Every family has those relatives they are tempted to hid away. But much can be learnt about a family by those who are hidden as much as by those who are celebrated. This week’s episode of the HTB Network Review focuses in on the part of HTB’s evangelical heritage that comes from the Iwerne Camps. These camps have had a lot of bad press in recent years, even to the point of being described as a cult in a recent publication. But there are also hundreds of ministers and others who have testified to the lasting formation they got through those camps including alumni such as the renowned evangelist and scholar Michael Green who dedicated seven pages of his autobiography to positive impact of the camps on him.

This post suggests that there is both a legacy in the HTB network from the camps and conversely a clear reaction against them. Importantly, whilst many of those who have ministered at HTB were nurtured in Iwerne, the single most significant figure in the network over the past 45 years (Sandy Millar) was never involved. So it explores the legacy that it draws from the camps, the impact on those who attended and served there, and the reaction against the culture that helps explain some of what HTB embraced in the charismatic movement and an increasing wedge between the network and the more conservative evangelicals who remained more aligned to that system.

Where Iwerne became an unfortunate/unwanted uncle, a need remained for a place to disciple people in the faith, and the pattern of going away for intense experiences with the Lord and church community continued both in houseparties through the church getaways at Malshanger Park (donated to HTB by the Coleman family in 1983), through the Stewards Trust (if Iwerne was an ‘unwanted uncle’, Stewards Trust was a sort of ‘favourite auntie’ vibe family getaway for people of a similar upper-middle class background but gently charismatic and definitely genial disposition), and of course, most importantly, through the Alpha Holy Spirit weekends (which was one part of the Alpha Course that would not have featured in Iwerne curriculum).

The Iwerne System

Background History

It is hard to overplay the significance of the Iwerne camps in understanding Anglican Evangelicalism. John King’s 1969 study of British Evangelicals found that since so much of the leadership of the British Evangelical Church had been ‘Bash Campers,’ that it was impossible to understand British Evangelicalism without understanding the ‘Bash camp mind’.[1] ‘Bash camps’ were the affectionate name for the Iwerne Camps led by EJ Nash, (1898-1982), a Scripture Union worker and ordained Anglican, known affectionately as ‘Bash’.  Nash had the Protestant Evangelical love of the Book of Common Prayer and Authorised Version Bible, the Keswick Evangelical austerity and holiness teaching and, most critically, was a highly influential mentor to many of the Eclectics. The Eclectics were closely associated with John Stott who was arguably the most significant of a long list of Nash’s ‘Iwerne Minster’ summer campers and converts.

According to Roger Steer, aged just 19, Nash had a ‘vision in a railway carriage that he was to win Britain for Christ’.[2] Although that lofty goal was not reached, nevertheless through shrewd strategy, easy humour and his ability to both explain the gospel simply and attractively and, most significantly, train young men to do the same, Nash has had an astounding impact on the Church of England. Michael Green devotes seven pages of his autobiographical sketch to ‘the magnificent nurture’ he had in the Iwerne system, stating, ‘I have no hesitation whatsoever in regarding it as the main ingredient in my own spiritual growth.’[3] Nash is credited by Alister McGrath as a key reason for the renaissance of British Evangelicalism in the post-war era,[4] and the Iwerne alumni in his time range from Bishops like David Shepherd, Timothy Dudley Smith and Maurice Wood, to many of the leaders of larger ‘student’ churches of whom John Stott was of unparalleled significance.[5] Despite Nash’s own rejection of charismatic renewal these leaders included those who became champions in both conservative and charismatic evangelical streams.[6] Alumni also included the influential church historian Henry Chadwick, public school teaching staff and head teachers, two international Cricketers, and a Brigadier.[7]

In a 2011 version of Bible in One Year Nicky Gumbel also paid tribute to Nash, (who he met at Iwerne when Nash was in his early eighties), saying ‘I was spellbound, I had never before heard anyone speak with such authority.’ He recalls Nash as ‘extremely gracious and I sensed a deep humility’.[8]  He concludes by reflecting on Nash’s ‘self-authenticating’ authority, and how though ‘today people are very wary of authority… which can be abused…authority can also be a source of great blessing.’[9] In the 2003 edition of Questions of Life Gumbel uses Nash as a ‘notable example’ of God using weak, inadequate and ill-equipped people who ‘when they are filled with the Spirit become outstanding leaders in the church.[10] He quotes John Stott saying: ‘Nondescript in outward appearance, his [Nash’s] heart was ablaze with Christ.’[11]

Theology and Discipleship Goals

The Iwerne camp theological system was a simple, even anti-intellectual, system rooted in propositional truth and historic evangelicalism.[12] Nash drew heavily from RA Torrey as a mentor,[13] and emphasised a personal encounter with Jesus.[14] The centrality of the cross was evident in Nash’s simple saying: ‘The only way to Mansion House is through Kings Cross.’[15] Orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy was a key part of Iwerne’s normative theology. Right behaviour as well as right belief was expected. As Chapman put it Nash’s Christianity was ‘countercultural in its otherworldliness.’[16]

The 7000 alumni of Iwerne Camps would all have been very familiar with Wesley, Whitefield and holiness teaching.  According to David Fletcher, Nash used to pray for ‘another Wesley to stalk this land;’[17] Michael Green recalls that Nash had his soul ‘lit up’ by the same doctrine of ‘New Birth’ that had made ‘Whitefield a tireless preacher’;[18] and his extensive letter writing campaigns to John Stott and others ‘counselled against worldly practices.’[19]

He encouraged attendance at the Keswick Convention which had been the main depositum of holiness teaching since the 1870s.[20] The Keswick discipleship goal emphasis was not so much inward facing purity but activism. So holiness was seen as an empowerment for service rather than individual personal holiness. The espoused discipleship goal was for a ‘joyful’ and ‘victorious’ Christian life, which meant that while campers might accept an inevitable degree of ongoing sin that should nevertheless be fought against.[21] This fight was certainly to be engaged with and there was no room for licentiousness. 

Nash ‘cultivated a ruthless self-discipline himself in the fight against temptation and urged upon others the same safeguards and control.’[22]

John Stott

He used a common analogy from Keswick teaching on ‘being dead to sin’ from Romans 6 in which he described a dead dog and explained that a touch of the foot would show if it was only sleeping. If it was only asleep it would instantly respond. A dead dog would not, and neither should Christians be easily stirred into sin. Perhaps ironically in the light of Nash’s antipathy to charismatic renewal it was the aspiration to be ‘dead to sin’ most probably imbibed from Nash that was a significant factor in David Watson and John Collins’ pursuit of a higher Christian life whereby they could truly affirm they were dead to sin. This in turn led each to their dramatic encounters with the Holy Spirit at the beginning of 1960s Charismatic Renewal (see Chapter Two).

Many of these disciplines were what Wesley and Whitefield termed ‘means of grace’ – including abstinence from external markers deemed to be sinful (dancing, make-up, theatre, ornamentation).[23] He was famously anti-alcohol and pro-celibacy and ‘adamant that Christians are at liberty to marry only Christians and, indeed, that mature Christians should only marry mature Christians.’[24] His style was to ‘boldly confront and rebuke’[25], and his closest allies could call him ‘a little ruthless, even intolerant.’[26] And yet despite this he was a man of ‘outstanding virtues…irresistible charm, perfect manners and considerations’[27] credited with a ‘crowd of people at his funeral who considered themselves as his spiritual children.’

Nash officially retired in 1965 but stayed involved in Iwerne and ministry until just a few years before his death in April 1982. Nash’s system had been so enculturated into the movement that it extended beyond his formal retirement. Nicky Gumbel explains how intensely he was mentored through the Iwerne system when he was a new convert aged 19. As recently as 2016 he wrote:

I am so grateful to Jonathan Fletcher. When I first encountered Jesus in 1974, Jonathan met with me for three hours every week for a year, and regularly thereafter until I left university. He became a great friend. He taught me the Christian faith. He explained to me how to read the Bible and how to pray. He recommended Christian books and answered my questions. Even though I had only just encountered Jesus myself, he encouraged me to lead others to faith in Jesus and to straight away pass on what I was learning.[28]

Nicky Gumbel

Critique: Spiritual Power, Abuse and Avoiding Controversy

Two months before Nash’s death allegations of abuse by a key Iwerne lay leader John Smyth, and his younger accomplice Simon Doggart, from 1978 to 1982 were made to the then leadership team of Iwerne.[29] Smyth was described by one of his victims as the ‘darling of the Iwerne Minster Holiday Camps, the famous lawyer representing Mary Whitehouse on the news’.[30] The abuse was detailed in what has become known as the Rushton Report, which was effectively buried by the leadership team who arranged for Smyth to go into exile to Zimbabwe where his abuse tragically continued. Iwerne has repeatedly made the national press between 2014-2021 as firstly, the suppressed report on Smyth has come to light evidencing the abusive extremes of ‘spiritual discipline,’ and secondly, due to similar spiritual and physical abuse allegations against Jonathan Fletcher  – a key Iwerne clergyman and one of the most prominent conservative evangelical clergyman of his generation. Both Smyth and Fletcher both engaged in naked beatings of boys from top public boarding school backgrounds, inserting themselves into these young men’s lives as a substitute father,[31] and accounting for their abuse in spiritual terminology.

Nash’s brief biography was entitled A Study in Spiritual Power’,[32]  and it is a sad appendage to its history that Iwerne will now in perpetuity be associated with these misuses of spiritual power by Smyth and Fletcher et al. that occurred outside of the camp and after Nash’s formal retirement.

Yet reading the eulogies of Nash’s life with hindsight, the spiritual power system at Iwerne included contributing factors: austerity, demanded disciplines, hierarchical command system, gender discrimination, campers encouraged to meet one-to-one for directive meetings with senior ‘officers’ – even in bedrooms or private cars.  At the very least the camp culture created a climate where abuse was possible.

The influence extended late into many of the boy’s/men’s ministries. Nash was not above telling his campers how to run their churches and castigating them if they developed key young men for parish ministry who could have been employed for what he saw as more strategic work – such as public-school chaplains!

There were some who broke away from Nash, with Bishop David Shepherd arguing that a complete break could be needed in order to be free of his considerable influence.[33] Indeed some of the eager adoption of the liberating ‘waves of the Spirit’ explored in the next chapter can be best understood as a rebound reaction to the enforced austerity and rigid practices and theology of the Iwerne system. And yet amidst scores of abused and hurt former participants are many hundreds of others, like Michael Green, who have attested positively to the camp system’s formative and lasting impact on their lives.[34]

In many ways Iwerne was to Anglican Evangelical Renewal what William Law’s A Serious Call to A Devout and Holy Life was to John Wesley and George Whitefield. But whereas even after Wesley’s ‘encounter with the Spirit’ in May 1738, he both continued and propagated many of the spiritual disciplines he had begun under the influence of Law, this thesis will show that those who encountered the Spirit in the 1980s and 1990s proved far less likely to propagate the ‘means of grace’ promoted at Iwerne.

In fact Stott himself had already helped shift evangelical spirituality away from the ‘world-denying’ focus of Keswick.[35]  But after encountering Wimber (and later the Toronto Blessing) ‘life in the Spirit’ for many came to mean an even more thorough liberation from the rigours of this system, with its undercurrent of what we now know to be hidden horrors of abuse and sin.

One key reason the abuse prevailed was that the Iwerne system actively avoided controversy and ‘rocking the boat’. Criticising those in authority was seen as ‘bad form’, especially if they came from your ‘set’.

Controversy is eschewed by “Bash campers”; it is held to be noisy and undignified- and potentially damaging. As a result, many issues which ought to be faced are quietly avoided. Any practical decisions that must be made are taken discreetly by the leadership and passed down the line. The loyalty of the rank and file is such that decisions are respected; any who question are likely to find themselves outside the pale…It does not give a place to the process of argument, consultation and independent thought which are essential to any genuine co-operation, inside the church or outside the church.[36]

As will be seen later in this thesis this ‘eschewing of controversy’ and ‘not rocking the boat by criticising those in authority’ remain easily recognisable features of the HTB network today. But while it is not the network’s way to openly criticise, numerous accounts exist of where relationships have ‘gone cold’ and former staff, ministers or friends find they can be easily forgotten. In recent years Gumbel, like Justin Welby, has taken understandable pains to distance himself from Iwerne.[37] Nash was edited out of the aforementioned anecdote on power by the time the 2019 version of Bible in One Year was published, and replaced by John Collins, (who is given the same eulogy verbatim as had been attributed to Nash in 2011).[38]

[1] King, John C, 1969, 159.

[2] Roger Steer Inside Story the Life of John Stott ­­­__

[3] Green, Adventures in Faith 2001, 23-29. He recalls the Iwerne system of leadership development, spiritual disciplines and close mentoring in detail.

[4] McGrath 1988, 45

[5] Ministers include: Dick Lucas, Mark Rushton, John Collins, Nicky Gumbel, Hugh Palmer, Mark Ashton, Paul Perkins, John Coles, William Taylor, John Irvine, Richard Bewes, David Watson and David MacInnes. Note the influence on key churches including All Souls Langham Place, St Helen’s Bishopsgate, The Round Church in Cambridge, St Michael le Belfry, St Aldates Oxford, Christ Church Clifton, as well as HTB and its early church plants.

[6] See account of David Watson’s response to Nash’s lack of enthusiasm in Teddy Saunders David Watson: A biography 1992,83-84.

[7] Eddison (ed), John A Study in Spiritual Power, An Appreciation of E J H Nash (Bash). Crowborough: Highland. 1992

[8] https://web.archive.org/web/20110927163800/http://www.htb.org.uk/bible-in-one-year/authority-0 [accessed 6.3.20].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life 2003, 118

[11] Ibid.

[12] Winter, Canon David (May 7, 2010). “A review of Inside Story: The Life of John Stott by Roger Steer”. Church Times: 723.

[13] Harris, Harriet A, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1998. 146. Pete Ward shows how Nicky Gumbel in Alpha Video 11 uses an illustration directly from Torrey. Pete Ward Liquid Ecclesiology: The Gospel and The Church. Netherlands: Brill, 2017, 110.

[14] Chapman, Alister Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement. OUP, 2012, 16

[15] Eddison (ed), John A Study in Spiritual Power, An Appreciation of E J H Nash (Bash). Crowborough: Highland. 1992

[16] Chapman, Godly Ambition 2012, 16

[17] Fletcher in Eddison (Ed.), 1992, 65

[18] Green, ibid, 118

[19] Stott, ibid, 84.

[20] see Bebbington, 1989, 153-55, 171-74, for details on Nash and Keswick see Dudley-Smith, 2001, 34..

[21] McAlpine, 2008, 28

[22] Stott in Eddison (Ed.), 1992, 92

[23] Bebbington, 214.

[24] Stott in Eddison op cit, 93

[25] Ibid, 93

[26] Eddison in Eddision (ed), 1992, 26

[27] Ibid, 27

[28] Nicky Gumbel: Three Ways to Empower the Next Generation https://www.youthandchildrens.work/Youthwork-past-issues/2016/August-2016/Nicky-Gumbel-Three-Ways-to-Empower-the-Next-Generation [accessed 6.3.20].

[29] ‘The Rushton Report” can be read http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/970485/27843482/1519929269713/The+Ruston+Report+on+John+Smyth+1993.pdf?token=b5ZM1XU9leAUV05%2BfBelEJFZCiE%3D [accessed 15.3.20]. This suggests Smyth tried to recruit two other senior campers for his ‘cult’ activities, before Diggart, ‘one of whom refused to take part.’

[30] Stibbe, Mark in https://www.churchnewspaper.com/52014/archives [accessed 6.3.20].

[31] Ibid. Andrew Graystone has also alleged that abuse from the Iwerne set was more extensive than has yet been seen.

[32] Eddison (ed), John A Study in Spiritual Power, An Appreciation of E J H Nash (Bash). Crowborough: Highland. 1992

[33] Sheppard, 2002, 256.

[34] Green, Adventures in Faith 2001, 23-29.

[35] See Gordon S. Wakefield Ed: The SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. United Kingdom: SCM, 2003, 139

[36] King, John C The Evangelicals. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1969, 159. This caused the anonymous author of an Anglican Ink article to argue: There is ‘too bland an outlook’ held by Stott’s successors (without having Stott’s intellect) with regards to the state of the nation and the institutional church and especially of its leadership (indeed, its present Archbishop is from their own stable which psychologically will make it more difficult for some of them to be openly critical, for this, in the words of Captain Hook, would be ‘bad form’). http://anglican.ink/2019/07/04/the-english-the-evangelicals-and-the-elites-the-school-for-scandals/ and see https://virtueonline.org/cornel-wilde-no-role-model-new-generation-english-evangelical-leaders for a response [both accessed 7.3.20].

[37] The Times: 1 June 2017. ‘Welby changes his tune about abuse’. Welby was previously reporting saying his involvement in camps finished when he went to France in 1978 and recalling another perpetrator of abuse John Smyth as “charming” and “delightful” in 2017, before having to backtrack in the wake of further revelations. cf Atherstone 2014, 35.

[38] Gumbel, BIOY, 2019, 129