[Ian Paul] Is evangelical theology abusive?

..But is Andrew Watson right? Or does evangelicalism have a particular problem in this area? It is important to put such a question in the context of other tragic examples of abuse. Bishop Peter Ball was firmly in the sacramental tradition, and was convicted of child sex abuse. John Howard Yoder fell from grace in the Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition. And how quickly we forget the case of Chris Brain and the Nine O’Clock service in Sheffield, firmly in the progressive/’original blessing’ theological tradition. What these situations have in common is a powerful, charismatic figure who attains a status and a following where both victims and ”˜observers’ find it difficult to ask the appropriate questions, and where structures of accountability fail or simply do not exist.

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One comment on “[Ian Paul] Is evangelical theology abusive?

  1. Pageantmaster Ù† says:

    The thing is, it is not that simple. Lytton Strachey in his ‘Eminent Victorians‘ wrote of Dr Arnold of Rugby, the reformer who was the model for many public school headmasters into the middle 20th Century:

    when Dr. Arnold considered that a flogging was necessary, he administered it with gravity. For he had no theoretical objection to corporal punishment. On the contrary, he supported it, as was his wont, by an appeal to general principles. ‘There is,’ he said, ‘an essential inferiority in a boy as compared with a man’; and hence ‘where there is no equality the exercise of superiority implied in personal chastisement’ inevitably followed.

    He was particularly disgusted by the view that ‘personal correction’, as he phrased it, was an insult or a degradation to the boy upon whom it was inflicted; and to accustom young boys to think so appeared to him to be ‘positively mischievous’.

    ‘At an age,’ he wrote, ‘when it is almost impossible to find a true, manly sense of the degradation of guilt or faults, where is the wisdom of encouraging a fantastic sense of the degradation of personal correction? What can be more false, or more adverse to the simplicity, sobriety, and humbleness of mind which are the best ornaments of youth, and offer the best promise of a noble manhood?’

    One had not to look far, he added, for ‘the fruits of such a system’. In Paris, during the Revolution of 1830, an officer observed a boy of twelve insulting the soldiers, and

    ‘though the action was then raging, merely struck him with the flat part of his sword, as the fit chastisement for boyish impertinence. But the boy had been taught to consider his person sacred, and that a blow was a deadly insult; he therefore followed the officer, and having watched his opportunity, took deliberate aim at him with a pistol and murdered him.’

    Such were the alarming results of insufficient whipping.

    Dr. Arnold did not apply this doctrine to the Praepostors, but the boys in the lower parts of the school felt its benefits, with a double force. The Sixth Form was not only excused from chastisement; it was given the right to chastise. The younger children, scourged both by Dr Arnold and by the elder children, were given every opportunity of acquiring the simplicity, sobriety, and humbleness of mind, which are the best ornaments of youth.

    That would have been pretty much the system in most of the public schools as well as state schools in England and much of the Commonwealth from the 1930’s to 1950’s. It was considered a reform compared to the anarchy of the earlier 19th Century where the reign of Keate at Eton was characterised by Strachey:

    The public schools of those days were still virgin forests, untouched by the hand of reform. Keate was still reigning at Eton; and we possess, in the records of his pupils, a picture of the public school education of the early nineteenth century, in its most characteristic state. It was a system of anarchy tempered by despotism. Hundreds of boys, herded together in miscellaneous boarding-houses, or in that grim ‘Long Chamber’ at whose name in after years aged statesmen and warriors would turn pale, lived, badgered and overawed by the furious incursions of an irascible little old man carrying a bundle of birch-twigs, a life in which licensed barbarism was mingled with the daily and hourly study of the niceties of Ovidian verse. It was a life of freedom and terror, of prosody and rebellion, of interminable floggings and appalling practical jokes. Keate ruled, unaided—for the undermasters were few and of no account—by sheer force of character. But there were times when even that indomitable will was overwhelmed by the flood of lawlessness. Every Sunday afternoon he attempted to read sermons to the whole school assembled; and every Sunday afternoon the whole school assembled shouted him down. The scenes in Chapel were far from edifying; while some antique Fellow doddered in the pulpit, rats would be let loose to scurry among the legs of the exploding boys. But next morning the hand of discipline would reassert itself; and the savage ritual of the whipping-block would remind a batch of whimpering children that, though sins against man and God might be forgiven them, a false quantity could only be expiated in tears and blood.

    They were tough days, and tough people and the school system was designed to produce very determined and disciplined products who would apply the same toughness and determination to administering businesses, the military or the civil service at home or abroad. They had been brutally taught that only the highest standards of work and behaviour would be found acceptable, and the consequences for rebellion would encourage complete conformity. Like the system of Sparta it worked, but left generations emotionally if not physically crippled.

    In such a system, those such as Smyth could and did hide in plain sight. However, by the late 1960’s and 1970’s this had been overturned in most schools. It certainly did not describe mine at that time, although speaking to old boys things were much tougher until the late 1950’s. Most schools by the time I experienced them had outlawed corporal punishment for all but offences which would otherwise merit expulsion [and perhaps imprisonment]. By this time, there would have been no place for those such as Smyth to hide among the many and the general system of corporal punishment as they might have done in the general brutality of the earlier part of the century.

    I find it very hard to believe that any form of physical abuse would have been tolerated at Winchester College. I have no personal knowledge of it other than having played [Rugby] Fives there a few times, and the Wykehamists I have met have been bright and well adjusted and I am sure had no such experience at school so Smyth’s requests as an outsider would have been well outside the norm.

    It is also surprising that as well as being willing to accept such treatment, that those in authority and the boys’ peers with knowledge of Smyth at Winchester or Iwerne had no inkling of what he was doing. Certainly for boarding students, to visit Smyth for Sunday lunch or other activities, students would probably have had to apply for permission to be absent from school premises and have cleared who they were visiting with School authorities. Why did this not raise questions when these pupils asked to visit someone outside the school?

    Moreover, in such an environment [much like the Church] it is impossible to keep anything secret – the grapevine is ubiquitous. The experience of child abuse at the BBC and in state hospitals has been that people turned a blind eye to it, and when they did become aware of it, they then moved to protect the institution – those who raise uncomfortable truths are silenced or sometimes got rid of.

    ANY institution, where there is access to the young or vulnerable, will attract those who prey upon them, whatever the theology or system. The only protection is constant vetting and vigilence, and a set of rules similar to those male clergy should adopt with female laity or the young, of always keeping doors open, never meeting or travelling alone with them without another responsible adult present, and most especially, ensuring that, most of all, this applies all the way up to the top of the institution.

    I think at 17 or 18 I would have found it hard to believe that such things went on or anyone would want to hurt a child as Smyth did. Had anyone suggested it to me it would probably have resulted in a robust punch in the mouth; but then if subject to grooming in a cult like isolated set up, I suppose a vulnerable or manipulable person could be and so most of all, institutions must not allow access to their charges by those outside, however exalted or useful they might appear to be. Had this been followed, neither the abuse of Smyth at Winchester nor that of Jimmy Saville at children’s hospitals would have been possible.

    I am far from convinced that even with all the bleated protestations of authorities that we now have a better system that we will not be reading such horror stories again in a few years time.