Church Society under fire over bullying charges

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The content of emails circulating among conservative evangelical leaders in the Church of England about a vicar and his wife who were victims of a bullying campaign in a parish in Derby Diocese is so serious it raises the question whether an independent safeguarding review is now needed.

The emails that have come to light were circulating within the Church Society, a parachurch organisation for CofE conservative evangelicals. They concern the Rev Michael Andreyev, vicar (now on leave) of St Peter’s Stapenhill, and his wife, Kate. Mrs Andreyev has now been able to make the Church Society correspondence public on Twitter after she and Mr Andreyev contacted the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, which can order organisations to pass on individuals’ personal data.

The Church Society is the patronage trust that organises the process of appointing the vicar of Stapenhill. By the summer of 2017, when the emails were circulating, the society’s trustees and paid staff had become aware of the campaign to have Mr Andreyev removed from the parish.

In an article on Surviving Church in December last year, Mrs Andreyev described the trauma her family experienced:

‘The bullying we experienced forced my husband out of his job as a parish minister, and inflicted serious health and stress upon our family. The diocese got involved with a case of bullying from disgruntled parishioners towards us, and mishandled our situation in serious ways. They misdiagnosed it as a relational dispute and later circulated false information. Eventually they rescinded false statements they had made.’

Mrs Andreyev has related how the trauma for her family was exacerbated when parishioners lodged a complaint against Mr Andreyev under the Clergy Discipline Measure (2003).  The complaint was finally dismissed and Mr Andreyev was cleared of any allegation of clerical misconduct.

The safeguarding charity thirtyone:eight would be the obvious choice to conduct the review into the bullying the Andreyevs experienced and the church and parachurch culture lessons that should be learned. That is because of the clear connection between this case and the investigation the charity is currently conducting into the Jonathan Fletcher  abuse scandal. Emmanuel Wimbledon, the south London CofE proprietary chapel where Fletcher was minister until he retired in 2012, has commissioned thirtyone:eight to conduct the lessons learned review, which is due to go public early next year.

Back in 2017 Fletcher, who has acted as mentor to numerous conservative evangelical leaders in the CofE, became involved in the campaign against the Andreyevs. According to the Church Society emails disclosed by Mrs Andreyev, the conservative evangelical ‘flying’ Bishop of Maidstone, Rod Thomas, took guidance from Fletcher on how he should manage the Stapenhill affair. Bishop Thomas became involved because the Stapenhill Parochial Church Council (PCC) had voted to come under his episcopal oversight as delegated by the Bishop of Derby for a PCC opposed to the ordination of women.

Mrs Andreyev tweeted on December 5th: ‘From my data, in May 2017 Bp Rod Thomas, never having visited our church or met me, wrote to a whole bunch of people @Church Society “the main issue seems to be with Kate, his wife”.’ Bishop Thomas then visited the parish and conferred with the parishioners campaigning to have Mr Andreyev removed, He also had meetings with the Andreyevs. According to Mrs Andreyev, he told them that her husband could get a clergy discipline penalty.

Mrs Andreyev reveals that before his visit Bishop Thomas emailed various Church Society personnel on May 23rd 2017 to communicate Fletcher’s take on the Stapenhill situation: ‘+Rod, protégé of Jonathan Fletcher, says that JF, “wonders if the best thing would be for them [my husband & I] to leave & both get a fresh start.” So it was all sewn up before we even met Rod.’

Southwark Diocese covering the part of London where Fletcher was living as a retired CofE minster had removed his permission to officiate in January 2017 because of disclosures about his abusive behaviour.

On the December 5th Twitter thread, James Mendelsohn asks Mrs Andreyev: ‘Just so I’ve got this right: @ChurchSociety got Jonathan Fletcher involved *after* he had lost his PTO?’

Mrs Andreyev replies: ‘Not officially involved as JF had no formal role. But it’s clear from +Rod’s email that JF’s opinion in deciding the outcome counted strongly enough for +Rod to mention it in an email to other @ChurchSociety trustees & leaders.’

The Chairman of the Church Society’s Council, the Rev Andrew Towner, told AI: Church Society takes safeguarding and all our other responsibilities extremely seriously, with full careful robust policies and procedures in place. We cannot comment publicly on individual cases.’

Given that Mr Andreyev remains officially listed as vicar of St Peter’s Stapenhill though he is not doing parish work after the trauma  he suffered, it would seem to be Derby Diocese’s Christian responsibility to commission an independent safeguarding review.

Julian Mann is an evangelical journalist based in Morecambe, Lancashire, and author of Christians in the Community of the Dome