Rev Jonathan Fletcher Emmanuel Church Wimbledon
Church of England

Rev’d Jonathan Fletcher: CofE and GAFCON co-operate to manage risk to the vulnerable

The weeks leading up to General Synod were never going to be a happy time for the Church of England. Anyone in touch with the survivors of Anglican abuse across its various traditions knew there was trouble brewing after receiving the 264-page report of IICSA into the scandal of Peter Ball and the workings of the Chichester Diocese. With further July hearings, there was plainly more to come.

What we might not have expected, however, is that this would be such a bad time for the Evangelical wing of the Church. Those with their ears to the ground assure me that the full extent of the damage has not yet come to full public prominence, and there is more to come.

Readers of this blog will be well aware of the scandal of John Smyth and his Iwerne regime of abuse. In that November 2018 blogpost I wrote:

There is a further major complication for the church over the tensions associated with the Evangelical movements REFORM and GAFCON. These potentially secessionist movements present real problems for the Anglican leadership, which is treading carefully and sensitively in its engagement with those who threaten schism over well known issues. Unfortunately for the Smyth survivors, some among these potentially secessionist leaders are the same people who were engaged in the Iwerne project, so digging up the skeletons of ‘who knew what and when’ about Smyth is likely to be extremely embarrassing to those with whom the church is about to engage in these important delicate negotiations.

The Smyth victims are entitled to use their inside information and name names at a time of their choosing.

That proved to be prescient, for that time has just arrived. And it is a rather ugly story.

Private Eye has recently carried a story, plainly sourced from Smyth victims, about one of Smyth’s closest former associates the Rev’d Jonathan Fletcher, who has been a major figure within UK Evangelicalism for decades. The Eye‘s anonymous author writes:

If the notorious Iwerne Camps networks had a temple it would be in Emmanuel Church Wimbledon. If it had a high priest it would be Fletcher. His punitive approach to discipline with the scores of young men he has mentored is the stuff of legend in Evangelical circles.

And the author goes on to trace a rather counter-intuitive link from the very Evangelical Jonathan Fletcher’s charity to an extreme Roman Catholic “Society of Pius X dedicated to promoting the Mass and mortification of the flesh”.

“What on earth can they all find in common?” Private Eye mischievously asks.

Obliquely sourced concerns apparently first emerged in 2017, but it was not until late 2018 that direct evidence enabled a more formal approach to the authorities ecclesiastical and secular to be made. The Emmanuel Church Wimbledon has issued “an unreserved apology to all those affected by these unacceptable behaviours”, which they choose to describe as “spiritual abuse”. Quite what that means is unclear; it is a rather fluid term, but they have referred two matters to the police so can’t be discounted as trivial. References to “behaviour” and “activities” could imply that the Rev’d Jonathan Fletcher had reverted back to beating the bare bottoms of young Evangelical men as Private Eye and their sources suggest. If that is not the case, an urgent clarification would not go amiss.

The Emmanuel Church has set up a website which offers support to those who have suffered from his “unacceptable behaviours”, and since April there has been a hurried effort to ensure that those churches which have invited him to preach (without Permission to Officiate or presumably DBS certificate) withdraw such invitations as soon as possible. The terms of the letter sent out by the Bishop of Maidstone the Rt Rev’d Rod Thomas, the Rev’d Robin Weekes, the Rev’d Will Taylor and the Rev’d Vaughan Roberts certainly suggests that they were not entirely confident they had their former colleague’s full co-operation in standing down.

While the website is prima facie a good initiative, one might raise two questions. First, given that the “unacceptable behaviours” occurred within that organisation, would every victim be comfortable reporting their abuse to Jonathan Fletcher’s erstwhile admirers? Second, given the Church of England has an important safeguarding role in these matters, why was it not more proactive in offering an independent service for those who might wish some arms-length support?

Jonathan Fletcher was not only ecclesiastically well-connected, he is the son of a former Labour Cabinet minister and a long-standing member of the exclusive establishment private dinning club ‘Nobody’s Friends’, which meets quarterly in the Guard Room of Lambeth Palace.

No sooner had this news about him emerged than another doyen of UK Evangelicalism, the Rev’d Andy Lines, coincidentally issued a rather opaque statement about his own significant difficulties and shortcomings. The clarification from the Directors of the Anglican Mission in Europe specifically refers to events at Emmanuel Wimbledon, so the context of being in conjunction with the Rev’d Jonathan Fletcher may be appropriately inferred.

Andy Lines is now a bishop within the secessionist GAFCON movement. He too is a product of the Iwerne Camps and was consecrated Bishop within GAFCON in the USA but commissioned as a missioner to Europe by none other than the Rev’d Jonathan Fletcher at Emmanuel Church Wimbledon in September 2018. Jonathan Fletcher had already been denied Permission to Officiate by the Church of England in 2016-7 following concerns about his conduct. He ought not to have officiated in an Anglican church, but nothing was done about it.

It is inconceivable that the Church of England hierarchy were not monitoring these GAFCON developments and fully aware that its own rules were being broken within its own churches by people closely associated with John Smyth and his brand of manipulative spiritual, physical and sexual abuse of young men. It may be appropriate to remark here that safeguarding professionals are aware of the prevalence of inter-generational transmission of abusive attitudes and practices. It is a well known enhanced risk, though, of course, only a minority of victims succumb to that increased statistical probability. If dominance and manipulation work on behalf of one powerfully charismatic leader, it can be, and not infrequently is, replicated by successors. Where do narcissistic manipulators go? To those organisations whose structures, cultures and ethos are congruent with those where such traits have flourished before.

Jonathan Fletcher’s brother was Chairman of the Iwerne Trust which first invited, hosted and then excluded Smyth before he was “encouraged” to emigrate to South Africa, where his activities sadly continued and 90 other young men were abused. Jonathan Fletcher was the curate of the Rev’d Mark Ruston of the Cambridge Round House Church, who prepared a Report for the Iwerne Trustees in 1982 specifically identifying Smyth’s crimes. The initials DCMF on that Report coincide with those of Jonathan’s brother David. The Report was made known to Lambeth Palace in 2017.

Archbishop Justin Welby had lodged with Mark Ruston whilst living in Cambridge, and so knew and respected him highly. The Daily Telegraph has previously reported: “The Archbishop has said his friendship with the Reverend Ruston was an ‘extraordinary privilege’ and he was ‘inspired’ by him.” He plainly would have taken that Report seriously when it came to him in 2017, especially as it fully validated the complaints of the Smyth victim known as Graham, another personal acquaintance from Iwerne days together, who had first disclosed his story of manipulation and extreme abuse in a letter to Lambeth Palace in 2013. Archbishop Justin has placed on record that he knew nothing of these matters before then, and Graham accepts this completely. It must have been devastating news. Graham awaited developments…

Yet here we are, in the middle of 2019. An inquiry into John Smyth is only now being set up. It will not encompass Jonathan Fletcher as this is a breaking story. The terms of reference are being discussed as I write. Full statements from Graham and other Iwerne survivors willing to engage have yet to be taken. Nobody in the Evangelical hinterland of GAFCON has offered to dip into its secessionist war-chests to offer to put right some of the wrongs perpetrated by a slew of its most revered leaders. None of these luminaries of Christian witness has contacted those with whom they once shared Christian fellowship and friendship. A simple call asking ‘Are you okay?’ might just have qualified as a ‘Bible-based’ response, but the respect Smyth’s victims have been shown and the response they have received from the Church of England have been no greater than those who were broken by the late Peter Ball.

We ought not to need official reports to see the similarities between how Peter Ball got away with things for so long under Archbishop George Carey, and how John Smyth, Jonathan Fletcher and their entourages have managed to stay out of the public eye for so long. But as we have the IICSA Report to guide us, we might as well make use of it. Here’s a sample checklist drawn from the IICSA report:

“..secrecy, prevarication, avoidance of reporting crimes to the authorities”. Tick.

Permission to Officiate not withdrawn. Tick

“..continued to take services without permission”. Tick.

“Humiliation – would provide a more direct route to a closer relationship with God”. Tick.

Unwavering public support. Tick

“gave him [Ball/Smyth] extensive financial support”. Tick.

“Moral cowardice”. Tick.

“Failure to recognise the appalling experiences of.. victims”. Tick.

“What marks out faith organisations such as the Anglican Church [Iwerne/Titus/GAFCON, etc] in this context is their explicit moral purpose, in teaching right from wrong”. Tick.

“The Church.. displayed a flagrant disregard for their suffering, its primary concern being for its own reputation”. Tick.

It gives me absolutely no pleasure in drawing these comparisons, but is there significant difference between then and now? Am I missing something?

That question has been extensively explored in this interesting video blog which includes an occasional contributor to this blog the Rt Rev’d Gavin Ashenden:

The discussion begins with the Peter Ball saga but moves on to Smyth and Fletcher at about 12 minutes 30 seconds. At the conclusion, Bishop Gavin Ashenden pertinently observes that while Bishop George Bell has been placed “under a cloud” by Archbishop Justin, despite having been significantly investigated (twice) to no detrimental conclusion, not one of the Iwerne camaraderie who knew and covered up Smyth’s crimes and Fletcher’s abuse has suffered the slightest public criticism. Who says they are Nobody’s Friends?

I must sympathetically challenge my Evangelical friends on these matters, with no agenda concerning their churchmanship. I really am not worried whether people choose to be Catholic, Charismatic, Liberal or Evangelical so long as they practise it safely and with integrity. This is not what has been happening in these cases.

An ecclesiology which extols male headship needs to be careful about the calibre of those in leadership. Many are of high integrity, some less so. Those who extol the primacy of Scripture will be aware that certain texts in unsafe hands can be and have been misused in the exploitation of the vulnerable, and that must inevitably be a worry. Anyone examining communities which have been targeted by abusers will have noted that certain features recur. Amongst these are an over-developed sense of group ideology; a cultivated suspicion of those outside the group; the abuse of confession and confidences; language used to reinforce identity, and the insistence upon sound group doctrine.

Now of course these can occur in communities without criminal abuse developing, but communities and congregations need to be open to recognising the vulnerabilities that features of such a churchmanship exposes them to. It is prudent to structure themselves accordingly. Put bluntly, a manipulative narcissist joining such a group has had half his preparatory work done for him.

When the American criminal Baby Face Nelson was asked why he robbed banks, he replied: “Because that’s where the money is.” Wherever the most vulnerable victims are, that is to where the predator gravitates.

Yet if such communities have vulnerabilities, they also have have potential strengths. One would hope that our Evangelical friends, who know their Bible well, will recall the response of Zacchaeus when he contemplated his past: ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore to him fourfold.’

It would not take such largesse to win over the victims. Serious engagement and a modest but fair recompense to cover counselling costs would be more than sufficient: ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits.’ That seems a fair challenge for those guilty of past neglect amongst our Evangelical brothers and sisters. If your leaders have let you down, correct them with judgment. They should not delay. These matters have been swept under the carpet for far too long.