leadership were misogynistic to a terrifying degree) as Christians, their effect on the country would be powerful.
Except to anyone who has understood the gospels and the person of Jesus, nothing of what these people did was in the slightest bit Christian. The very choice to only recruit from the ranks of the privileged is frankly unchristian; not one of Jesus’s disciples was rich, highly educated or from a higher level of society. He chose from among ordinary people doing ordinary jobs; his reaction to the Rich Young Man who came to him was not to immediately ask the guy to join him but rather ask him to let go of his wealth and privilege first. The beatings, given in the name of promoting holiness and with a gloss of various select New Testament texts, are little more than the surfacing of pernicious gnostic heresies that deemed the body evil and to be subdued and punished. The effects of physical pain inflicted in this way is well documented in studies of S&M: endorphins kick in and a kind of high ensues, there is a feeling of catharsis and bliss and release. This is not holiness. It’s the body’s mechanism for surviving catastrophic injury and illness. Yet it’s close enough to a numinous and mystical experience to baffle those already brainwashed and enthralled by a man whose personal charm and charisma were enormous, that they believed themselves to be singled out for an extraordinary life. Iwerne was, to put it bluntly, a cult, and the members behaviours is classic cult behaviour.
The persistence of those still in power to keep the lid on this, not to address any of it, but sweep it under the carpet and hope it is swiftly forgotten, is impressive. My feeling is there is so much more to come out. Those who have been harmed will not forget. People have speculated why spiritual abuse is so damaging, asked why don’t those just walk away from the church, wash their hands of faith entirely, and forget they were ever involved. Graystone succinctly sums up why this is not possible:
“The nature of abuse is to inflict trauma on the personhood of the victim. It is a conscious invasion intended to violently challenge and destabilise the physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual identity of the other – to fundamentally devalue them and forcefully mark them with the identity of the abuser. In other words, abuse, whether physical, sexual, spiritual or emotional, is always relational. Where the abuser is deeply identified with an organisation or culture, as John Smyth was with conservative Christianity, the identity that is marked includes that of the organisation.
“So a victim abused by a Christian is indelibly marked as a victim of Christian abuse, and the relationship that is damaged is not only between the victim and the abuser, but also between the victim and God. When John Smyth beat his victims he was baptising them, not into the identity of Christ but into a false identity as a worthless object for his pleasure.” (p210)
From a personal perspective, this rings true. Much as I have wanted to stay away from the church since then, I have not been able to; what I experienced damaged my own relationship with the divine terribly badly. Any embryonic sense of vocation was aborted by what happened.
Touching on some of the wider ranging reach of the abuse, Graystone also says:
“This is a book about men who abuse men. Men abuse women too, both in person and through the institutions they sustain. Perhaps the hidden victims of the Iwerne movement are the thousands of women who have been led to believe that they are in some way created to be subordinate. I know that some conservative evangelicals who will want to say that the Bible carves out an equal and complimentary role for women alongside men, but again, the deprivation of opportunity for women is a matter of culture as much as teaching. I’m well aware too that there are more women who suffer physical and sexual abuse in the church than there are men; that the church treats female victims even more badly that it treats male, and that the degree of blindness to this in myself and others is greater than it is towards men.” (p208)
At the time of the activities of Smyth in the UK, the ordination of women was something being campaigned for, fought about and by 1992 was finally allowed. Yet it was held back and suppressed and damaged by Iwerne alumni, and to this day the divisions are still brutal. They still have great reach.
It’s said that a participant in any battle sees very little of the battle at large, only being witness to what they could see and experience in their immediate environs. For me, this book has shown me what was going on elsewhere on the battlefield beyond the smoke and blood and fear of my own tiny part in that battle. None of this should ever have happened, to any of us. Please consider buying, reading, reviewing, discussing, buying copies for your church library/bookstall, because it might be the piece in a jigsaw you (or others) may need to make more sense of your own experiences. I’ve found this incredibly difficult to write about because of so many difficult emotions and memories, so I am going to leave it here and hope that it reaches those who need to read it.