Friday, 24 February 2017

Iwerne me

Ben Jeapes beat me to it. I wrote this post a fortnight or so before now, but in the meantime Ben has posted a helpful and intelligent response to his experience as a camper at Iwerne Minster in the 1980s. I’ve decided to leave my thoughts in place, as they largely corroborate in brief what he says in more detail.

I was a so-called ‘senior camper’ at Iwerne Minster in 1969 and 1970. Without going into the details of the case that has been publicized, I can say straight away that I never encountered anything at Iwerne that might have suggested any kind of abusive behaviour. The set-up was indeed quite hierarchical, as has been pointed out in the media, but 45 or so years ago that would have been normal. Camps had a three-tier structure: the officers, who were clergy, schoolmasters, and undergraduates; the senior campers, who were undergraduates; and the campers, who were schoolboys from the top public schools.

Senior campers all had housekeeping tasks to do which kept us busy from morning to night. We snatched minutes to attend bible studies and prayer meetings and then bolted back to the kitchen to lay tables, make sandwiches, or prepare bottles of diluted orange and lemon squash. There was usually time for us to join in the afternoon activities with the campers and officers: I remember clearing scrub in a field and visiting the Iron Age site at South Cadbury. We had very little other contact with the schoolboys and we slept in a dormitory together.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m sure I learnt a lot from the scriptural teaching, even though specific details have faded into the leafmould of memory. I can still remember many of the rather old-fashioned CSSM choruses which were repeatedly sung. The Christian camaraderie was lovely and the discipline of being part of a hard-working team was very inspiring.

I noted with pleasure that the camps’ name was an anagram for my own surname, but this did not prove to be a portent. Even though I was invited to a special training holiday with a select few officers and senior campers, I knew deep down that the camp officer role wasn’t going to be my path. After my graduation I turned down the chance to attend the 1971 camp in favour of a holiday with my best friend (whom I hoped to evangelize!). I heard no more from Iwerne. Rather like Ben, I found that the intensive study of Scripture inculcated by Iwerne and my university Christian Union actually led me to critique some of the theology that prescribed it.

The teaching of Iwerne was straight conservative evangelicalism. A central tenet of this is that one cannot do anything to make oneself right with God. Any kind of physical mortification would therefore be out of the question. I feel pretty sure that the abuse that has hit the headlines was an alien intrusion from a sadly disordered personality.

But there is another aspect of the ethos which I consider to be the Achilles heel, not only of Iwerne, but also of a great deal of evangelicalism: secrecy. After I graduated I realized that Iwerne operated like a hidden freemasonry, a church within a church. Outsiders, even other evangelicals, were unaware of the hidden network. This instinct for secrecy lies behind the cover-up of the abuse for over thirty years.

Cover-ups go on in church circles all the time, as Anne Atkins observed in her discussion of the Iwerne story, and as I saw when I belonged to an evangelical Anglican church. Perhaps things are better in non-Anglican circles? I do hope so. And I sincerely hope that this crisis will help Christians to be less fearful of admitting the truth about themselves and their churches!


  1. Thanks very much for sharing! I'm glad I didn't put you off giving it your own angle.

    I think the reason this story hasn't gone more viral than it has is that just about everyone realises how rare and unusual this case was - no one has lifted the lid on a seething mass of hidden sin and hypocrisy. Iwerne still does considerably more good than harm, but you enumerate its flaws very nicely.

    And I've just got the joke in your title - oh dear.

  2. As a grammar school girl (and therefore not expected to have any influence in the world later), I encountered Iwerne only through meeting Oxford students who had gone through the camps. It seemed to me that most of them were terrified of women and saw us only as potential temptation.This of course could just as well have been a result of public school, but it seems Iwerne did nothing to counteract it. Has this had a long time effect on the battle to ordain women and then treat them equally? I wouldn't be surprised. Gender apartheid is never a good idea.

  3. PS Should your title have been 'Iwerne me both'?

  4. Thank you for this. I never attended a public school and was not aware of the Iwerne camps, but in the 1980s I was a vicar of my own parish - in Leeds and then subsequently in Dorset on the coast.
    I remember distinctly the way the news of child abuse gradually came to our attention. More incidences were coming to light. The question then was, were we seeing an increase in this phenomenon, or were we just becoming aware of something that had always been there under the surface? The answer was felt by many to be the former. Sexual abuse of children was on the increase in an increasingly sexualised world. Immodesty was on the increase, so that led to some people being tempted into doing things they would never have otherwise thought of doing. How wrong we all were!
    But it is easy to understand in hindsight. Had I been responsible for someone who had been shown to have behaved badly towards children, I, too, would have seen to it that they were removed from their post - if I could (and that would not have been easy because, as we know, child abuse is notoriously difficult to prove - even today with all the experience we have). It would never have occurred to me to report it to the police. Few did. Social services, may be - but probably not if the situation had been dealt with.
    That, I know, sounds crass and flies in the face of every law and guideline we now have. Today, I would not hesitate to disclose all the evidence of abuse I discovered. I am now, with the wisdom of years of exposure to the awful truths that we could not even imagine in those days, appalled by what some people do and did to the children I loved. But then I was naive - we all were. We were ignorant and 'innocent' to a degree. I honestly believed that only the occasional sick person would dream of hurting children - and we would know who they were because they would manifest other deviant behaviour. As a child myself in the fifties and sixties, I was totally ignorant of anything to do with sex - it just was not talked about. You protected a child by keeping them ignorant - sex, illness, death, politics - even pop music was frowned upon. It did not begin to change until the late sixties.
    I do not say this as an excuse or a defence - but corporate ignorance existed then. I guess it still does, but in areas of society we have yet to discover. If there is one thing this history has taught me, it is that no generation can be complacent.