What Rod Thomas knew about Jonathan Fletcher

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The conservative evangelical ‘flying’ Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Rev Rod Thomas, who oversees around 147 parishes across the Church of England, remained a member of Jonathan Fletcher’s preaching group after knowing about his abusive conduct.

This has emerged following Tuesday’s report by Christian safeguarding charity, Thirtyone:eight, into Fletcher’s abuses.

On Wednesday AI asked Bishop Thomas about his history with Fletcher’s former church, Emmanuel Wimbledon, the CofE proprietary chapel where the serial abuser was Vicar from 1982 to 2012. AI also asked the Bishop about his involvement in Fletcher’s preaching group where various conservative evangelical clergy met at his south-west London home for sermon evaluation.

Bishop Thomas said: “I started attending Emmanuel as a member of the congregation a year before Jonathan Fletcher arrived.  I cannot remember exactly when that was {it would have been 1981}, but I left in 1991 when I went to train for ordination at Wycliffe Hall {a CofE theological college in Oxford}. I became a member of the preaching group in 2016 and withdrew in February 2019.” 

Last Thursday Bishop Thomas released a statement reacting to the Thirtyone:eight report. He revealed that he first knew of Fletcher’s “harmful activities” in September 2018:

“Like many others, I have known Jonathan Fletcher over several decades. This started when he was appointed to Emmanuel – the church my wife and I were attending at the time. I left Emmanuel in 1991 for ordination training and for most of my ordained ministry in Plymouth I was geographically distant from him and had little contact with him.

“However, I did encounter him in meetings, conferences and church houseparties, and was involved in evangelical networks where he was also active. Throughout this time and until there was a disclosure in September 2018, I did not have any knowledge of his harmful activities. I both understand and share the sense of betrayal and hurt that many are now experiencing as a result of the courageous disclosures that have been made.”

Bishop Thomas was press officer of the CofE conservative evangelical network Reform, of which Fletcher was a trustee, from 1998 to 2007. From 2007 until 2015 when Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby consecrated him as Provincial Episcopal Visitor (PEV) or ‘flying bishop’ for conservative evangelical churches across the CofE opposed to the ordination of women, he was chairman of Reform.

Before becoming Bishop of Maidstone, Rod Thomas was vicar of St Matthew’s Elburton near Plymouth in the south-west of England. After he was appointed a PEV, he moved to an old vicarage in Surrey, closer to south-west London.

According to the timeline in the Thirtyone:eight review, on Sunday September 23rd 2018 the first victim opened up to the current Vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon, Rev Robin Weekes, to disclose that he had been involved with mutual beating as part of a prayer triplet with Fletcher. The next day Rev Weekes passed this on to the Southwark Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser (DSA). 

“This was the first disclosure received and in calling it in, the Vicar was effectively the whistle-blower for the whole thing that followed,” the report reveals. 

On October 1st 2018 the Diocese of Southwark, which covers the part of south-west London where Fletcher was living in retirement, held its first ‘Core Group’ to investigate the emerging scandal. Emmanuel representatives were not invited to the Core Group at this stage.

The review also reveals that in December 2018 Fletcher involved a libel lawyer in a bid to squash the mounting evidence of his abusive conduct.

In April 2019 the Bishop of Maidstone was one of four conservative evangelical leaders who signed a letter to regional co-ordinators in ReNew, the successor network of Reform. The letter informedthem that the Bishop of Southwark had removed Fletcher’s Permission to Officiate in 2017 and warned them not to invite him to preach at their churches.

“We are deeply saddened at having to write in these terms, where Jonathan has had a very significant ministry over the years and continues to be held in great affection by many,” the four leaders wrote. The other signatories were Canon Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s Oxford; Rev William Taylor, Rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate in the City of London and ReNew chairman; and Rev Robin Weekes.

The Thirtyone:eight lessons learned review, commissioned by Emmanuel in December 2019, identified Fletcher, 78, as an ongoing safeguarding risk: “The behaviours and lack of recognition by JF of the harm caused evidenced in some of the documentation reviewed, lead to the conclusion that there are significant and ongoing safeguarding concerns related to JF…The Reviewers recognise that Permission to Officiate (PTO) has been removed and therefore JF cannot any longer conduct certain aspects of official ministry.

“However, there is a need for clarity that the significant and ongoing safeguarding concerns relate to all aspects of Christian influence and ministry, including, but not limited to, personal work, pastoral care and mentoring.”

Bishop Thomas exercises delegated episcopal oversight from the Bishop of Southwark over the licensed clergy at Emmanuel. Thirtyone:eight recommended: “Wherever there are Provincial Episcopal Visitors (PEV) arrangements in place the Diocesan Bishop should review arrangements and ensure that there is clarity in writing as to the roles and responsibilities of the PEV and the roles and responsibilities of the Diocesan Bishop.”

A spokeswoman for Southwark Diocese, where Rod Thomas is an assistant bishop, said: “Alternative episcopal oversight was granted to Emmanuel Wimbledon on 12 May 2016. Bishop Rod’s commission (as a Southwark assistant bishop) is dated 1 December 2015.”

She added: “For clarification, whilst recognised as a church within the Diocese, Emmanuel Church Wimbledon is an independent ‘Proprietary Chapel’, and as such does not have parish status. Emmanuel Church Wimbledon is fully self-supporting and appoints its own clergy under the guidance of an appointed group of patrons.  It is a private limited company registered with the Charity Commission. Anglican clergy at Emmanuel Church Wimbledon officiate with licences issued by the Diocesan Bishop.”

Julian Mann is an evangelical journalist based in the UK and author of Christians in the Community of the Dome