The news that the chief executive of the safeguarding charity conducting the lessons learned review into the Jonathan Fletcher abuse scandal is to be a main speaker at the upcoming ReNew Conference raises serious questions.
Emmanuel Wimbledon in south-west London, the Church of England proprietary chapel where Fletcher was minister until he retired in 2012, has commissioned thirtyone:eight’s independent review into his abuse. Lisa Oakley, associate professor of psychology at Chester University and chair of a national working group for child abuse linked to faith or belief in the UK, is leading the Fletcher review. But Justin Humphreys chairs the thirtyone:eight group overseeing it.
Scale of Fletcher’s influence
The thirtyone:eight investigation into Fletcher’s abuse has to reckon with the scale of his influence among Anglican conservative evangelicals in England over the past 50 years. When the ReNew Conference launched in 2013, it was a partnership between four Anglican conservative evangelical groups – Reform, Church Society, the Fellowship of Word and Spirit and the Anglican Mission in England. In 2018 Reform and FWS merged into Church Society. Thus ReNew became a partnership between Church Society in the Church of England and AMiE operating outside the CofE.
Fletcher was a founder member of Reform in the early 1990s and later a trustee, acting as mentor to various of its younger leaders, now prominent in ReNew. Fletcher got to know these younger men through the Iwerne evangelical camps for pupils from the ‘top 30’ English boarding schools. From the 1960s until the truth about Fletcher as an abuser began to trickle out in 2017 and 2018 culminating in The Daily Telegraph’s unmasking of him in June 2019, he was a leading figure in the Iwerne network.
Fletcher also had lobbying access to the Archbishop of Canterbury through his membership of the Nobody’s Friends dining club at Lambeth Palace. Fletcher became a member of this elite club through his father, the late Baron Fletcher of Islington (1903-1990), a cabinet minister in the Labour Government of the 1960s. Fletcher had considerable private means inherited from his father and holidayed expensively. He became a friend of the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby through the Iwerne camps in which the savage serial abuser John Smyth was also a leader in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Curate in the 1970s at two conservative evangelical flagship churches in the CofE, the Round Church in Cambridge and then St Helen’s Bishopsgate in the City of London, Fletcher spread and consolidated his influence among English conservative evangelicals through the preaching conferences and training courses of the Proclamation Trust. Through his network of conservative evangelical contacts, Fletcher was instrumental in getting the PT conferences and courses up and running in the 1980s, a fact the celebrated preacher Dick Lucas, Rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate at that time and the PT’s first chairman, has acknowledged. Many of Fletcher’s contacts who went on the PT conferences were also involved in Reform and then in ReNew.
It is no exaggeration to say that the power of Fletcher’s personality, combining arrogance and competitiveness with an ability to charm people, has been very significant in shaping the culture of Anglican conservative evangelicalism in England since the 1960s.
Arguably significant for the thirtyone:eight probe is the timing of Justin Humphreys’s mid-September appearance at the ReNew Conference. According to the timeframe for the Fletcher review, Emmanuel is due to publish thirtyone:eight’s report around the end of September. So, for the sake of the perceived independence of the thirtyone:eight review, should Justin Humphreys be addressing the ReNew Conference before Emmanuel publishes the report?
The Watergate question
Secondly for the thirtyone:eight investigation, there is the ‘Watergate’ question around Fletcher’s closest associates in ReNew: what did they know and when did they know it?
Are there men now leaders in English conservative evangelicalism whom Fletcher tried to involve in his naked massages but who turned him down? If so, then they knew he was pressuring them to take part in something wrong but did not blow the whistle on him. What were the reasons, personal to them and in the conservative evangelical culture they were part of, that might have led to their silence?
Moreover, were there other men Fletcher abused in some way for a short time, whether in manipulative bullying, massages, gym-shoe beatings or masturbatory activity, but who moved out of his orbit? These men may or may not have stayed within conservative evangelicalism but, because of the understandable embarrassment they felt, might have kept their brief experience of his abuse to themselves.
But even more disturbing is this question: was there a Praetorian Guard of younger conservative evangelicals protecting Fletcher who knew what he was up to and enabled his abuse by bullying into silence victims inclined to speak up?
Jobs for the boys and fingers in pies
Thirdly, in getting to grips with Fletcher’s abusive power in the ReNew movement, there is the ‘jobs for the boys’ question. It is not only proprietary chapels in the CofE that have historically developed a way of ensuring the evangelical convictions of the ministers they appoint. Some of the flagship conservative evangelical parish churches have appointing trusts designed to ensure evangelical succession in their incumbents. Fletcher was on some of these appointing bodies.
In terms of conservative evangelical committees and trusts, Fletcher had his fingers in a lot of pies. Because his circle was a boarding-school sub-culture peopled to a large extent by clergy and school-teachers, who compared with other English professionals are not earning big money, the whiff of private means about Fletcher added to his charisma. But, even for those he did not physically abuse, what was the cost of cronyism for the men caught up in his web? To what extent was Fletcher able to exploit his power of patronage to manipulate younger conservative evangelical men aspiring for positions in the prestigious churches? Among the men who got the big jobs, to what extent was he able to create a sense that they ‘owed him one’ and exploit that to perpetuate his power over them and through them into the wider conservative evangelical constituency?
‘Safe churches in an unsafe world’ is the title of the ReNew Conference session Justin Humphreys is due to address, leading into a panel discussion on safeguarding. In the sight of Fletcher’s victims and the churches he deceived and for the wider view of thirtyone:eight’s safeguarding integrity, is it safe for its chief executive publicly to associate himself with a gathering over which the sinister spectre of Fletcher’s influence has been hanging?
Finally, would it not be more helpful to the evangelical people in the ReNew network of churches if Justin Humphreys were to keep his distance from Fletcher’s former proteges at the top of the organisation? If he were to preserve his independence and delay addressing the conference until after the Fletcher report appears, might not this help the ReNew membership to absorb its findings, think biblically about how they might change the spiritual culture of their movement for the better, and press for reforms, such as electing their chairman, steering group, and regional leaders? Would not the renewal of ReNew in more accountable leadership and greater membership engagement be a desirable outcome from the lessons learned in the thirtyone:eight report?
Julian Mann is an evangelical journalist based in Morecambe, Lancashire, and author of Christians in the Community of the Dome