Ethics & Christian living

A tale of two vicars: one exploiting the status quo, the other challenging it

Jonathan Fletcher was the vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon (ECW) and enjoyed a high-profile and influential ministry. But in recent years, his bullying, coercive and abusive behaviour has been exposed.  A report by the Safeguarding Agency thirtyone:eight catalogued Fletcher’s long-running pattern of sexual and spiritual abuse.  

Much of the fall-out from this scandal has focussed on the conservative evangelical world in which Fletcher was a major figure. It has meant less focus on the failures of the Church of England and Southwark Diocese to address the situation.

Lack of clarity

In 2017, the Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, removed Fletcher’s Permission to Officiate (PTO) due to concerns about the risk he posed to vulnerable people. But the diocese launched no proper investigation. Incredibly, they did not tell ECW the reasons for their action. The lack of clarity and transparency enabled Fletcher to continue to preach and exert his influence within conservative evangelical circles for a further 2 years.

When a proper investigation was eventually conducted, it was commissioned, paid for and published by ECW, the very church within which the abuse happened. Unbelievably, survivors were initially asked to contact ECW if they had information to add to the investigation.

Incompetence

Christ Church New Malden (CCNM) is another Anglican church nearby to ECW. Here, a very different example of Diocesan incompetence and injustice in safeguarding matters has been in evidence.

Over the last 13 years, Stephen Kuhrt, the vicar of CCNM (who is, I should make clear, my brother), has raised serious concerns about Southwark Diocese’s approach to safeguarding.  His concerns were first expressed in 2006.  Some serious allegations surrounded a long-standing member of his church but Stephen was discouraged by Southwark Diocese from taking the matter further.

Prosecution and conviction

However, he did pursue the allegations and the perpetrator was prosecuted and received a criminal conviction. A number of those affected have said that he is the only person they encountered within the church who took the matter seriously.

Last year, Stephen sent the Diocese and their senior safeguarding officer a detailed report on his concerns about safeguarding. In response, he heard nothing back for five months. After the non-response, he sent his report to the C of E’s National Safeguarding Team and after a month with no meaningful response, he then sent it to small group of people advising him. 

These included Andrew Graystone, an advocate for survivors of abuse (author of Bleeding for Jesus), Lee Furney, a key witness in the allegations surrounding Jonathan Fletcher and Janet Fife, co-editor of Letters to a Broken Church.

Disciplinary

Eventually, Diocese officials did respond to his report. But instead of being concerned about the issues it raised, they were angered by its contents and, most especially, who it had been sent to.

The Safeguarding Officer to whom the report had been sent immediately engaged a disciplinary process against Stephen. No interview took place with Stephen by either the Bishops of Southwark or Kingston.  He was suspended, initially informally and then formally, from his work as vicar for five and a half months.  

CCNM’s other leaders and the Parochial Church Council (PCC) stood squarely behind Stephen and took the unusual step of making a public statement:

On 22nd June, our Vicar, Stephen Kuhrt was suspended from ministry by the Bishop of Southwark as a result of Stephen’s attempt to whistle-blow about serious safeguarding failures by Southwark Diocese. The Churchwardens and PCC…believe the Diocese’s response to be disproportionate and inappropriate…

Outcome

The disciplinary process concluded in July this year.

The main allegation, relating to the action he took in 2006 was dismissed. He was given a ‘rebuke’ by the Bishop for breaching confidentiality because he did not redact names in the document that he shared with his advisers.  Stephen fully accepted he should have redacted the names and accepted the outcome. Following his return the Churchwardens issued a second statement

Many believe that it was only this strong public support from the church that hastened the end of the disciplinary process against Stephen. Other cases have dragged on much longer.

Stephen returned to work on the 29th July and has got stuck into the task of renewing and re-building church life after the pandemic. He used his time off to work on a number of writing projects, including a forthcoming book about safeguarding and the culture of the Church of England.

Non-engagement

Since Stephen’s return to work over 11 weeks ago, neither the Bishop of Southwark or Kingston has offered to meet with him or has even been in contact. This is despite regular assurances during the disciplinary process of the ‘neutrality of suspension’ and their on-going prayers for him and the parish.  There has been no ‘return to work’ meeting.

Most importantly, there has been no engagement on the issues he raised in the report he wrote over a year ago. He has been met with silence, angry defensiveness, counter-aggression, lengthy bureaucratic process and now silence again.

I have 25 years experience of managing people and projects working with vulnerable people. I have engaged in countless safeguarding reviews, disciplinary hearings and Employment Tribunals. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of how Christian agencies manage people and situations. But I am astounded at the level of ineptitude, poor process and lack of values shown in Stephen’s case.

Exploiting the status quo…

On the surface, Jonathan Fletcher’s public ministry was highly critical of the Church of England.  Criticising Anglican liberalism and contrasting it with their own ‘sound Biblical orthodoxy’ is a favourite theme for conservative evangelicals.

But Fletcher’s case exposes the superficiality of so much theological tribalism. In reality Fletcher exploited the status quo rather than challenging it. He was an establishment man who had created for himself an enclave of power from which no one dared to question him or hold him accountable.

Even when the Bishop of Southwark did take action against Fletcher he did not inform the church why.  Both his own church community and the Diocese were unwilling to challenge the status quo and thus failed to keep vulnerable people safe from him. 

…or challenging it

In contrast, Stephen Kuhrt has taken action to expose abuse and address the perpetrator. His actions led to the criminal conviction of someone who had done great harm.

But because he criticised the Diocese on the concrete grounds of how they manage safeguarding, he has faced the backlash from the institution. The diocese weaponised the concerns he raised against him. They went after the whistle-blower because he challenged the status quo.

Fortunately, a combination of strong local support, good communication and an excellent lawyer has limited what the Diocese could do.  But the case shows how the prevailing culture in the C of E undermines any efforts to improve its safeguarding.

Cultural change

Unsafe and abusive environments do not come about simply due to technical failings of or lack of expertise. They develop in cultures which are unassertive and institutionally dishonest.

It is this culture that the Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) specifically addresses:

‘The culture of the Church of England facilitated it becoming a place where abusers could hide. Deference to the authority of the Church and to individual priests, taboos surrounding discussion of sexuality and an environment where alleged perpetrators were treated more supportively than victims presented barriers to disclosure that many victims could not overcome…Culture change is assisted by senior Church leaders now saying the right things, but lasting change will require more than platitudes.’

Revolution of honesty

There has been enough platitudes and heart-felt apologies. What the Church of England needs is nothing less than a revolution in honesty, transparency and truthfulness. 

To be at the vanguard of any revolution is costly and uncomfortable. Institutions are recalcitrant and develop systems to resist change. They kick-back and seek to expel and silence those who challenge.

Significant change is often only triggered by crisis or tragedy: when someone loses their life or when wrong is exposed in such a way which emboldens people to speak up.

Christ-like commitment

This is why significant change in safeguarding within the Church will never happen simply by better procedures and protocols. 

It will need to fired by a Christ-like commitment to truthfulness.

It will mean vicars, PCCs and church members who are fiercely committed to being honest and open about what is going on.  It will mean an end to blatant hypocrisies and open secrets about terrible behaviour. It will mean Archdeacons and Bishops who refuse to sweep issues under the carpet.

There is nothing more abhorrent to the gospel of God’s love than abuse being perpetuated within His Church.  God’s grace cannot be shared by an institution unwilling to tell the truth.

30 thoughts on “A tale of two vicars: one exploiting the status quo, the other challenging it”

  1. Thank you for sharing this information Jon, I am actually very disturbed about the approach that has been taken based on your experience and that of your Brother. I hope that the Bishops will reconsider their actions very quickly.

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  2. Thank you for this thought provoking article Jon. Many of your observations resonate with my own experience as a Churchwarden in the Diocese of Southwark when attempting to resolve safeguarding issues.

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  3. Hi Jon. I’m shocked to hear about your brother’s experience. As you know, I’m committed to trying to bring both truth and grace into our work with safeguarding issues in the Methodist Church. Cultural change is slow in all institutions, and those who attempt to bring about change often find it hard going. I’m holding you and your brother in prayer; thank God that this courageous witness exists.

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  4. Thank you for your thought-provoking article – the only disappointment is that I was not surprised. Stephen and the folk at Christ Church have been an inspiration. As leader of the safeguarding team at an independent church (not far from New Malden), we are concerned that our witness to a watching world is not obscured by sin as a result of such abuse of children and vulnerable adults that God created.
    My prayers continue to be with Christ Church and all churches who seek to act in the way that God has ordained.

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  5. Hi John, many greetings. It is a shocking story, especially that the hardness of heart is still continuing; there needs to be more challenges but I know how daunting that is’ The culture of Canterbury is grim. Take care, many prayers.

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    1. thanks Ian – appreciate you reading and commenting. I have very fond memories of discussions of Anglo-Catholic / Pentecostal fusion in those meetings we held in Leytonstone back at the start of the millennium! Hope you are doing OK

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  6. Very saddened by this. But it is a situation that happens because authority and power flows from the top of the hierarchy down. That is characteristic of the Anglican and Catholic organisation. Those with power will almost always wish to keep and, indeed, enhance it. There is nothing Christ-like about this.

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  7. Hi Jon,
    you don’t know me, but I spent an incredibly stimulating sabbatical with your brother a few years ago. I’m not at all surprised by his integrity and courage as you describe it. It pains me that a faithful and hard-working Christian disciple should haver this additional strain placed upon him and his wonderful ministry. It is also dispiriting to find the same failures being repeated. I recently re-read Marva Dawn’s book in which she argues that churches can also become “principalities” – agents of overreaching and abusive power. I know God will strengthen Stephen and his lovely team at CCNM. Please send him my love and best wishes. I’ll endeavour to make further contact with him.
    God bless, Alan (Stephen will know who I am).

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  8. thanks for sharing Jon. Stephen’s experience is sadly not uncommon in regards to how people are treated when trying to do the right thing , but nevertheless is worrying. I know we havent met for a while, but have fond memories from our days together in Croydon, with your parents. Talking of which, would Gordon have had any pointers to pass on, from his time working more directly in the diocese (and not parish) , to assist making any more sense of what happened to Stephen?

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    1. Hi Roger – thanks for your comment. Yes, Stephen has been discussing it with our Dad as you can imagine. He, like me, is also gobsmacked by the way it has been handled and he obviously has a huge amount of experience with Southwark Diocese and the C of E structures

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  9. A case of ‘shoot the messenger’. What a tragic story, but how amazing that Stephen was able to rise above the mess and forge forward in his work. We so need more people like you and your brother in this ever-increasingly cynical, power-abusing world of ours.

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  10. Just to be clear: Jonathan Fletcher was influential in some parts of Anglican conservative evangelicalism. He was not particularly influential in conservative evangelicalism as a whole.

    That said, I agree your brother has been poorly treated. But the chaotic nature of Anglican discipline in a context of doctrinal diversity (doctrinal disagreement if you prefer) is the root cause in your post.

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    1. Hi James – thanks for reading and commenting. I know there are different ‘sub-tribes’ who gather under these broader labels but I would maintain that JF was an influential character in CE. I heard him speak at events like ‘Word Alive’ in the 90s and he was certainly a ‘big figure’ in that kind of cross-denominational event.

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      1. Sure – be good to hear more. How much did JF connect with groups like FIEC? I heard him at time be very anti-charismatic so I guess this end of the CE spectrum would not have liked his emphasis?

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      2. As an indication of JF’s influence beyond the conservative Anglican community, a large evangelical church in Surrey affliated to the FIEC invited him to speak at a leaders’ away day. It was certainly after 2017, when questions were already being asked.

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      3. I was in independent evangelical churches from 1993-2016, and an FIEC church from 1997-2007. In terms of influence such as who goes into the ministry, who goes to which church, what a church does, I would say almost no influence at all.

        Bear in mind he was/is a very establishment figure, very wedded to the Church of England. I have read somewhere that he was somewhat dismissive of non-Anglican evangelicalism which supports my view of lack of influence.

        And his Anglican influence was in the Iwerne circle, which is by no means all Anglican conservative evangelical churches, nor necessarily in all churches with Iwerne links.

        His main non-conformist influence would be on the Co-Mission network, which was started from an Emmanuel church plant, but I have no idea what ongoing influence he had there. And we are only talking of about 10 churches in that network in the relevant period.

        Post-MLJ it would be hard to identify an ‘influential’ figure in non-conformist conservative evangelicalism. You can look at some Word Alive speakers perhaps but the independent ecclesiology of non-conformity makes it tricky to wield influence.

        The only person I can think of is Peter Masters but only in the particularly circle of churches with links to him.

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      4. Hello Andrew. I’ve been at many churches which have invited someone to speak at an event, but I wouldn’t say that the speaker thereby wields influence over the church. Though being well known is not a prerequisite for speaking at a church event.

        He was well known so spoke at various events, I remember him speaking at OICCU. But so did a lot of other people, a different one every week at least! That’s a lot of people having influence, 3.5% a year each.

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  11. Absolutely agree, Tobias. Thank you, Jon, for such a clear narrative concerning your brother’s courage, his trust in God’s ultimate vindication of him during his suspension, and then continuing to run with vigour and vitality when his parish ministry was returned to him. Praising God for such a faithful minister of the Gospel of Christ. I can envisage the Lord pouring out his power and grace upon his congregation, subsequent to his resumption of preaching and pastoral care.

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  12. I am currently trying to expose similar failings of safeguarding and abuse in a different diocese. It is an uphill battle, one I don’t know if I can win. The institution is too big, and I am too small. I am exhausted by the fight and disarmed by the CofE’s secrecy. Their secrecy makes them powerful.

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