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Ashwell House: East London’s Cult-like Student Accommodation

It’s not every day that you come across a ‘Spiritual Activities’ tab on a student accommodation website. But at Ashwell House, many unprecedented practices occur. Browsing through the dull white and burgundy website, you begin to catch on that Ashwell House is unlike any other student accommodation. It seems like a place of endless opportunities for volunteering and community work with international volunteering projects in Kenya, Uganda, and Romania — which in my opinion screams “white saviour” complex. With their female-only rule -a selling point for many prospective female tenants- an impression of safety and protection is created. However, it also carries out a Christian formation, entrusted to Opus Dei — a notorious, cult-like, Catholic institution. This is worrying.

Journalist, Mary Wakefield says that Ashwell House is a business and like most Opus Dei operations, wants Christians to seek holiness, not despite the daily grind, rather through it. The house essentially seems to be a centre for recruiting Opus Dei members, where tenants are hand-picked. As part of the application process, they ask for your “intended profession”, marital status and a recent picture of yourself… is this a dating website? That alone is enough to raise suspicion, but warnings people have previously been given about Opus Dei should no doubt raise some red flags. 

In the blog ‘Reasons to Avoid Ashwell House’ written by an anonymous ex-Ashwell tenant (calling themself “Ashwell girl”), the realities of what it’s like to live at the house are exposed, in great detail. The ex-tenant describes how rooms are inspected daily by the director and how residents do not have room keys, front door keys, nor gate keys. Further descriptions of the accommodation showed that it was sometimes a hostile environment to live in and that the constant surveillance would not help. Those who choose to join Opus Dei would be expected to take part in gruelling practices such as sleeping on a wooden board instead of a mattress and whipping themselves in the morning after a cold shower. 

Currently, there is an organisation, Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN), informing people about the practices and dangers of Opus Dei. While it is said that members are free to come and go whenever they please, after watching ‘wild wild country and documentaries on Jim Jones, the free will of Opus Dei members is severely questioned. ODAN raises questions around 4 main issues with Opus Dei:

  • Corporal mortification (self-inflicted pain)
  • Aggressive recruitment and pressuring people to join
  • Lacks of informed consent and control of environment
  • Alienation from families

Sharon Clasen, a former Opus Dei member, clarified the similarities between Opus Dei and other cults, particularly in the way that personal freedom is hugely hindered. This is due to the use of psychological techniques that are designed to manipulate and influence people’s behaviour. It’s known as the authoritarian BITE model: control of Behaviour, Information, Thought, and Emotional (including guilt tactics). Ashwell incorporates similar techniques because, despite the non-existence of a contract that would allow tenants to leave whenever they’d like, this is a very unlikely scenario due to their manipulative tactics. It instead presents the risk of the tenant having no place to live if they go against House rules. Ashwell Girl talks about an incident that involved Opus Dei members kicking out a female resident seen kissing another female at a pub. These homophobic attitudes that Opus Dei holds were explored by Shon Faye, a former Netherhall House resident — the male-only equivalent of Ashwell House.

It is not just a student accommodation, it is a lifestyle

The primary tactic Ashwell uses seems to be emotional control by guilting residents into taking part in religious accommodation activities (under the pretence that they are political or scientific discussions) and casting aside those who refuse to take part. It is not just a student accommodation, it is a lifestyle.

Surprisingly, this accommodation was promoted on my university website as a place to live due to their adherence to the code of standards and their ‘not-for-profit’ status. With their rooms being priced at £210 per week, one would expect there to be locks on the doors with at least a bit of privacy. But this is unbeknownst to Ashwell House. A midnight curfew means that anyone arriving any later is at risk of sleeping on the streets. Even those who arrive after 10 PM were looked down upon. The doors are locked, and no one, except for the grounds staff, has the key. It is also unfathomable that many of the residents are not students, but are in fact permanent middle-aged adult Opus Dei members. While residents can choose to join, it seems that those who don’t are treated unfavourably by the others.

Opus Dei classifies its members into three different levels: Numerary, Associate and Supernumerary — all of which would require some monetary donation to the institution. Many members of Opus Dei have high paying salaries and send a large portion of their earnings to Opus Dei (which explains the question of a student’s “intended profession”). 

Ashwell House is being ritualistically used by Opus Dei believers to propagate and recruit new members into their religious practice. However, the issue isn’t that they carry out these rituals, it’s the isolating nature of living at Ashwell and being cut off from the outside world which forces the women to rely on Ashwell for a support system – sort of like a clingy boyfriend. Opus Dei remains a religious organisation, even though it exhibits many traits of a cult, which raises the question: is it safe to allow vulnerable university students to live in a space promoting Opus Dei, cult-like activities, and unfair restrictions after so many warn against it? 

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