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.