Following last week’s Channel 4 report into alleged criminal abuse against teenage boys by John Smyth QC, a former chairman of evangelical Christian charity the Iwerne Trust, journalist Anne Atkins described her experience in the 1970s as a volunteer in the all-female team of cooks at one of its summer camps. This piece in The Daily Telegraph, headlined ‘Inside the sexual apartheid of John Smyth’s summer camps’, calls for a response.
Mrs Atkins wrote: ‘Within twenty four hours I felt a complete freak. Unknown to me, it was a world of extreme sexual apartheid. We were confined to the kitchen bashing spuds. The men, glorious in the sunshine and their cream cricket sweaters, played sports; gave talks in the meetings; swam and batted and even I believe flew aeroplanes.’
She recounted: ‘I was discreetly steered away from volunteering for a helicopter trip advertised over breakfast; told off for stopping to chat to a young man I was introduced to, destined for the same Oxford college…and finally for talking to some boys who lay down near us at the swimming pool. It was the last straw: it was politely suggested I should leave, as I didn’t fit in.’
While the swimming pool scene may strike a note of comedy reminiscent of Ronald Searle’s cartoons of boarding school archetype Nigel Molesworth, this article raises a serious issue about the requirements of specialist Christian work. But before offering a response, I must declare an interest.
I attended Iwerne summer camps as a school boy in 1979 and 1980, started helping out in a kitchen porter role in 1983 after leaving school and became a volunteer leader in 1985. I met the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at Iwerne in 1986 or 1987 whilst he was an executive for an oil company.
Like him, I had not been informed of the internal 1982 Iwerne report graphically describing the violent abuse against boys who had met Smyth through the Christian Forum at Winchester College. One of the school’s former pupils, Andrew Watson, the Bishop of Guildford, has revealed that he was one of Smyth’s alleged victims.
I believe that report should have been handed to the police in 1982 and that thereafter Iwerne should not have appointed leaders for its camps without informing them of the report’s findings. A prosecution at the time would have put the matter into the public domain anyway.
But I also believe that Mrs Atkins’s article is insensitive to the necessities of specialist Christian work. While she should not have been ‘told off’ for talking to young men and boys, the volunteer female helpers who cooked for the 10-day camps played an invaluable role in the Christian salvation of boarding school boys like me.
Through their unselfish Christian service, they enabled the male leaders to concentrate on sharing the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ with us through the talks morning and evening and on providing the various outdoor activities we enjoyed.
Christian work among public school boys who need the gospel inevitably involves particular rules as does such work among, for example, prisoners who need the gospel no less or more. A friend I met at Iwerne, now a retired clergyman, is doing a tremendous Christian work in a London male prison. He has to be sensitive to the special environment he is ministering in and has to follow certain rules. If he does not follow those rules, he cannot share the good news of God’s love with the men in that prison.
It is also worth pointing out pace Mrs Atkins that the work of local churches all year round is still hugely dependent on volunteer Christian women being prepared to devote time and effort to activities that some feminists may think demeaning, such as kitchen work and looking after children.
Local churches are also hugely dependent on Christian men being prepared to do dirty jobs that some careerists of either sex may consider beneath them, such as unblocking toilets and cleaning out drains and gutters.
Of course, men help in the kitchen and women do dirty jobs around local churches, but certainly in the Anglican parish church I am privileged to serve the division of labour tends to pan out as described.
Unfortunately, Mrs Atkins’s article appeared oblivious to the necessities of both specialist Christian work for God and the more ‘normal’ work of local churches.