The Bishop of Maidstone, Rod Thomas, who oversees 147 conservative evangelical parishes across the Church of England, has revealed that he wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury offering to resign over his handling of the Jonathan Fletcher abuse scandal. But Justin Welby wrote back expressing confidence in Bishop Thomas’s ‘leadership in this regard’.
Following last month’s report by Christian safeguarding charity, thirtyone:eight, into Fletcher’s abuses, Bishop Thomas has sent a ‘pastoral letter’ to vicars under his delegated episcopal oversight.
In the letter sent to vicars on April 6th, two days after Easter Sunday, Bishop Thomas wrote: ‘I want to assure you that I believe it is right to hold myself to account (emphasis his) and will also be following up those recommendations in the report that relate to the wider church. Specifically, I am a suffragan of the Archbishop of Canterbury and am accountable to him. Accordingly I have written to him with a full account of how I first came to hear of Jonathan Fletcher’s abusive behaviour in September 2018 and what I did in the months that followed. In my letter, I made clear that if he believed I had acted inappropriately, I would resign.’
Bishop Thomas quoted with permission Archbishop Welby’s reply to his resignation offer:
‘I am very grateful to you for writing so fully and openly to me about your knowledge of the events around Jonathan Fletcher. It is a shocking and tragic matter and as you rightly identify it is very important for us to listen carefully to all who have been abused and all who feel their trust has been ruined and are concerned about how they move forward. I am very glad to learn of the steps you have taken and are continuing to take.
‘It is a gospel imperative that we care for all and value all and so ensuring we are a safe church for all is a key part of our calling. I am very pleased that you are writing to the clergy and do pass on my own concerns about these matters. I want also to thank you Rod for the leadership you are showing in this regard and pray for you in all that you are undertaking.’
The lessons learned review into Fletcher’s abuses, commissioned by Emmanuel Church where the serial abuser was vicar from 1982 to 2012, made 66 recommendations and identified 18 themes. In ‘Theme 2: Healthy leadership, governance and accountability’, the report said ‘aspects of unhealthy culture’ across the conservative evangelical constituency ‘might only be addressed fully by those having played a key role in the establishment and maintenance of that culture to no longer enjoy the influence they have had to date (i.e. considering their positions and stepping down)’.
Commenting on Bishop Thomas’s pastoral letter, safe church campaigner Kate Andreyev, herself a survivor of conservative evangelical bullying, wrote on Twitter: ‘What about the Jonathan Fletcher 31:8 recommendation that those who held key roles in the constituency should resign?’
Bishop Thomas told frontline clergy in his letter: ‘I want to encourage all leaders (lay and ordained) to read the thirtyone:eight report carefully and to take time to consider the broad recommendations (cf. #29-66) in the most appropriate way.
‘Clearly, all the recommendations need to be carefully worked through and implemented, but there are a number which can be immediately addressed.’
Since the UK Parliament passed the Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure in 2016, safeguarding administration has increased significantly for frontline clergy and parishes. With parish clergy posts being cut across the CofE, a growing number of ministers are looking after multiple churches. Without the paid personal assistants and administrators available to bishops and archdeacons, such clergy are often reliant on volunteer administrative support for compliance with complex safeguarding processes and can be subject to spot-checks by diocesan officials on whether they have conducted risk assessments on stacked chairs or the placing of signage.
Anglican Ink last month reported that Bishop Thomas remained a member of Fletcher’s preachers’ group, which met at his south-west London home, for at least four months after hearing about his abusive behaviour. Local preachers’ groups of conservative evangelical clergy, like Fletcher’s, were a spin-off from the Proclamation Trust, the preacher training provider Fletcher co-founded in 1986 and of which he was a trustee until 2000. Such groups tend to meet about every six weeks in the home of a senior minister. Invited members present sermons in advance of being preached in their churches for critical evaluation by their peers.
Following Bishop Thomas’s latest pastoral letter, AI put this question to the Lambeth Palace press office: what was Bishop Thomas’s explanation to Archbishop Welby as to why he continued in Fletcher’s preachers’ group until February 2019, having heard about the safeguarding concerns around Fletcher in September 2018?
AI also asked about the appointment process for Rod Thomas as Bishop of Maidstone in 2015:did the Archbishop discuss the relative merits of potential conservative evangelical candidates with Fletcher or correspond with him on this matter?
Archbishop Welby and Fletcher became associated in the 1970s through the Iwerne evangelical camps at which the savage serial abuser John Smyth groomed victims from the ‘top 30’ English boarding schools. Fletcher was also a member of the Nobody’s Friends dining club hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace.
No Lambeth Palace spokesperson has responded to AI’s questions.
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in the UK.