This blog piece does not begin with some breakthrough news on the Jonathan Fletcher story. This is a continuation of the narrative that I covered at the end of June and the very beginning of July this year. Indeed, it is the relative absence of news that is perhaps the chief feature of this blog instalment. When a story of such considerable importance goes quiet, one finds oneself asking questions. Over in America, on an Anglican web-site called Anglican Ink, (see above) questions are also being asked. They have recently published two letters connected with the Fletcher affair, links to which can be found above. The first is a letter from Fletcher himself and originally published soon after the main story about him broke at the end of June. This appeared in a magazine called Evangelicals Now. The second letter is an open letter from a group of six individuals and published on the 23rd September by Anglican Ink. Most of the six signatories appear to come from similar evangelical networks as Fletcher himself. In other words, this September open letter can be read as an evangelical critique of Fletcher’s activities and his theology. The title of this second letter, Time to Come Clean, is the same title as Jonathan Fletcher had given to his July letter.
‘Time to come Clean’, the first letter of this title written by Fletcher, is an extraordinary piece of self-justifying fudge. The letter makes no attempt to address the questions that many people might reasonably be asking. Instead of any account of the events that led up to the withdrawal of the Permission to Officiate in the Diocese of Southwark, there is a short reflection on Bible passages, Psalm 38 and a reference to Matthew 18 and 2 Corinthians 2.5-11. Fletcher claims not to know who he has ‘spiritually harmed’. In the answering open letter, the six signatories expose the feebleness of Fletcher’s attempt to find excuses for his behaviour. There is an interesting reflection on how a Christian leader might end up having apparently so little self-insight and functioning conscience. Here I quote from the second open letter. ‘It is a common feature of this kind of abuse that the perpetrators have given into temptation incrementally, and have come slowly to justify their behaviour in their own eyes. The consequence of this is that they find it very hard to repent when confronted.’ Although the letter does not go into detail about the offending behaviour of which Fletcher is accused, it does speak about ‘grooming victims for perverse pleasure’. In this, Fletcher is linked to his erstwhile Iwerne colleague, John Smyth.
The published letter of response to Jonathan Fletcher is a welcome piece of analysis which is well-worth studying. Fletcher has for decades been a giant in the UK conservative evangelical world. He is probably not used to having his biblical exegesis challenged from within the evangelical constituency. Online research indicates that the three years served at the Round Church in Cambridge (73-76) and the thirty years (79-09) at Emmanuel Wimbledon gave him enormous influence over many within Anglican evangelical circles. Both the institutions that Fletcher served are at the heart of the Reform/Church Society network that has propped up the Iwerne Camps as well as contributing to the fragmenting of the Anglican Communion through its support of GAFCON. We also discovered that Fletcher, as a member of the dining club, Nobody’s Friends, was right at the heart of the wider Anglican establishment.
The second open letter from Anglican Ink states that there are ‘more victims of abuse .. struggling to make sense of their experience.’ Obviously, I am not privy to who these individuals are, but the fact that none have entered the public domain does not mean they do not exist. Fletcher’s original letter seems to read like a carefully written piece from someone who knows that a negative story is about to break. There is an apparent attempt to apologise in advance and neutralise pending information, using the rhetoric of Scripture to advance the case. I leave it to my readers to study the use and counter-use of scripture for themselves As I pointed out in my article in Letters to a Broken Church, the Bible is frequently used by abusers to further humiliate victims. As far as I am concerned the use of the Bible here to further Fletcher’s cause and protect the evangelical hierarchy is totally unconvincing. This is the view, also, of the writers of the open letter of response.
The very existence of the original July letter by Fletcher is suggestive of the fact that he knew that there was an ongoing threat to his reputation and the entire conservative evangelical constituency in Britain. If Fletcher was a nobody in the church, then his actions and attempts at self-justification would be relatively unimportant. But two things make Fletcher’s story of far greater importance. The first is the place that Fletcher has occupied in the Anglican evangelical hierarchy in the UK over many years. Although never a member of the episcopate, his position of serving in two of the holy shrines in the Reform/Church Society network, (Round Church Cambridge & Emmanuel South Wimbledon) puts him right at the centre of this part of the church. He is mentioned as mentoring Nicky Gumbel while the the latter was an undergraduate in Cambridge. Justin Welby, who became a Christian in 1975, certainly knew him well at the same time. Fletcher was also well known beyond Christian evangelical circles. The combination of membership of the dining club, Nobody’s Friends together with his family political connections, gave him high social status. It would be hard to find any prominent evangelical who did not know him in some way, or at least had heard him speak. He was/is? among the evangelical elite and a prominent leader of that entire branch of the church. If his actions against young men are shown to be immoral in some way or, worse still, his moral reasoning and conscience are shown to be corrupted, then the contagion of this is going to affect many others.
The second point, still more serious in its implications for the evangelical world, are the indications of a thirty-year cover-up. Complaints have been circulating about Fletcher since 2012 but the stories of spiritual abuse go back much further. Reading between the lines of Andy Lines’ statement which was discussed in a blog here at the end of June, abuse by Fletcher may have been going on over several decades. If things were going wrong for Andy Lines in the 90s through the mentoring offered by Fletcher, why was there apparently no one to supervise his behaviour? Was his place among the royalty of the evangelical Reform/Church Society tribe such that he was unchallengeable? Were those who knew what was going on somehow complicit? Andy Lines might have hoped to have gathered support after his past suffering. In practice, his story has disappeared from public view. After a story of such magnitude, one might have expected to hear some public protestations of support or possibly denunciations of his whistleblowing. What we in fact have is complete and utter silence. The evangelical tribe has been paralysed into silence once again. Such passivity and silence in the presence of evil abuses has been and continues to be corrupting and dangerous to the integrity of the whole church.
Keith Makin’s report on John Smyth which we hope to be reading next Easter will be probing into another massive 40-year conspiracy of silence. Contemporary documents published online mean that we are now far more aware of the details of John Smyth’s abuses here and abroad. The weapons of loyalty to the tribe and mafia-type silence nevertheless protected him for well over three decades. As a result, there was no repentance, no justice and no reconciliation. If the same dynamics of cover-up are still in operation, the ones that hid other past crimes (eg Fletcher’s) in the church, the future possibility of integrity in the church looks bleak. We know that a number of present leaders of our church knew Fletcher, were under his influence and even followed him as their guru. Will they tell us what they knew, or is the cancer of Fletcher’s apparent toxic influence going to fester within the Church for ever? Without transparency, without confession and truth-telling, there can be no realistic hope for a healthy church in the future. An example of promoting the culture of open honesty has to start at the top so that true metanoia for these massive institutional failures can be acknowledged by every part of the body.