Reacting to the Jonathan Fletcher story – the Great Silence

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Emmanuel Church Wimbledon

In writing my reaction to the Daily Telegraph story on December 27th, there was one point where I got things completely wrong.  I speculated that communications experts at the top of the Church of England and the ReNew network would be working hard over the week-end after Christmas to respond to the reporting of Gabriella Swerling and her team.   Nothing has, in fact, appeared, as far as I can determine, from either source.  Instead of the great publicity crisis there has been a Great Silence.  No one in the Church of England has said a thing, either through an official statement or through one of the safeguarding organisations that look after this side of the Church’s life.  Jonathan Fletcher’s former church, Emmanuel Church Wimbledon (ECW), no doubt feel that their backs are covered by the earlier announcement of a Review under the leadership of Justin Humphreys and his organisation 31.8.

The absence of comment to the vivid Telegraph reporting cries out for some interpretation.   What is going on when a major national newspaper describes a scandal in the Church of England but this story is met with blanket silence?  Do they really think that the general public is going to ignore the account and move on?  It is here that I, as an independent commentator, can make a confident prediction.  The general public are not about to move on.  Those who know about it are appalled at the story and they are expecting decisive action from the leadership of the Church of England.  They want the Church to indicate that past behaviour, such as the Telegraph reported, can never happen again.  Without such statements and a determination to take action, the public is going to believe that the Church is losing (has lost?) the will to remove the appalling blight of bullying, sexual harassment and power games from within its midst.  In other words, the person in the street will conclude that the Church has become institutionally abusive.  Because of that it will be a place to be avoided at all costs.

These are strong words and I cannot, in this short piece, attempt to suggest all that the things that should be done to drag the Church back from becoming irredeemably tainted with this label of being institutionally abusive.  In any secular organisation, if a scandal of this size broke, there would be sackings and resignations.  Responsibility for failure would have to be apportioned and acknowledged.  It is only when this kind of cathartic cleansing has taken place, that the public can allow that organisation another chance to show itself as redeemable.  Such resignations do not happen in the Church, but there is still the need for the outside observer to have grounds for believing that there are changes, real changes, in the pipeline.

How has the Church arrived at a place when it cannot say or do anything significant to respond to a scandal of this size?  One could make the argument that the Church publicity machine was taking a break after Christmas and that key personnel were scattered to various parts of the world on holiday.  That may be in part a reason for the silence, but another reason may be that the Church authorities that operate out of Lambeth Palace and Church House are completely cut off from knowing anything about what goes on in Emmanuel Wimbledon and the other ReNew congregations.  Jonathan Fletcher, in other words, is a maverick clergyman over whom the Church has had no control or oversight for nearly 40 years.

Back last year, Justin Welby made the extraordinary claim in a television interview that John Smyth, the notorious figure involved with Iwerne camps and harsh physical beatings of young men, was not Anglican.  Whether or not he believed this statement, which was patently untrue, is probably beside the point.  What Welby’s statement said to me was that the official Anglican publicity machine was seeking to limit the impact of the Smyth scandal by seeking to separate the Church from any association with him or the Iwerne camps.  In one sense the publicity machine was correct.  Iwerne camps (later called Titus) had been held for 60 or 70 years completely outside Anglican episcopal control.  They operated like an independent franchise and were answerable only to their own trustees.  When the scandal of Smyth’s misbehaviour did break in 1982 and a report was prepared, there was no attempt to circulate that report beyond a small powerful clique within the organisation.  No bishop or archdeacon was ever given sight of it.  In this way, Iwerne trustees linked to REFORM and the Church Society were acting as totally independent of the central Church of England structures.  At some point the Church has tacitly surrendered overseeing of part of its structure to the group of leaders and congregations we now know as the ReNew constituency.  These were being given the right to behave exactly as they wished, free from episcopal control.

The Emmanuel Wimbledon scandal has revealed something l which dwarfs  the misbehaviour of a single individual.  It has shown up how an episcopally ordered Church has allowed the relinquishment of oversight of a sizeable part of its own structure.  This in turn has allowed corrupt individuals to exercise power without any checks on their behaviour.  In my judgement the Great Silence is taking place because the central church authorities have no understanding (or interest) in this part of the Church.  How can the central part of the Church promise to do anything to stop future scandals if hitherto it has had no input of any kind?   The only response, one we are seeing, is startled impotent silence.  The structural independence and power of ECW and the ReNew group has come to be revealed with startling clarity.  Whatever Justin Welby’s past relationship with many of the leaders inside the Fletcher circle, and we suspect they are extensive, his role as Archbishop gives him absolutely no power to wrest back any of the control these groups have acquired.  Looking back over the past twenty years, I suspect that a battle to assert control over the Con-Evo (now ReNew) group was fought and lost the time of the Jeffery John debacle in 2004.  Archbishop Rowan tried and failed to appoint Jeffery John as Bishop of Reading.  One suspects that the negotiations which went on behind the scenes may have resulted in even more power flowing to the Con-Evo group in which Fletcher was prominent.  The situation of the dying days of 2019 has revealed clearly that the authority of the Church does not operate in every part of its structure.  In a scandal involving the effectively independent branch represented by ReNew, the central body has nothing to say.  They have been banished from any involvement with ReNew and its power and money for nearly twenty years and probably much longer.     

The Great Silence, as far as the central Church of England communications department is concerned,  is because they have had no input into that part of the church for a long time.  The Great Silence from the ReNew/Con Evo constituency can be explained because that is how they always operate.  The Smyth scandal and now the Fletcher scandal are both notable for the way that they have involved long term secrecy.  Individuals, including many survivors, have been threatened, cajoled or shamed into silence so that the secret scandals would not come out.  Thanks to the Telegraph, those days are over.  The Church both at the centre and at its ReNew fringes have now to deal with the new realities.  The challenge for everyone is to discover ways to convince the fair-minded outsider that our national Church is not institutionally abusive.  That is a hard task but we must make a start now.