Back in the 1930s, a clergyman named Eric Nash decided that what the country needed was more evangelisation of the upper classes. They would all give their lives to Christ and come to rule the country, and hence all their goodness would trickle down to the unwashed masses and Britain would be a properly Christian nation, huzzah. To that end a series of camps were instituted, mostly set in the Dorset village of Iwerne (pronounced “you-urn”) and aimed exclusively at public schoolboys, which still run to this day. It was all very muscular Christianity, majoring heavily on the utter depravity of humanity and the extreme physical suffering of Jesus to atone for it, so be grateful and believe in him, you ungrateful bastards! Nash was evidently a humourless zealot, though lauded as a saint in certain quarters, and the camps sound pretty ghastly.
But, they persisted. Justin Welby is an alumnus; so am I. They were much less ghastly by the time I started going in the mid-80s, though even then I was questioning the exclusively public school (and male) bias, and it wasn’t too hard to stop going.
Problem: in the days before proper safeguarding, they were pretty well a safe haven for people who liked to do things other than evangelise to boys, and the worst offender was one John Smyth. He was a high flying QC, a moral paragon – he acted for Mary Whitehouse in the Gay News blasphemy trial – and he had a taste for beating young men until they bled (hence the title of the book), and somehow making them feel grateful for the privilege. I mean, they kept coming back, of their own volition.
To their credit, once the camp leaders realised what was happening, he was barred. To their discredit, they did nothing so vulgar as tell the police or offer help to his victims, in case the bad publicity damaged the sacred mission of the camps. He was encouraged instead to leave the country, meaning that he just exported his practices to Zimbabwe and South Africa. All this only came to light a few years ago, in an effort spearheaded by Channel 4 and the author of this book.
It’s harrowing stuff, and some of the people named in the running of the camps were still around when I was there. However, I will also say that in the two or three camps I attended I learned a great deal to my benefit and they helped me get my head screwed on right as a Christian. Part of that was the ability to sift and filter and, you know, question. But I must also face up to the fact that I have been taught good stuff by people who effectively colluded in bad stuff.
The book is not without flaws. It could have been much better edited and not all the piecing together of facts makes sense, though the author is convinced it does. It makes the classic error of saying “X was taught Y, therefore X believes Y,” when in fact X is perfectly capable of making up their own mind. Justin Welby did, and so did I.