Jonathan Fletcher presents the Church of England with a crisis of integrity
On Boxing Day the nation was entertained on a bi-partisan basis by the tragi-comic story of Jolyon Maugham QC and his vulpine intruder. It will take some of us a few more Christmas drinks to erase completely the image of the pro-EU apologist undertaking his grisly work, clad in his wife’s pink kimono, but the interlude did some good by developing harmony across the wider community as a few country-sports Brexiteers rallied to Mr Maugham’s defence, evidencing a degree of sympathy towards a metropolitan-liberal encounter with “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. Conversely some of the QC’s erstwhile woke supporters turned against him for not calling the RSPCA immediately. Mr Maugham had formerly divided folk on a Marmite basis, but here, for once, the lines of demarcation wobbled, which is often no bad thing for encouraging peace and goodwill between warring factions.
This was not the only ‘fox in the henhouse’ story to feature in the post-Christmas press. The Daily Telegraph reminded its readers, and those of us with responsibility for safeguarding within the Church, that the Rev’d Jonathan Fletcher, the equally Marmite eminence grise of Conservative Evangelical Anglicanism, has still not retired gracefully from his role following the withdrawal of his Permission to Officiate in the Church of England. Such a punitive measure is not taken lightly, and an official inquiry into the full extent of his questionable activities has been commenced under the aegis of the children’s charity thirtyone:eight.
On successive days, the Telegraph’s reporter Gabriella Swerling reprised allegations previously reported in the Church Times, but extended the story by setting out evidence that not only had Mr Fletcher continued to use his charismatic gifts in worrying and abusive ways towards young men, but that he had been prematurely rehabilitated within his niche constituency which deliberately or recklessly restored him to the status of a respected teacher which enabled him to continue abusing the trust which the imprimatur confers. If the Church conveys that a person possesses integrity, it is a significant endorsement: casual neglect of serious concerns is no light matter, for Church or potential victims alike.
It has taken many years for these allegations against Jonathan Fletcher to emerge fully. Like Bishop Peter Ball before him, he had long enjoyed the protection of those who valued him as an asset to their brand of teaching. He had been perceived as just such an asset so that his constituency leaders were willing to ignore all the safeguarding training and processes which the Church of England has painstakingly put in place over recent years, in order to facilitate his continued influence. They saw the plusses, ignored the minuses, and like neglectful servants let the fox into the henhouse.
When the US bank robber Baby Face Nelson was asked why he robbed banks, he replied: “That’s where the money is.” The Anglican Evangelical leadership forgot that the same logic applies with abusers. It had, of course, been obvious to them when they criticised the Anglo-Catholics over Bishop Peter Ball, but they could not bring themselves to apply the same standards when it was their star asset creating concerns, rather like the BBC and Jimmy Savile.
There is an old Polish saying for such occasions: “Not my circus, not my monkey.” Peter Ball was not in the Conservative Evangelical henhouse, nor was he their cunning old fox, so whilst it was easy to criticise another quarter of the church, extraordinarily they failed to see the beam in their own eye. That is particularly odd for a leadership much given to exhorting others to apply biblical principles with straightforward directness.
That they did this betrays a self-confidence not entirely inconsistent with a church within a church. Its very identity had been predicated on the principle of its founder Bash Nash, that those on the inside track were “special boys from special schools”. These men readily believed that they were better placed to judge Fletcher’s repentance and suitability to return to service than the proper and professional Church officers, even though that meant exposing a fresh generation of young men to the unquantified risk of predation. There is a breathtaking sense of arrogance about this in an area of expertise which lay wholly beyond their sphere of competence.
Fletcher had issued a superficial apology of sorts – one that reeked of self pity and exoneration of the project to which he had devoted his life, and which had afforded him his opportunities. Such predators do not abandon their well-honed wheedling skills of a lifetime overnight, and many decent Evangelicals saw through it promptly and acted entirely properly, rejecting it for the self-serving document it was. We must acknowledge this clearly. Well done, true servants of the Church.
But important figures in the world of Iwerne did not, and what went wrong here also needs to be explored. Was the failure though personal arrogance, theological vulnerability, stupidity or a wider structural systemic failure? Did Church of England authorities know that Fletcher had not honourably withdrawn but continued to lurk in the shadows? Were they as resolute in defending the defenceless as Jolyon Maugham QC, or were they just too timorous to act?
At the heart of all abusers’ ministries lies this unpleasant issue of manipulation, and evidence of this is now available following Gabriella Swerling’s investigations. Five of Fletcher’s victims have publicly disclosed that he has approached them in ways they find intrusive and unhelpful. He wrote to them with the passive aggression not atypical of such delinquency. Others have spoken to her but are reticent about speaking further and publicly. This is not uncommon: even now, most of John Smyth’s victims cannot fully and publicly acknowledge the pain he caused them.
Since the allegations first came into the public domain, Jonathan Fletcher has also approached former members of his church. One does not have to be terribly cynical to see this as strategic manipulation, and those of us with professional experience in these matters will not be surprised to see familiar signature behaviours of the manipulative narcissist: there is accusation; his accusers have been “brainwashed” ; he triggers empathy by implying common cause; the victims’ disclosure has “made life more difficult for both of us”; he tries to distance his victims from his own responsibility by insisting that they are not vulnerable, for if the victim is indeed “not vulnerable”; then the action becomes consensual and responsibility is shared and diluted; a joint misstep. And the abuser is thereby absolved. It’s all pretty routine glib psychological manipulation.
He reminds one victim of their having had a close friendship (as does every groomer), and invites pity for having “tried to say I am sorry” (it is not his fault it hasn’t worked). He ends one letter: “I am very very sorry and very very sad.” Note that it ends with himself (poor Jonathan): it is much less clear for whose sake he regards the sorrow and sadness to be.
In a further article Anne Atkins puts the focus back where it needs to be – on the harm done by this man’s long career of abuse of power and personal relationships by which he manipulated others. She testifies of those she knew who suffered close external relationships that were disrupted, careers stunted and health impaired. She was an insider to that world and knew the people and their disrupted lives first-hand. None of this is in the least unexpected to those experienced in the field. What may have seemed a bit of fun, an ego boost to the abuser, had life-blighting consequences for those whose lives he impacted. Anne Atkins does well to remind us: this is not some misguided japester, as Fletcher would have us believe, but a serial abuser, a predatory wrecker of human flourishing who had no place being sustained in a position of trust where he could continue hurting others by perverting the gospel. He stands foursquare alongside Peter Ball and his similarly privileged and protected friend John Smyth. There is no room for equivocation.
Further useful comment has come from Stephen Parsons on his Surviving Church Blog. He draws useful and valid comparisons between Peter Ball and Jonathan Fletcher, not least in the way the ‘powers that be’ rallied round to protect the malefactor and their individual religious brand. But in a classic Sherlock Holmes ‘dog that didn’t bark’ moment, he draws our attention to the fact that when Fletcher’s PTO was withdrawn in 2017, there was a deafening silence from those who had been his closest and staunchest allies.
Where, asks Stephen Parsons, was the shock, the outcry, the defence, the outrage? There was none. The explanation of this silence, he suggests, is that those in this Conservative Evangelical clique were unsurprised that their suave guru had at last been found out; they knew what he had been up to, and they knew they could muster no defence.
That, however is not the end of the matter from the point of view of the Church of England, for two important questions will have to be raised at February’s General Synod:
Firstly, how is it possible that after all we ‘learned’ about Peter Ball, and having excluded Jonathan Fletcher from ministry for safeguarding reasons, how and why did the Evangelical leadership think it was right to set aside all the church’s rules, all the training, all the advice availability and respect for the institution itself, to substitute its own judgement and have him either preaching or giving ‘talks’ instead of sermons?
This cocking a snook to proper practice was known to the church. His sermons were once available on the internet. When discovered, people went to a lot of time and trouble to hide the record of continued ministry – not just of Fletcher’s breaches, but of their own. It was swift and efficient, a well-resourced cover-up. They knew they had done wrong. If it was all above board, let those churches write to thirtyone:eight fully particularising when Fletcher was invited into their midst, and under what safeguarding regime.
The Church of England knows this constituency well: they designated a specific bishop to offer oversight to 53 parishes via ‘Alternative Episcopal Oversight’. It is a small administrative task for each of these to be asked specifically whether they have hosted Fletcher in any way, officially or unofficially, since the withdrawal of his PTO. Anyone failing to respond ought to be immediately suspended pending fuller investigation. Suspension is, of course a neutral act, and simply marks concern at having shown insufficient care towards the procedures and those for whose protection they were designed.
Those acknowledging error need to be treated fairly. Some may not have been told of his withdrawn PTO, and others may themselves be secondary victims, equally led astray by a plausible rogue. Such folk may not be institutionally irredeemable, but they ought to have the humility to acknowledge that they had been ill-used even as they failed their charges, their Church and their Lord for proving such unreliable servants in the care of their flock.
As Jolyon Maugham found to his cost, the time for decisive action is never convenient. Critical decision points are rarely easy to address but Christians are urged to be decisive.“If your eye offends you, pluck it out” is not counsel to set up a working party, revise policy, or enter a period of quiet reflection.
Already, decent Conservative Evangelicals have broken with their erstwhile friends and mentors. It has not been an easy decision for them, but in accordance with their principles they have taken up their cross and followed their consciences and their Lord in protecting their flock. In the National Church we need urgently to see similar resolution to keep the foxes out of the henhouse. If we cannot do better with Fletcher than we did with Ball and Smyth, then we have to ask ourselves what exactly is the point of all our efforts? We must “keep the main thing, the main thing”, and the main thing here is to keep men like Jonathan Fletcher corralled safely with no access to vulnerable people, and subject to a proper safeguarding agreement with robust action taken promptly against any renegade Church leader preferring to buck the system.
Lord Carey lost his reputation and his ministry for his inability to see through Peter Ball. Knowing so much more now, and with this example and also that of John Smyth as two detailed case studies, our current leadership has precipitated a crisis of integrity by these continuing revelations. Either the systems they have put in place are robust enough to stop predators getting access to the vulnerable, or they are not. Either there is a will to act decisively, or there is not.
In the near future we shall find out which of these propositions is true.
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