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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: