Reflections on the Bishopsgate letter

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A flurry of activity has occurred recently on the St Helen’s Bishopsgate website.  This comes about as the Church authorities there respond to criticisms that their Rector, William Taylor, had held back over what he knew of John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher.  To remind my readers, Jonathan Fletcher was the subject of an investigation by 31:8, the safeguarding organisation.  31:8, in their investigation, which appeared last month, reported that Fletcher had a wide influence in the con evo world and that some of this personal power was used abusively and destructively against individuals.  John Smyth is still being investigated by Keith Makin, but the broad outlines of his story are known.  For around four years between 1978 and 1982, Smyth possessed a cult-like hold over a group of young men, including the young Taylor who was a student in Cambridge after attending Eton. He was the subject of three episodes of beating in the garden shed in Winchester in the summer and winter of 1981.

The open letter to the congregation from the St Helen’s churchwardens strongly refutes the claim that their Rector knew anything untoward about the abusive behaviour of Jonathan Fletcher until February 2019.  They appeal to the findings of a law firm, Edward Connor Solicitors, who had investigated whether or not Taylor had knowledge of Fletcher’s activities at an earlier period. They concluded that he did not. A parallel pattern of complete ignorance of the facts is also reported for Archbishop Welby in respect of John Smyth before late 2013. Some of the speculation which had led onlookers to a contrary conclusion was built on the fact that both Taylor and Welby were moving in circles of people who definitely did know.  In Taylor’s case there is also an acknowledged bond of friendship with Fletcher. There is in addition a widely reported claim that Fletcher was ‘marched off’ a Iwerne camp in the summer of 2017.  Such an event could not have happened unless there was authority from leaders within the constituency approving the action.  Rumours are also bound to proliferate over the fact Taylor has said almost nothing in public about the known facts of the Fletcher scandal during the period from June 2019 – June 2021.  Silence by a prominent leader, who knows an accused person following the revelation of a public scandal, is not a good look.   Taylor has known Fletcher since his school days through the Iwerne network and, in addition, Taylor has also been the de-facto leader of the whole conservative Christian constituency since around 2013.   We might also have expected some open expressions of regret and apology from him in June 2019 when the Daily Telegraph story first broke.  It is hardly surprising that some people have come to believe that this silence from him and other conservative leaders are attempts to bury scandal from public view.  Two years is long time to wait for a public response to a major church scandal by one of its notable leaders and spokesmen.  

The new revelation in the churchwardens’ letter is that Taylor was, as a young adult, a victim of John Smyth’s beatings and its accompanying theology (he refers to it as a cult). This evokes for me the image of a personality with two stages of self-expression.  The first personality is that of the young man, the victim and sufferer of Smyth’s malevolent intentions.  The other personality is the one that appears at the point when the influence of Smyth is finally overcome.  At this point the moral awareness and responsibility of the young Taylor changes to being that of an active responsible agent.  Anyone looking on would have felt deep compassion for the first young personality, still under the thrall of Smyth.  In the straight jacket of pain and corrupt Christian ideas, Taylor was, for a time at any rate, a victim of something toxic and horrible.  But the young Taylor seems to have passed through that victim period as well as can be expected.   After five years in the army, he was able to proceed to ordination training and ordination.   At some point Taylor adopted the new personality which we can describe as that of the survivor rather than the victim.  Only he can say when that moment may have occurred.   When in a state of victimhood, the focus would have been on raw survival and his own healing.  All his moral decisions would rightly have promoted his own well-being.  As part of the process of recovery, Taylor would first have had to process the toxic teaching of his one-time mentor/abuser, especially in the light of the new pastoral responsibilities for the spiritual health of others.  One awareness that would now belong to him was an understanding of the dangers of the cultic bond that had been forged between him and Smyth.   Once Taylor had completed his transition from victim to survivor, we now would hope to see him giving real attention to stop what had happened to him happening to anyone else.  This is where the story is incomplete.  We are left with a series of questions.  I know nothing of Taylor’s actual record in the safeguarding realm, but I am aware of occasions when his potential influence might have radically changed the Smyth story.  On his appointment as Rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate in 1998, Taylor obtained a position of great influence in the Church of England and within the con evo constituency.  Subsequent organisational changes in that network have been driven by him personally.  I understand that the ReNew constituency has come into being largely as the result of his vision and energy.     Since the retirement of Jonathan Fletcher in 2013, Taylor has been considered by many as the most influential individual in the conservative Anglican network. My questions to Taylor are the following.

  1. Did you suspect back in the 80s and since that that there might have been, apart from yourself, other survivors and victims of Smyth that needed help?
  2.  Did it at any stage worry you that those who enabled Smyth to go to Africa and allowing him to live there, were putting the lives and souls of young men in physical and spiritual danger?  Did you have any knowledge of the financial arrangements (the Colmans) that enabled the Smyth family to disappear from Britain?
  3. Why did you not help us bring this all to light sooner – there was no necessity to “ out yourself” ? indeed I understand that some who knew or strongly suspected your victim status were very very careful to respect your privacy.

The letter from the churchwardens of St Helens is designed to make us feel compassion for Taylor as a Smyth victim.  I, however, have indicated that I see two separate personalities for Taylor. One is indeed the Smyth victim aged late teens and early twenties. For him I have compassion and sadness at what he had to endure at the hands of John Smyth. But there is another persona for Taylor. Here is the Taylor more or less fully recovered from the early bad experiences and now able to accept the privileges and responsibilities of power and leadership. While he may still be referred to as a survivor of Smyth, one cannot treat him any more with kid gloves when there are aspects of the use of his power that need to be challenged in the present.  This Smyth survivor is, we trust, recovered from the spiritual and emotional battering he received 40 years ago.  We must be allowed to ask these direct questions because he is now a powerful adult leader with the capacity to make a difference.  The questions are being asked by an individual who believes that the current abuse trials of the Church of England could have been dealt with far better if everyone, Archbishops downwards, had listened to their consciences rather than fighting to protect reputations and institutions.  Since the Channel 4 programme in Feb 2017 about John Smyth, there have been a chorus of voices asking questions.  It has taken a long time for institutional silence to give way to the beginnings of accountability and openness.  William Taylor and St Helen’s are an influential part of the whole and they must not only do the right thing but be seen to be doing the right thing.   The accusations of secrecy and dishonesty can be levelled at every part of the Church.  It is not merely a con evo problem.  It is rather a problem for all institutions.  As long as institutional secrecy and dishonesty pervade the Church, the process of continued healing for abuse will be halted and hindered.  No one wishes that.  William Taylor, who was once an abuse victim, has clear and vital responsibilities for leadership in this safeguarding task.  He is a church leader, and we need his leadership in theisvital area of church life.