On 6 February 2017, Andrew Watson, the Bishop of Guildford issued the following statement concerning the activities of John Smyth in the late 1970s and early 80s.
A statement by the Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson.
“I am one of the survivors of John Smyth’s appalling activities in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. I am also one of the Bishops in the Church of England. This has placed me in a unique and challenging position when it comes to the events of the past few days.
“My own story is certainly less traumatic than that of some others. I was drawn into the Smyth circle, as they were, and the beating I endured in the infamous garden shed was violent, excruciating and shocking; but it was thankfully a one-off experience never to be repeated. A while later one of my friends attempted suicide on the eve of another session in the shed (a story movingly told in the Channel 4 Report), and at that point I and a friend shared our story.
“I have been in contact with the Hampshire police over the weekend, and it would not be appropriate to say much more at this time, except that my profoundest prayers are with all those affected by this, and my heartfelt desire is that lessons might be learnt so this never happens again. I am grateful to the Archbishop of Canterbury for his apology to survivors on behalf of the Church, and don’t begin to believe that he knew anything of Smyth’s violent activities until his office was informed in 2013.
“I would also like to express the concern of myself and some of my fellow survivors that we are seen as people and not used as pawns in some political or religious game. Abusers espouse all theologies and none; and absolutely nothing that happened in the Smyth shed was the natural fruit of any Christian theology that I’ve come across before or since. It was abuse perpetrated by a misguided, manipulative and dangerous man, tragically playing on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.”
+Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford
However you look at it, this is unforgiving gossip, that sets a very bad example to Christians in the Guildford Diocese.
Jesus taught us,
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. [Matthew 18]
That is the very opposite of saying nothing, harbouring a grudge for more than 30 years, and then making allegations to the police, and then issuing a press statement about it. His grace is simply jumping on a band wagon.
With respect, I don’t think that’s the right way of looking at the statement. This is a deeply troubling and complex case on a number of levels.
1. From a Christian perspective, we are called – I would be prepared to admit: required – to forgive. That implies not directly suing other members of our church before a secular judge as Paul makes clear (1 Cor 6:1) and the Ecclesiastical Courts find their origin here. The trouble is that once John Smyth was “banished” there has been the suggestion (and given it’s nature, the inevitability perhaps) that his behaviour continued. For the Christian, there is the additional obligation to expose the works of darkness (Eph 5:11) which operates regardless of forgiveness and to honour the king so far as the criminal law is concerned (1 Peter 2:17). Given where we have got to, only by asking Smyth to face these allegations will there be justice – either for his name to be cleared or for the real degree of criminality to be exposed with the opportunity for repentance. The bishop’s approach does not seem inconsistent with this approach.
2. The clue for the reason for the bishop’s statement may be the final paragraph. There is a real danger that a large body of people involved in the institutions affected by these allegations will be slandered unjustly by both those outside the church and those who are hostile to evangelicals. Some of the reports (especially the headlines) have been suggesting that the alleged abuse took place on the Iwerne Camps but there does not appear to be any suggestion of that from the 22. One of the survivors has, however, suggested that the Iwerne Camps were an “unsafe place” to be without substantiating that allegation. As a Christian who took his first steps towards accepting Jesus at one of these camps I can only say that, in my experience, I have never felt safer anywhere else – which is why I find this matter so rattling. The bishop’s statement is therefore helpful in providing a dissenting view on this point.
3. Finally and most importantly there needs to be a recognition of the immense spiritual damage that may have been inflicted here. It is a reassurance to hear that some of the 22 are persevering in the faith today despite what is alleged to have happened. That the Bishop of Guildford is one of the 22 is both a surprise (humanly speaking) and a reassurance to those for whom Iwerne was the context of their early discipleship of Jesus.
Perhaps you will find fault with my thinking which for the avoidance of doubt I am prepared to accept but that is my honest reflection as it currently stands.
John Allman has expressed one view; Oliver Iliffe the contrary. With respect, I propose to close comments at this point, because the matter looks like becoming one for Hampshire Police – which is the reason why David and I have refrained from commenting ourselves.
I would like to have contrasted the secular approach to this situation but I appreciate Frank’s concern that this matter may end up becoming sub judice and will therefore refrain from making any further comments.
I am sure Frank and David will bring the matter back to our attention once any due process has been fully concluded.
Thanks for being so understanding!