Theology & Church

When arrogance is institutionalised

The report into the behaviour of the Church of England Minister Jonathan Fletcher was published by the safeguarding agency 31:8 this week.  It is a devastating catalogue of coercion, control, bullying and abuse carried out by someone held in such esteem within the conservative evangelical world.  

The report reveals Fletcher’s penchant for dishing out corporal punishments and humiliations and a long established pattern of coercing people into naked massages and saunas. Most appallingly it also details serious sexually abusive behaviour.

A further statement issued by the Independent Advisory Group to the investigation is even more strongly worded.

An enabling culture

The most critical aspect of the report relates to the culture which enabled and facilitated Fletcher’s behaviour. After all, his tendency to bully and manipulate was widely known and his predilections for massages and saunas were not hidden.

But the culture that surrounded Fletcher granted him such standing and admiration that no one was able, or willing, to call him out on the way he acted.  It is this cult-like protection that needs the deepest reflection.

Arrogance

All Christian traditions create cultures with different strengths and weaknesses. This is why self-awareness and humility is so important.

But a key weakness of the particular conservative evangelical world in which Fletcher operated is its arrogance. Too often they believe they alone interpret the Bible correctly and that theological soundness is defined by their narrow agenda. Often there is a tribalism, fuelled by a cultural elitism, which easily dismisses other perspectives.  

These tendencies mean that Fletcher’s behaviour should not be seen as an inexplicable departure from an otherwise healthy culture. Rather, it is the fruit of an institutionalised arrogance.

Superiority

I recall hearing Fletcher speak daily at the Word Alive conference back in the late 1990s.  Rather than his content, I mainly remember the superiority with which he addressed everyone. Some of this related to his private-school, condescending style. But more of it was shown in his curt dismissals of other views, his lack of compassion and utterly confident use of scripture to belittle other Christian traditions.

These arrogant tendencies became institutionalised in Emmanuel Church Wimbledon (ECW) where Fletcher was the Vicar for so long.  As the church admits, it enjoyed having a leader with the reputation Fletcher enjoyed and being seen as a bastion of orthodoxy and strength.  Apparently the cult of personality around its leader was so strong that one of its members even named his dog ‘Fletcher’ in honour of their vicar.

Elitism

Furthermore, these tendencies are seen in the wider conservative evangelical culture in which Fletcher was held is such esteem  It is illustrated by The Titus Trust who ran the Iwerne summer camp which was only accessible for young people from the most exclusive private schools. Along with another abuser, John Smyth, Fletcher was a key leader in these camps. 

I have been involved in Christian youth camps for decades. Most of them are already too middle-class and need to become more inclusive and diverse.  The idea that exclusive camps are needed just for the tiny elite from the poshest schools is indefensible outside the small world who benefit.

Reluctance to challenge

It is important to remember that arrogance is not simply a characteristic. It is also a tactic.

And it is deployed because it is effective. It has a powerful impact on others: it impresses, it intimidates, it can cause people to back off and avoid asking hard questions.

And it seems that Fletcher’s and ECW’s arrogance had this effect on the institutions of the Church of England which are there to protect the vulnerable. Instead of any robust challenge, Southwark Diocese and the C of E structures seem to have tip-toed around the issue, using ECW’s unusual status as a ‘proprietary Chapel’ as an excuse to not grip the situation.

Further questions

It appears that Fletcher’s abuse was enabled by a combination of the arrogance of the conservative evangelical culture fused with the passive incompetence of the C of E structures.

In 2017, the Bishop of Southwark removed Jonathan Fletcher’s Permission to Officiate (PTO) due to concerns about his behaviour. But why did this action not trigger an investigation? Why did they not inform the leaders of ECW about the reasons for their action? This failure led to two more years of active ministry by Fletcher.

Why, when the details began to emerge publicly, did the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team (NST) not even take on the allegations as a case?  Why did Justin Welby not instruct this to happen?

Why was the formal investigation commissioned and paid for by the very church in which the abuse was facilitated and not Southwark Diocese or NST? Initially, victims of Fletcher were even asked to contact ECW, the very church in which they were abused, to engage in the investigation.

Concrete change

The Church has failed the victims of Jonathan Fletcher badly. The key indicators of learning will not be how heartfelt the apologies are, but how the concrete the change is.

Will the lessons be learnt? Will key leaders step down? Will safeguarding ever be handled better? ‘Wisdom is proved right by her actions’ (Matthew 11:19).

Safeguarding vulnerable people is not just a discrete or specialist area. It cannot be resolved by bringing in an expert like you get a CORGI engineer to fix a boiler.

Rather, safeguarding is a key expression of church culture. A transparent, accountable and well-led church will be a safe one because of its culture and practices. An arrogant, unaccountable and poorly-led church will continue to provide a haven to abusers.

  • Please watch this interview with Lee Furney, a survivor of Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse:

18 thoughts on “When arrogance is institutionalised”

  1. Thanks Jon. Hard to read but spot on. I hope the questions you pose will be addressed. I think I do want to say that whilst you are absolutely right about the tendency to arrogance within Conservative Evangelicalism it is Fletcher’s personality as much as his theology that created the climate within which abuse was allowed to continue. Arrogance is not exclusive to the conservative tribe and that means the same sort of abuse easily develops in other traditions. Ten years working as an Archdeacon has now given me real concern about the type of character who leads arrogantly. Often they are very charismatic characters that people are inspired by, or at least in awe of. They are often the entrepreneurs and risk takers that grow Churches which is great … but…But the confidence they show outwardly can easily manifest as bullying behaviour and they can be difficult to correct, because of their certainty. I completely agree that the style (I perceive often absorbed through the public school system) is used as a tactic designed to stop senior leaders asking hard questions. Humility in leadership is an undervalued quality but one i more and more think we need to impress on the next generation of church leaders. Humility with kindness (my particular favourite fruit of the Spirit) might just be more important to the future of the Church and ensure the safeguarding culture we crave. I may be getting old but I wish we looked for kindness and wisdom in our leaders rather than communication ability, managerialism and qualifications. Ian Bishop (not privately educated by the way)

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Ian. I am really grateful to people like you, John Bavington, Ian Brown and Peter Hancock for your leadership of the WB CYFA camp which has given me so much.

      I agree that arrogance is not the preserve of any one tribe (as seen in the Peter Ball case) and we need to be robust and determined to change this culture wherever it is seen.

      But the Con. evangelical has certain tendencies which are exposed in the JF case, some of which we saw at WB with some leaders from this stable: a tendency to condescend other views, elevate preaching above all else, a narrow focus on Penal Substitution as the gospel, a rejection of social concerns as ‘liberal’ and a general arrogance about ‘being sound’ etc. The good thing about WB was that this culture never dominated during the time I was there – it was an element amongst others – but I am sad to see how many camps have collapsed into this approach.

      God bless you and thanks for reading.

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  2. I am heartened to see an archdeacon see the problem so clearly. I am afraid the HTB churchplanting enterprise needs a similar critique. Yes, churches grow and are revitalised – but often by being very unkind to the congregation that was there before. For years some of us have been pointing this out to bishops and others and have been ignored because of the obsession with quick numerical growth. I would only add that we need to ask the question about whether theologies such as male headship and certain ways of presenting penal substitution do actually generate this culture which has been exposed in the Fletcher and Smyth cases. Interestingly, Jon writes that Fletcher coerced people into the massages and saunas – but of course he did not – he did this with men. Would a leadership culture that was gender-mixed have helped avoid such things as the arrogance? Just wondering….

    I also think Jon hits a number of nails on the head as regards dismissal of other traditions etc.. But on one specific point, I suspect that Southwark diocese assumed that after Fletcher’s PTO was revoked he would decline all invitations to minister or that none would be offered – but it assumes people knew he was no longer in good standing etc..

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    1. Hi Charles, thanks for reading and commenting.

      With your first point, I think ‘unkindness’ is very different to what is discussed in this article. I am sure some congregations find change difficult and we really need processes which are open and transparent about the change required and the consequences of not being willing to do new things. I have sympathy for leaders frustrated with slow decline which many C of E churches seem content with.

      On your second point, you are right. This was just men and maybe if JF has tried it on with a series of women then his behaviour may have been called out earlier. I definitely think more women involved in the governance and running of a church has to increase the chance of a more healthy culture.

      And lastly, if Southwark diocese did think that removing his PTO would lead to his not being invited to speak or preach elsewhere then they are naive to the point of utter incompetence. In many of the circles JF moved in and most cared about this would more likely to be seen as a badge of honour.

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      1. Hi Jon

        thanks for the original article and the replies. I don’t disagree with you at all and you have highlighted some important issues, as has Ian in his comment. On the last. I suspect Southwark did not understand the evangelical culture and there the need to follow up on the removal of PTO. I am to say the least surprised if they of all dioceses did not understand the subculture! A badge of honour indeed – and that attitude needs to be addressed by the conservative evangelical groupings.
        On growth, frustration etc – yes we cannot be complacent but the pendulum has often swung to an arrogance of leadership that evicts people who do not fit – I have seen it in my local church (which I do not attend!)
        Lastly, we need to say that most camps (SU, CPAS etc.) are very good and well-run. I did not see the narrowness at the ones I helped with but always thought the Iwerne ones sounded rather odd! But then you and I we t to the same school and it wasn’t Eton!

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  3. These abusers are often protected, an cushioned by very powerful people in the hierachy an actively encourage to stay in office. There’s a lotta money to collect for the coffers, so these abusers fullfil that purpose.
    They have to be protected against exposure from members of the public, who become the victims.

    It’s all about power an control.
    The church of England is very powerful!

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    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. The C of E obviously does have a powerful hierarchy but it is also very complex. It would be wrong to see JF and the church where he was vicar ECW, as simply protected because they were within the Anglican establishment. The protection more came from being a distinct sub-culture within that world.

      Control does exist in the C of E but is not exercised via some central board or Archbishop but via many strata and sub-divisions which help keep the status quo in place. This is seen in the inability of the diocese to have any real effect on what ECW have done or do now. Financially and culturally ECW exist in a different world – albeit one where they are called C of E but pay no money to the diocese and have very little to do with its structures.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lee. And thanks to you for the gracious, brave and persistent way that you have shared your experiences and perspective. God bless and I hope you feel well supported over the coming weeks.

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  4. Thanks for a great blog as usual Jon. Some interesting comments. However, I think the point that JF did not coerce people as they were men is simply not true. They were younger men, eager to please a mentor and the interview with Lee clearly illustrates the move to “crucilbles of shame” – just because someone is male, doesn’t mean they can’t be coerced, it’s just that the tactics may but not necessarily be different.

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    1. Thanks Mark and yes, I completely agree. Lee Furney’s insights are remarkably balanced and gracious but also full of insightful and sharp analysis. Perhaps this is because they are honed after 20 years of prayer and reflection. I want to do my bit to ensure as many people as possible listen to his perspective as I think they are just the kind of views that can help the church properly assess what has happened, deal with the real issues and seek appropriate forgiveness and redemption. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  5. Thank you for your beautifully written and incisive piece. Your analysis of the culture and sub cultures which enabled abusers not only to survive but flourish is spot on. I’m a Reader in the C of E and have experienced working with an arrogant, vain and controlling priest who was outwardly charming but who dismissed and vilified anyone who wasn’t in his fan club. He sought to establish an independent church whilst still purporting to be part of the Church of England. After challenging his authority to do this I was verbally abused by him and by his sycophants, who refused to shake hands with me in the peace during Holy Communion. This may seem trivial compared to the experiences of the survivors of sexual abuse, but abuse can take many different forms and all are damaging to some degree, both to the abused and to the wider church community.
    On a more general point, I honestly believe that the C of E has vastly improved it’s safeguarding policies and procedures over the past couple of years or so. Some may say that it’s too little too late, but hopefully it will prevent more tragedies from occurring. I also believe that there is greater awareness now of the dangers of arrogant and controlling personalities, due in no small part to the brave testimony of survivors.
    Thank you for all you do.

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