Iwerne: Flagellatory Christianity

Clayesmore School: where the camps were held when I attended.

The recent death of John Smyth, resurfaced memories of the Christian camps I attended as a school boy. John Smyth had long since left when I attended Iwerne Camps in the early 1990s, and my experiences of the camps were more or less entirely positive, with one notable exception - the Christianity!

A quick trawl of the internet confirms that the camps still peddle an unapologetically orthodox strain of Christianity. When I attended there was certainly no beating, but there was guilt-tripping and hard-selling aplenty. My dormitory bible studies were led by Rico Tice, a burly prop forward and engaging public speaker, expert at capturing the admiration of teenage boys. But even at the time, I remember feeling uneasy about what he, and others, were telling us. In essence:

  1. Everyone is going to hell. You need to turn to Christ and accept (the Iwerne strain of) Christianity or you are doomed. Bringing others to the faith should be treated with the same urgency that would attend evacuating people from a burning building. Hell is real and ever-lasting. The bible's authors describe fire and burning lakes only as metaphors for something far worse.
  2. There are two ways to live - the sinful way and the Iwerne (conservative evangelical) way. The salvation of anyone not choosing the Iwerne way is in doubt. You especially, as someone having had the (mis?)fortunte to have heard the Good News, will go to hell if you reject it.
  3. Sex, and everything associated with it, magazines, masturbation, close association with girls... is sinful in all contexts except a stable marriage foreshadowed by a chaste and prayerful engagement.
  4. The bible is the Word of God and to be used as a guidebook to modern life. In this vein, talks are to be given by the speakers holding a bible open in front of them. Even if the speaker is using notes, these are to be tucked between the pages of the Good Book to underscore the provenance of all that is said. Both explicitly and implicitly the message was: Christians who question Iwerne-style orthodoxy are not 'bible-believing' and, by extension, not even really Christian. Their fate lies in the hands of a jealous and angry God.

This is what I heard. And looking online at the pronouncements of Rico Tice over the intervening 25 years I see that, if anything, the 'Iwerne strain' of Christianity has become even more strident in its message. Whist I was at the camps we were hooked up with a more mature Christian tasked with taking us aside and having a 'DMC' (deep-meaningful chat). I remember these conversations as achingly embarrassing and contrived, but for those who ordered their delivery they had a painful urgency.

Whether or not sex was given a special prominence in the curriculum of the camps, I don't know. But as teenage boys this is the message we got: loud, clear and regularly repeated. At the time - I'm embarrassed to say - the zeitgeist hadn't yet moved in relation to homosexuality and so we were less bothered by the ridicule directed at homosexuals ('God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve'). But rigid adherence to biblical directive has immunized Iwere Christians from reason, common-sense and humanity and homosexuality is still condemned. The certainty that attends 'bible-believing' Christians in all their pronouncements, sends a shiver down my spine. There is no arguing with them:

In the end, Iwerne ended up doing me a favour: by dismissing all forms of more moderate Christianity as luke-warm aberrations, the camps opened the way for me to conclude that it's all a load of bunkum.

The camps are still going strong, now hosted at Gresham's School in Norfolk. I should stress that don't think they are evil, and I didn't experience abuse at them. Iwerne Christians will tell you that you need to hear their message in order to reject it, and I suppose they are right in this regard. A good many of them - including my old Housemaster - are lovely, thoughtful, kind people. I often found it hard to square the strident certainties delivered by the speakers with the more thoughtful reservations about key articles of faith that private conversations uncovered.

Nonetheless, there is an unpleasant side to conservative Christianity - yes, I, know, Iwernites will be quick to tell me that unpleasantness doesn't equate to untruthfulness. But I maintain that even if their message is true it is very far from being 'Good News'. And here, I think, is conservative evangelicism's achilles heel. Hard questioning is not really encouraged - doubt needs to give way to belief. No wonder if the way to ensure salvation is as easy as A, B, C: accept, believe, confess. A friend of mine was actively discourgaed from reading Theology at university by a Iwerne leader because of the effect it might have on his faith. And this attitude goes right back to the beginning, where 'Bash', the founder of the camps:
“...often regarded theologians with suspicion and even mistrust."
Then there is the problem that 'Bible-believing' Christians are so certain of their rectitude on matters of faith that they will dismiss anyone who disagrees with them, not only as mistaken but as an agent of the Devil himself. You cannot reason with such people.
I suppose, at a push, I might have been happy for my own children to have gone to the camps if the opportunity had arisen, but I'd have had a quiet word with them first. In the event, they never went. And now, as they head off to university, they have turned out just as skeptical as I am. The relief is palpable.

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