The English, the evangelicals and the elites: The school for scandals

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The events surrounding allegations of the Revd Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse of those over whom he had personal influence and authority not only begs comparisons with the John Smyth case, but also raises questions concerning the kind of culture which enabled these men to engage in such deplorable acts with apparent impunity.

Many, not least the victims themselves, feel that a kind of treachery has taken place. There is treason against the King, the Lord Jesus Christ, such men claimed to serve, having done things in his name in the cause of ‘sanctification’ and ‘discipline’. There is also a feeling that those who should be concerned with bringing the truth out into the open, and, who presumably would preach hearty sermons on 1 John 1:5-7 about not ‘walking around in darkness’ but ‘walking in the light’ and only then ‘does the blood of Christ cleanse us from all sin’, are so chary of doing so. Instead they reach for euphemisms such as ‘spiritual manipulation’, and then go out of their way to try and manage and contain what is a great embarrassment to them. This is seen in the two letters written to regional ReNew leaders dissuading others to use Jonathan Fletcher in their ministries because while ‘no matters of criminal concern have been raised’ (how are they qualified to judge?), there are ‘genuine significant issues’. In the second letter victims are urged in the first instance to contact Emmanuel Wimbledon, the very church in which the alleged abuses took place! This is hardly standard safeguarding procedure. And most significant of all, in relation to what we have been discussing, is that all the signatories are closely linked to Jonathan Fletcher himself.  

What we have is in effect an evangelicalised expression, with all its impediments for the cause of the Gospel, of the ‘Establishment’ which has operated in the higher echelons of British Government and Civil service for so long.  Here is John le Carre reflecting on the kind of environment in which the MI6 traitor Kim Philby thrived, ‘Effortlessly he played the parts the Establishment could recognise…effortlessly he copied its attitudes, he caught its diffident stammer, its hesitant arrogance; effortlessly he took his place in its nameless hegemony.’  Writing of the Secret Intelligence Service of Philby’s day, le Carre could be describing a certain brand of Anglican evangelicalism, ‘Within its own walls, its clubs and country houses, in whispered luncheons with its secular contacts, it would enshrine the mystical entity of a vanishing England. Here at least, whatever went on in the big world outside, England’s flower would be cherished. “The Empire may be crumbling; but within our secret elite, the clean-limbed tradition of English power would survive. We believe in nothing but ourselves.”

It doesn’t take that much of a leap of the imagination to see how this applies to the Anglican conservative evangelical scene today. There is an evangelical hegemony made up of those which stem from the elitist Scripture Union ‘Bash camps’ held at Iwerne minster (named after its founder, E. J. H. Nash, popularly known as “Bash”- aimed to reach ‘the best boys from the best schools’ e.g. Eton, Harrow, Winchester etc.).  They seek to ensure that while the ‘Empire’ (read ‘Church of England’) is crumbling, they will survive, which is why it is important they curry favour with the Established church to keep their buildings, maintain succession and ensure control over anything which would bear the name ‘conservative evangelical’- whether it be Proclamation Trust, ReNew, AMiE or GAFCON UK (it is striking how the same few names keep coming up- related by school, training or even marriage).

We are not simply describing a sociological phenomenon, with ‘assumed privilege’, but a theological one.

In his ‘J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life’, Leland Ryken, drawing on Packer’s own experience, pinpoints the different theologies and so directions taken by those from the ‘Bash camps’ as represented by John Stott and a more Puritan outlook, represented by Packer.  

Regarding the ‘Bash camps’ Ryken asks, ‘What kind of theology did such privilege produce?’ He answers, ‘It resulted in an outlook that reflected a certain social grooming. This does not mean that people like Stott and Nash denied human sinfulness. It means that Stott’s aristocratic upbringing, reinforced by the Bash camps, led to a relatively optimistic way of describing human nature. His upper-class lifestyle isolated him from much of the seamier side of life. (John King, in his book The Evangelicals, notes that the paradigm that Stott and then many of the other “Bashers” followed enabled them to reach the ministry without leaving the world of privilege: elite public school education, summers at the Bash camp, college and theological education at Cambridge university, and ordination in the Anglican Church.). Additionally, the Puritans, who have been such an important influence in Packer’s life, were less likely to hold interest for someone with an upper class orientation. After all, the Puritans were scornful of aristocratic privilege and deeply conscious of human privilege.’  He goes on to observe, ‘For Packer, Stott’s approach to evangelical renewal in the Church of England was “too bland for the reality of our pastoral world.” In particular, it lacked a sufficient view of human sinfulness. There was an additional dimension as well: Packer’s approach was more intellectual than Stott’s, despite the latter’s reason-orientated sermon style. Stott and his followers stressed pietistic community based on experience, while Packer stressed the importance of thinking in the parish.’

John C. King said that in order to understand the British Evangelical mind, it was necessary to understand the “Bash camp mind”, ‘Controversy is eschewed by “Bash campers”; it is held to be noisy and undignified- and potentially damaging. As a result many issues which ought to be faced are quietly avoided. Any practical decisions that must be made are taken discreetly by the leadership and passed down the line. The loyalty of the rank and file is such that decisions are respected; any who question are likely to find themselves outside the pale…It does not give a place to the process of argument, consultation and independent thought which are essential to any genuine co-operation, inside the church or outside the church.’

Since those early days, the situation has not significantly changed, if anything it is worse. There is ‘too bland an outlook’ held by Stott’s successors (without having Stott’s intellect) with regards to the state of the nation and the institutional church and especially of its leadership (indeed, its present Archbishop is from their own stable which psychologically will make it more difficult for some of them to be openly critical, for this, in the words of Captain Hook, would be ‘bad form’).

Why is it, for example, that given the utter disgrace and overt liberalism of the July General Synod in 2017 did we not hear one voice raised in specific public criticism by the ‘Anglican evangelical leaders’ of the large churches such as William Taylor, Hugh Palmer, or Vaughan Roberts (or even former Gafcon chairman UK- Paul Perkins)? Is this simply ‘not done’? Is there a concern not to rock the ecclesiastical boat for fear of being threatened?  It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”. The silence of these men in offering specific criticism of the national scene is deafening.

It is even more dispiriting when what is perceived to be taking a stand is then denied, as has happened with the statements made by William Taylor of St Helens. On the one hand there may be ‘temporarily impaired relationships’ (which some over optimistically took it as a ‘break’ with the C of E) only to be followed by a signalled retreat that they ‘will be full and active members of the deanery and diocesan structures.’ This was only surpassed by St Helen’s Bishopsgate congratulating Sarah Mullaly on her nomination to the Bishopric of London!

Reference has been made to the way the Establishment elite perpetuates itself. 

Here one has to raise a very serious question viz a viz GAFCON. Why was Andy Lines (also a product of this culture and apparently abused by his mentor, Fletcher) selected and by whom to be chairman of GAFCON UK and missionary bishop? People are critical of the way Bishops in the Church of England are selected, but at least there is a selection process, with representatives, discussion and two names being put forward. Who was consulted in the case of Bishop Andy? Such lack of transparency does little to build confidence and strengthens the perception that the ‘same old same old’ is in operation as in the days of Packer and Stott and of which Dr Lloyd Jones was most critical seeing such a dominance as being detrimental to the evangelical cause.

The appointment of Jonathan Juckes as the President of Oak Hill College appears to be more of the same as further evidence of the Anglican evangelical hegemony. Many are bewildered and bemused as to why someone who has not published anything of a theological nature, or contributed as a national or international speaker and having no advanced theological degree could be appointed?  Not least as he was heading up the search committee for the new President! But Mr Juckes does have one thing going for him -the right pedigree: Winchester College, Bash Camp, St Helen’s Bishopsgate and Proclamation Trust. The suspicion invariably grows as to whether here we have another instance of the ‘old school tie’ at work. 

But patronage to ‘key churches’ and colleges is one thing, allowing men like Fletcher and Smyth to ruin lives and for others to circle the waggons if not to protect such men, to protect  the ‘sacred’ organisations which have produced them and allowed them to thrive is something else. The Bible is very clear on what God thinks of favouritism (James 2:1ff) and those using their position to abuse Christ’s ‘little ones’ (Mtt. 18:6ff) such that Anglican evangelicals have no excuse.

At the EMA Vaughan Roberts said: “There is much here that does not reflect well on our constituency. Serious questions will need to be asked about what went on and how it was able to continue. To the extent we have been complicit in a culture which allowed this to happen, real and deep repentance will be needed. Change will be necessary”. Is this an admission that they were complicit? Who will assess that? What will this repentance look like? What change should take place? When a police constabulary, hospital trust, local authority, or school fails to the extent that it is dangerous, an external investigation is launched. Who will be asked to this in this instance? 

It would be a great encouragement to many, not least the poor victims who feel trashed, if this was translated into concrete action: open transparency and impartiality, the public disavowal of assumed privilege, the dismantling of the evangelical aristocracy and honouring those God has gifted who are not from this stable, and most important of all, telling and not concealing the truth.