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!