Iwerne camps. Some background notes

This morning (Thursday) in our newspapers was a story about the physical abuse of teenage boys from public schools who attended a so-called holiday camp at Iwerne in Dorset. I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this current report but I thought that it would be helpful to provide some background to the story. This is what I learned about the centre during some digging around that I did some 20 years ago.

My readers will be able to discover the various changes to the centre at Iwerne which have been made over the past 10 to 20 years. At the time I was making my enquiries about the centre, it had a reputation for being a place where selected public school boys were sent during the summer holidays for a period of intense religious formation. This was in accordance with a strict Calvinist evangelical agenda. I found it difficult to discover any written material about Iwerne but from what I could discover it was clear that these camps had considerable impact on those who passed through them. After admitting young people (originally only boys) from a very select group of public schools, the influence of the camps spilled over into university Christian Unions, especially Cambridge. Also, these same young men went on to occupy important positions in the church and other major institutions in British society. This was the original vision of the camps’ founder, Eric Nash (always referred to as Bash), to ‘capture British society for God’ by working with its young elite members. His entire ministry was spent leading this particular centre and he was still active up till the 1970s.

This reputation for creating sound evangelical Christians among the upper echelons of British society met with considerable success. Many of those who now occupy or have occupied senior positions within the Church of England have passed through this Sandhurst for a conservative Christians. Because we lack any proper appraisal on the place of Iwerne in the history of the Church of England, what I have to offer are a couple of published references to the centre which gives a flavour of the importance of these camps, especially in the early days.

Bash, as he was popularly known, was by all accounts a strongly convinced evangelical with no trace of any compromise with liberal theology. His use of Scripture was by the standards of this blog extremely uncompromising and hard-line. In Harriet Harris’ major work on evangelicalism, there is a footnote relating to Bash. He was said to only use one book in his teaching work. This is the 19th century volume entitled, What the Bible teaches by Reuben Torrey. It is interesting to reflect how this one book was a foundation work to begin the evangelical teaching careers of such leaders as John Stott, Michael Green, Dick Lucas and David Watson. Each of these men had important roles to play in the recovery of evangelical theology in Britain after the Second World War. There are many other names who were also graduates of these Iwerne camps, not least Justin Welby our current Archbishop.

Among the stories about Iwerne that I was able to extract from published sources was one about the influence of Bash over David Watson. David, the prominent evangelist of the 1970s had lost his father as a relatively young teenager. Bash seems to have stepped into the role of a proxy parent. Like Justin Welby, David continued to attend the camps during his student days as a helper. He served as a kind of non-commissioned officer, supervising the younger attendees from the various schools that supported these camps. In David Watson’s biography, we read of the breakdown of the relationship between Bash and his young protégé. The cause of the breakup was David Watson’s discovery of the charismatic movement in the early 60s in Cambridge. This went completely against Bash’s understanding of what the Christian faith involved. He was also mindful of the need to retain the confidence of the various headmasters whose boys were allowed to attend his camps. ‘What would the headmasters have to say,’ Bash is reported to have said. Bash and David Watson went their separate ways and the relationship was never restored. Watson’s biographer commented that this was a matter of great moment for him since he was forced to choose between Bash’s parental guidance and his recent discovery of the movement of the Spirit. A further detail recorded by the biographer, was that Watson from that day began to suffer from chronic asthma. This affliction was to stay with him for the rest of his life. There are no doubt possible psychological interpretations to be made, but clearly the parting of the ways between these two men was a bitter one.

The newspapers report that Iwerne camps were religious summer holiday camp for public school boys and girls. Clearly they were much more than that in the early days. Many who have looked at them have noted that these camps provided an essential support which almost singled-handedly allowed the survival and even the flourishing of a strong old-fashioned evangelical presence within British society. I can make no comment about the current allegations but this earlier history that I have been able to uncover will help the reader understand why these camps were so important in the past. It is part of an untold story of the church which has never been properly chronicled. Having read the first volume of John Stott’s biography it is quite clear that the leadership that he provided from the 1940s onwards for the somewhat weak presence of evangelicals in the Church of England was crucial to their recovery of influence. It is hard to see how Stott would have had the necessary stamina to provide that leadership without the encouragement and personal support of Bash as well as the formation he received during the summer camps at Iwerne in the late 30s.

As a final comment, I think it would be true to say that evangelicalism in Britain has a quite different flavour to its American counterpart in part because of the influence of Iwerne camps in their original form. By successfully being implanted into parts of the social elite of Britain, evangelicalism on this side of the Atlantic has always had an ‘upper-class’ feel about it in certain of its manifestations. In contrast the evangelicalism of America is invariably populist and in many instances anti-intellectual. I would love to hear this particular episode in the history of the church in England told with more detail. What I have to reveal here is not a story of scandal but one which demonstrates the powerful influence of a single individual with a vision. Bash’s vision was to convert the movers and shakers of British society to hold onto an old-fashioned even reactionary expression of the Christian faith. In part Bash was successful in fulfilling his vision. Whether the church as a whole should be grateful for his efforts has to be another question.

12 comments

  1. EnglishAthena

    Thanks for this. I knew nothing about it. The evangelicals I know are right across the social spectrum, but many are rather badly educated! But that’s to some extent outside the CofE.

  2. Stephen Parsons

    Athena If you go to St Helen’s Bishopsgate, I am told you will find many Iwerne graduates and some of them are very powerful in the Establishment. Like you most of the evangelicals I meet belong to all classes but there are a group of powerful and influential people who could be found among Mrs Thatcher’s confidantes. Various church appointments of the Thatcher era might arguably be said to come from this privileged group working out their influence. This is heresay because the books I read don’t deal in this kind of speculation!

  3. Jeremy Pemberton

    Having attended twice in the mid 1970sq as a “senior camper” or helper, when I was an undergraduate, may I add to your background note? I noticed that the style of Bible interpretation was extremely rigid and formulaic. In effect, what was taught was what it had been decided the Bible message was. Questioning the text or the interpretation which was the approved version was severely frowned upon. Intellectual curiosity was regarded as sinful and dangerous.
    ‘Bash’ visited one evening. He was a small elderly figure of whom everyone was in awe. His Bible teaching was feeble in the extreme. I remember thinking that whatever it was that gave this man his power , and he did exude a powerful personality, it was not the quality of his thought. But then he wouldn’t have wanted that – simplicity was important for him and those who followed him, as was obedience.

  4. David Pennant

    I attended two Iwerne camps in 69 and 70 I guess, and thereafter was a helper at the Junior Arm for prep school boys in Swanage, run by Rev John Eddison. I have many happy memories of my time there and was eager to soak up the teaching as I had come to faith in Christ as a result of efforts to spread the gospel when I was at Charterhouse from 64 to 69. I had a similar experience to David Watson when I attended “Signs and Wonders” with David Pytches and Barry Kissel in December 1981 at Swanwick and decided as a result that healing the sick, prophecy, casting out demons etc. were for today. This put me at odds with the Iwerne people to some degree, but the love of Scripture which they gave me has never left me. Indeed it has increased year on year!

  5. haikusinenomine

    It seems an unfortunate irony in the light of the allegations of extreme physical brutality at the camps that this leader’s nickname was “Bash”….

  6. Stephen Parsons

    Thank you Jeremy and David for your first-hand accounts. I really wanted to meet some Iwerne ‘graduates’ when I was doing my research in the late 90s but didn’t know anyone to ask! Jeremy your account of Bash is very interesting. I used to have a copy of the book I mention by Torrey. It is dreadfully dry and it cannot have been attractive to boys. I am prepared to believe from the David Watson story that Bash had ‘charisma’ and that this would have been still more powerful in the 30s when he began the courses. I suspect that man accused of physical abuse also had charisma and was able to be a father to boys with father ‘issues’. Interestingly Mark Stibbe, the one named victim of the recent scandal has written about fatherhood. One is left to speculate whether the accused acted as a father figure to Mark and the ‘punishment beatings’ became part of a warped distorted view of Father God. Being a non-evangelical, I am always sensitive to any suggestion that God is a vengeful sadist as he appears to be in some Calvinist discourse.

    By the way welcome Jeremy to our blog. If you spend any time here you will see that I travel widely over the church world to explore issues of abuse within a Christian context.

  7. David Pennant

    I don’t recall Bash having charisma. He was quietly spoken. However, I was rather shy in those days, and did not find any adults easy to talk to so my view is not much help.

  8. Peter

    Regarding the comments about Bash and charisma, there is a curiously-titled book about him called “A Study in Spiritual Power”. I don’t have it so I can’t comment further, and I’m too young to have ever met the man.

    Leaving the abuse allegations aside, which I think we’d all agree are horrific, I have very mixed views about Bash and his legacy.

    I can’t deny that he was responsible for the conversion of many people who became church leaders. In my view these have all had fruitful ministries, and some were very significant indeed – John Stott was the prime example.

    However, Bash’s approach also created a male officer class within Anglican Evangelicalism, which I consider to be extremely harmful. It says that God prefers to call people from the top one percent of society into ministry. I find this idea utterly disgusting, and I can’t recall ever hearing any evangelical Anglican leader saying that we need to stop and take a long hard look at how class and privilege are present in our bit of the church.

  9. Stephen Parsons

    Thank you Peter. The legacy of Bash to the church is an ambivalent one. It would be easier to comment if there was more information available. In the absence of answers to many questions we are left with fragments of information which is what I give here. The 1 per cent appeal is indeed a strangely Victorian approach and does fit well with today. Remember Bash’s vision was thought up in the 30s which was a very different world. I am hoping that the present scandal will at least open up to scrutiny this whole chapter in the church’s history. It needs re-evaluation and I hope some archives will open up. Thank you for commenting. These two posts on Iwerne seem to have attracted new readers. Up to now this blog has been read only by a couple of dozen people! This issue and other issues of power in the church need to be debated widely.

  10. David Warwick

    I was a leader at these caps and other based on them. The leader of one of them was a protégé of Bash. I am not, and was not, an evangelical. Perhaps I was regarded with some suspicion but there was discussion. the new liberal “orthodoxy” in the C of E is equally authoritarian. Welby was wrong to apologise. you cannot apologise on someone else’s behalf. I doubt that what went on, unpleasant though it was, is an offence in law if the receptors were willing. I do not like the term survivors. Victims is the correct one. Why do we hear nothing of the brutality of Archbishop Fisher which was more than the usual corporal punishment. The church is totally at sea over safeguarding. the only principle now is the reputation of the church and the advice of defence lawyers. Warner of Chichester was quite wrong to pay out over bishop Bell about whom there can be no credible evidence. I have been instrumental in discrediting the case against Sir Edward heath. the lurid stries abot him were told at the Durham University Law society in 1971 when “Chris” was two years ols and about a totally different group of people. Remember what Goebbels said” if you tell a lie often enough and big enough, people will believe it.” this is true of much of the material on abuse by the church.

  11. David Pennant

    I have remembered a pleasing incident at a Iwerne camp I attended. A boy I barely knew realised that he had left the Mars Bar which had bought at the tuck shop on the top of the sideboard in, I think, the library. This had been thirty hours before – surely it would have gone by now, as there were scores of young people milling about there constantly? To his delight, he found it exactly where he had left it, and he was so impressed by people’s refusal to take it that he decided to become a Christian as a result. Nice. He will be in his 60s by now, so we could reasonably ask for feedback whether this decision helped him to work rest and play in life?

  12. Peter

    To David Warwick:

    (1) I can’t comment on the cases you raise, but one thing I know – your views on safeguarding in the church are not true. I have met numerous people involved with Christian youth and children’s work and it is clear that that their first priority is protection of the children. Everyone in the church is very much aware of historic failures to prevent abuse and they don’t ever want it to happen again, for the sake of the children.

    (2) Regarding the legality of Smyth’s beatings, note that the courts have held that people cannot consent to being wounded (the “spanner case”). Also, if his victims were under 18, they would be minors so I don’t think they would be able to give consent. I must therefore respectfully disagree with your suggestion that no offences were committed by this evil man.

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