Does the Camphill model have a future in England and Wales?

Robin Jackson explores Camphill’s roots and how these have proved both a strength and a vulnerability in a demanding and changing world. 

Most intentional communities have only a limited lifespan. This may result from irresolvable tensions stemming from the internal dynamics of a particular community. It may result from changes in the political, economic and social circumstances in the outside world. The question arises as to whether the Camphill Movement in the UK and the Republic of Ireland is approaching its end point.

The combination of economic austerity and the myopic pursuit by politicians – national and local – of the ideology of inclusion means that Camphill communities have had to change in order to survive. In facing the challenge of change three groups have emerged. The first is made up of those who resolutely refuse to accept the need for change. The second comprises those who acknowledge the need for change but do not know what to do. The third knows what to do and attempts to do it more often than not successfully. 

It does not need the insights of an experienced managerial consultant to observe that the co-existence of such groups can lead to conflict and eventual paralysis. There is only a limited period of time within which any organisation can continue to operate where strongly divergent views are held as to how to confront the future and where there is no effective managerial mechanism to resolve deep differences and to take forward new approaches.

The challenge of a hierarchy

This particular organisational problem is further accentuated for many intentional communities by the nature of their power structure. Intentional communities are traditionally run on cooperative or communal lines. The rejection of hierarchical management and of the notion of individuals assuming leadership roles create difficulties where a community needs to undergo profound and rapid change in order to survive. What compounds the difficulties for some intentional communities is the nature of their relationship with the outside world; for example, is it marked by active cooperation, grudging tolerance or outright hostility? This stance in relation to external agencies can be further complicated by the co-existence of all three attitudes within a single community.

What is rarely challenged by external agencies is the high quality of the provision made by most Camphill communities for the children, young people and adults in their care. However, those staff members who provide these services are rarely subject to external and close scrutiny. The regulatory and commissioning services will argue that their primary responsibility is the health and welfare of the children, young people and adults in the care of a community. It is not part of their role to explore in depth working relationships in a community, unless the quality of the provision for those in a community’s care is called into question. 

In other words, contrary to logic, it is possible to have a dysfunctional organisation providing a high level of care – albeit for a short while.

Is it possible to identify and describe some of the key characteristics of Camphill communities?  The list below is not one that Camphillers would necessarily endorse: it simply represents the views of one outside observer.  

König believed Camphill residents should be the guardians of land entrusted to them

(1) Mutuality

The relationship between the carer and the person with special needs in Camphill settings is characterized by mutuality, which is defined here as the respectful give-and-take between and among persons. Mutuality is not merely a technique or attitude; it is a practice that embodies the value of interaction and understanding—not isolation and alienation. This life-sharing aspect of living in an intentional community is one of its defining features, as this ensures that the principles of dignity, value, and mutual respect can be meaningfully translated into practice. The daily process of learning across difference and inequality is vital, for it transforms the basic attitudes of care-givers toward difference.. What we are talking about here is the establishment of an affective relationship that is unconditional. It is mutual friendship that provides the cohesive force that binds together the different elements of a community; it is the mortar without which any communal edifice would collapse.

(2) Rhythmicity

Rhythmicity is a potent force not only in linking people together but also in creating a sense of internal togetherness.  Life comprises a wide range of natural rhythms, from the regularity of the heartbeat to the change from day to night. Rhythmicity is an essential ingredient in human communication and development. In attempting to communicate effectively with an individual, the carer has to fall into step with that individual so that ‘they dance to the same tune’. It is important for carers to learn to listen, to look, and to explore in a new way the pulse of groups with which they are working. Only by living one’s work in a community can one become sensitized and respond appropriately to these rhythms.

(3) Sense of well-being

Attention to the well-being of the individual is an integral facet of life in intentional communities. Well-being, which may have everything or nothing to do with religious belief and observance, may be an integral and essential aspect of everyday life. It can be defined as a sense of feeling good about oneself as a human being and as a unique individual. It occurs when people are fulfilling their potential as individuals and as human beings, are aware of their own dignity and value, enjoy themselves and have a sense of direction, can sense this quality in others and consequently respect and relate positively to them, and are at ease with the world around them. A sense of well-being does not result from the acquisition and application of a series of techniques and skills; it results from sharing together and learning together.  It comes by addressing questions that relate to the value and meaning of life.

(4) Tranquillity

A further feature of many intentional communities is the tranquillity of the environment in which many are set.  This contrasts with the location of many ‘homes in the community’ in busy, noisy and atmospherically polluted centres of towns and cities. There are few visitors who do not quickly become aware of this distinct and rare quality.  But what do we mean by tranquillity? Too often, tranquillity is simply equated with silence or an absence of noise, but tranquillity is a quality that has to be created. It can be defined as a state of inner emotional and intellectual peace. While many people may recognize its importance, few understand its benefits. Tranquillity can help individuals overcome feelings of anger, nervousness, and fear that are often part of daily life. It brings enhanced levels of emotional and mental calm that enable the individual to feel mentally stable and grounded. By keeping the mind clear and stable, tranquillity can help improve judgment and, by so doing, make the future appear bright and positive. This in turn helps to maintain a person’s good physical health by keeping the body strong and resistant to illness. Thus there is a sense in which tranquillity has a healing or curative quality.

Economic activity provides mutual togetherness

(5) Economic sustainability

It was the view of Dr König, the co-founder of Camphill, that at the heart of most Camphill communities there should be a farm which would act as the ‘dynamo’ providing not only food and drink but also educational and recreational activities.  He was seeking to create a self-contained and economically self-sustaining community.  He frequently used the metaphor of an island to describe a Camphill community.  Clearly one of the most obvious features of an island is that it is physically cut off.  That isolation was important to König for three principal reasons.  First, in order to foster a sense of internal togetherness and brotherhood and to develop a system reliant on mutual togetherness, it was necessary to cut the links with the outside world.  Second, König believed that in order for children and young people with special needs attending Camphill to benefit from the regime, there should be a minimum of external influences, which were perceived, at least in the early years, as being negative and destructive.  Third, the project of creating a self-sustaining economic model would be undermined if there were undue reliance on the surrounding area for goods and services.  No exaggerated claims are being made here that intentional communities – like Camphill – can become totally economically self-sufficient but they can through the adoption of different strategies reduce dependence on state funding (e.g. through power generation using solar, wind, geothermal and water sources).  And by so doing they can demonstrate their practical commitment to the virtue of greater self-reliance

(6) Ecological sensitivity

Long before environmental lobbies came into existence, König was a strong advocate for people being ecologically sensitive.  He believed that Camphill communities should act as guardians of the land with which they had been entrusted.  In order to fulfil that responsibility, it was necessary to apply farming methods that respected the soil, the crops, and the livestock.  He further believed that this reverence should be extended to the way that food was prepared for the table.  The physical presentation of meals as well as the taste and nutritional value of the food should add to the feeling of well-being.  Meals should not simply be a time set aside to eat food but should be social occasions in which respect is shown for what one eats and drinks.  This can be done through offering a grace or an appropriate reading or song at the start and finish of each meal.  This commitment to ecological sensitivity can be seen in the character and construction of buildings on Camphill estates in the UK and overseas.  In this regard Camphill is in the green vanguard.

Does the Camphill Movement in the UK and the Republic of Ireland have a future? That depends on the preparedness of existing members to embrace and not to resist change. Many have the transition with great success. It will also depend on the extent to which ‘the outside world’ is made aware of the essential features of Camphill philosophy outlined above and of its many achievements. It is worth highlighting here the clear unity of purpose and dynamism of recently established communities in Viet Nam and South Korea which are based on the Camphill model. What is interesting here is that the growth of these communities is taking place in cultures quite alien to those found in the West.

If the Camphill seed can flourish in these foreign settings there is no reason why it cannot continue to flourish in the UK, if due account is taken of the changing economic and social climate here. It may well be that what we eventually see emerging is a Camphill-lite form of care provision but in which the essence of Camphill is still retained. 

There is a sense in which the message from Camphill has never been more relevant.  We are living in age when an unregulated social media pours forth vitriolic attacks on people with disabilities and where official statistics reveal that crimes against people with a learning disability have escalated.  At the same we have a government which refuses point blank to accept any of the many recommendations to improve provision for people with disabilities: recommendations made by the UN Committee on the Rights of People with a Disability whose representatives recently visited the UK. 

It is instructive to note that when a debate on the findings of the UN Committee was scheduled in the House of Commons that debate was restricted to 30 minutes, a large part of which was taken up by a government spokesperson challenging and dismissing the many valid concerns raised by the UN Committee.  It is not without significance that these comments were addressed to a virtually empty chamber: an indication of the conspicuous lack of interest in and concern for disability issues by most MPs.  Also, in neither of the long speeches given by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn at their recent respective party political conferences was any reference made to disability issues.  

There is a compelling case for Camphill to make more widely known not simply its practical achievements but the relevance of its underlying philosophy at a time when moral, civic and political leadership is lacking.

Robin Jackson is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire. He has a PhD in education from the University of Exeter. The subject of his doctorate was an assessment of the post school adjustment of leavers from day special schools for pupils with an intellectual disability in Edinburgh and Midlothian. On completing his doctorate he spent 10 years at Aberdeen College of Education where he lectured in the Sociology of Education. He then moved to King Alfred’s College (now the University of Winchester) where he was responsible for setting up the first Master’s Degree in Special education in the UK

29 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All