The Patronage Legacy of Jonathan Fletcher

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One of the telling observations in the recent thirtyone:eight report into Jonathan Fletcher is the way he was allowed to take a key, even dominant, role in the structures of conservative evangelicalism in Britain.  Some have described Fletcher as the ‘Pope of Evangelical Conservatives’.  We have had cause to refer, on many occasions, to the tightly knit but closed world of powerful and often wealthy parishes that belong to this network, now known as the ReNew constituency.   With their wealth and their authoritarian approach to theology, these churches have ended up in many cases as semi-independent of CofE structures.  In many cases, these parishes can be understood as forming a church within a church.   Typically, they have little to do with the other local CofE parishes.  The central Church has provided them with a ‘flying bishops’, ostensibly to protect their clergy from the taint of women as priests or bishops.  It still, however, suits these churches to be thought of as part of the Church of England.  In practical terms, such as receiving or giving anything to the central body, these parishes might just as well be joined to a completely separate denomination.

About two and half years ago, the Bishop of Oxford issued an Ad Clerum to his diocese.  It contained mild support for same sex relationships.  It was hardly a radical statement on the topic of inclusivity, but it still succeeded in uniting all the con-evo forces in the Oxford diocese to band together with others and sign a letter of protest to their bishop.   Around 105 individuals signed the letter.  Surviving Church took the time to examine all those who had signed the letter and were identifying with this conservative protest.  The 70- 80 clergy on the list proved, on close examination, not to represent the same number of parishes.  A good segment were found to be working for foreign-funded parachurch institutions centred in and around the city of Oxford.   There are, of course also large ordained teams at the main con-evo parishes in the Diocese.   Like the big conservative parishes in London, a church like St Ebbes will attract young hopefuls among the newly ordained who desperately want to work there..  But I noticed another interesting fact.  There are a cluster of parishes in the Oxford diocese in the most attractive surroundings with youngish con-evo vicars.  They all appear to have the qualities that Fletcher was reputed to favour.  Such ‘golden boys’ needed to be young, Iwerne alumni, and also the product of the ‘right’ school, university and theological college.  Two of these parishes in the Oxford diocese, now with strongly con-evo vicars, were known personally to me in the 80s and 90s, at a time when they were firmly middle of the road in terms of churchmanship. Their tradition was closer to BCP with a penchant for Mattins at 11 am.  Then sometime after 1998, both these parishes had appointed young men, who had each served their title in one of the major con-evo London churches.   Were these appointments organised by the networking of powerful evangelicals under the oversight of Fletcher?  The appointment process is shrouded in mystery so we cannot know for certain. Very quickly, after a year of St Helen’s type ministry, the old original congregations had mostly departed and a new younger group had moved in.  Because the old congregation were no longer there to complain about the suddenness of the changes, the church authorities at the centre heard nothing and saw nothing.  The same thing happened to a parish near mine in the Cotswolds, this time in the Gloucester diocese.  This was the village of Bibury.  I had known two former Vicars, who presided over a conservative and traditional congregation.   The village and the Vicarage in it are perhaps the most delightful in the whole of England.   The church, now part of a Team Ministry, has now also become con-evo under the former head of Scripture Union, Tim Hastie-Smith.  This Vicar is mentioned in the current Scripture Union report about John Smyth.  I believe the report refers to his self-criticism that he was extraordinarily lacking in curiosity over the behaviour of Smyth and his subsequent ‘exile’.

For parishes to change churchmanship and tradition so abruptly is unusual and needs some explanation.  Because the three vicars concerned have precisely the right background to be part of Jonathan Fletcher’s circle of followers, I think, after reading the thirtyone:eight Review, to surmise that it is highly likely that Fletcher himself used his social contacts and charm to manipulate other patrons to allow him to put his own man in.  All these candidates, and indeed all proteges of Fletcher, are eminently socially suited to run wealthy riverside country parishes.  This is true of the Oxford parishes. Like Fletcher himself, these clergy from his circle know how to charm and manipulate in equal measure to get their way.  These qualities, as the report describes. allowed Fletcher to get his own way whenever ‘difficult’ people challenged him and had the temerity to ask questions. 

In my original scrutiny in this blog of the individual clergy who signed the letter of protest against the Bishop of Oxford in 2018, I discovered a number of other parishes which may have experienced similar changes.  They also were in extremely pleasant areas and showed possible evidence of what I shall call ‘patronage tampering’.  I shall not name these parishes as the evidence that Fletcher nobbled powerful people to override their power of patronage, is circumstantial.  But Fletcher’s place in Debretts, his membership of Nobody’s Friends Dining Club and his extensive contacts right across the Church of England suggests that he was able to exercise a great deal of what I refer to as patronage power over a long period.  What was in it for him and the con-evo block in the Church of England? 

The extension of the cluster of ‘plum’ parishes across Britain which can now claim to be con-evo, enables the ReNew body to grow in strength.  More importantly they now control the future patronage of pleasant parishes to accommodate the large numbers of ordinands that this tradition is producing year by year.  Many clergy never leave the London evangelical circuit around All Souls and St Helen’s.  We note that the recently appointed Vicar of All Soul’s has never worked outside London.  Indeed, his only curacy is the one he has served in St Helen’s.  In a similar way the new Vicar of St Aldate’s Oxford (a separate evangelical network in no way like ReNew or operating in a similar way) has only served a single curacy – at Holy Trinity Brompton.   The candidates for the top jobs in the evangelical/charismatic world may have had to wait a long time as junior members of staff for their great promotion.  But their experience is narrow.   It is also unlikely they will ever move again since their limited experience of the wider church does not make good bishop material for the rest of us. 

Jonathan Fletcher’s legacy is probably long lasting.  His personality and ministry style is likely to have affected deeply most of the large numbers of clergy he has mentored.   While the report calls for the dismantling of the con-evo leadership structures, it is unlikely to happen.  Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac and the con-evo constituency has become addicted to enjoying this power.  Fletcher certainly revelled in the way that his power enabled him to do what he wished in ways that we can see as deeply manipulative.  The Fletcher legacy will also be felt in parishes across the country where there has been a con-evo ‘takeover’.   I would love to see someone do research in these churches to discover the true history of what happens when in the name of biblical truth you destroy a congregation in order to create a new one.  The ‘destroyed’ are power abuse victims every bit as much as sex abuse victims.  The only problem is that they are the forgotten victims of a Church that thinks about the institution more than it thinks about those who are part of it, but have effectively been expelled as part of a con-evo Fletcher inspired take-over..