‘A Time to Speak’ Jonathan Fletcher, abuse, and the Report – one Conservative Evangelical’s response

When a scandal comes really close to home, commenting is no longer gossip.  There is, as Ecclesiastes says, a Time to Speak.  This is it.

No comments

There has been a distressing series of ministry falls over the last few years, some quite close to home.  Often, they have involved some kind of abuse, and usually there are stories of things being covered up. By the perpetrator, by the pressure on the victim(s), by the refusal to listen to the victims, by lawyers, by others.  Some of the cover-ups have been domineering, some terrified, others may have even been well-intended (I’m not condoning that, by the way, but it is critical to any honest exploration of an issue to recognise that some of the actors have done things with good, if misguided, intent).

When they hit the headlines, they melt the internet.

I have had a policy of saying nothing about them.  That’s partly because when issues are legally ‘live’ I feel a need to be cautious about who I publicly believe and support. I know the biblical wisdom that the first person’s case always seems plausible until you hear the others side. I hate gossip. I’ve been trolled, lobbied and hash tagged, and I hate that too. If you’re thinking of doing that on the back of this piece, don’t even bother.

Despite having a blog, I don’t feel the need to comment on everything. And in none of the cases before us do I have any evidence of my own to bring.

But sometimes, it can look as though silence is complicity, or secrecy, or cowardice, or collusion.  

And when a scandal comes really close to home, commenting is no longer gossip.  There is, as Ecclesiastes says, a Time to Speak.  This is it.

This is not a complete survey of all abuses, so don’t assume if I don’t mention it, it’s not important to me, and it’s not a complete dispassionate survey of the workings of the various reviews and reports; I don’t intend to get into that game – but (especially victims) please here me – although in what follows I’m talking much about me, please don’t hear that as gaslighting you. My story is much more trivial than yours, and I don’t want to distract from it. My silence mustn’t make yours harder to bear.

Ravi Zacharias

Let’s begin with the Ravi Zacharias stories, because they are simplest for me to deal with.  I have never had any contact with him or his ministries; and I haven’t even read any of his books.  I heard of him, of course, and knew he was spoken of warmly as an apologist, but I’d never had any encounters directly.

So, when the news began to break about the hidden, systematic abuse, I learnt in the same way as everyone, at the same time. 

My internal reaction is, as you would expect, to be shocked.  I’m appalled at the abuse, the manipulation.  Once again. My heart breaks for the victims, and also (although in a different way) for the family and friends of RZ, who will feel deeply betrayed, and wonder what they missed or colluded in, inadvertently. And for the converts, who will wonder if what they heard from RZ was the true good news after all.

I don’t intend to go any further into the RZ mess (which needs to be done, naturally), because my question is a different one:

Given my disconnect with RZ, what purpose would my saying something, or my silence, serve?  I know nothing more than anyone else with an internet connection, so I have no news to bring. Isn’t commenting on it, just gossip? Given that we know it is (finally) being properly investigated, isn’t it best just to let that happen?

Because my silence shouldn’t be assumed to mean that I’m covering something up. My silence means I know no more than you, and I don’t like gossip.  It’s dangerous.

Sometimes, it’s wisest to keep silence.

Let’s raise the stakes.

John Smyth

John Smyth was a senior figure in the Iwerne Christian summer camps, for public schoolboys.  Channel 4 broke the news (which the Telegraph and Private Eye have also been working on) that he had been a serial abuser of young men at his home, and that he had used violence in the name of Christian discipline.  Moreover, the senior leadership of the Trust which ran the camps had investigated reports of this abuse,  with the result that he emigrated to South Africa, and by all accounts repeated (and increased) the abuse.

You can find out the grim details with a simple internet search.

Now, why do I say that this ‘raises the stakes’?

In one sense, it is as distant to me as the RZ abuse.  I never went to Iwerne, never met Smyth – in fact, the first that I heard the name was when Channel 4 broke the story.

The evangelical movement – even the conservative, evangelical, Anglican movement, of which I am a part – is not monochrome. We are not uniformly posh, public-school, Oxbridge graduates.  It is quite possible to be an active, senior member on councils and committees, planning and speaking at conferences, getting published and sharing platforms, and to be outside that bubble.

And therefore to know, suspect, nothing.  Why would I?  I don’t suspect the Proclamation Trust of gun-running, or the Church of England Evangelical Council of being funded by secret hoards of Nazi gold.  The idea that there is a silent secret conspiracy involving everybody in those circles is just absurd. And for those who don’t know me, I was once employed by PT, have attended their conferences for decades, and was on the Exec of CEEC for many years. I was Vice Principal at Oak Hill for over a decade. Without bragging, I have a dozen books to my name, with reputable publishers.  I disprove the idea that you have to be in that ‘Iwerne’ group to rise to any prominence.

My silence should not be interpreted as colluding in an in-house cover-up.

And yet, because those circles (and others) contain many friends who were at Iwerne, it is quite likely that several of them were abused by Smyth, that more knew of him, and that some of the older group were part of the panel that investigated the issue.

What’s more, it is undeniably the case that I am something of an outlier.  The way the British class system works, it is always more likely that a public-school, Oxbridge educated, individual will tend to have a quicker path to whatever they consider success: look at the BBC, Parliament or the arts.  That’s still the way our country works.

Which is not to say that it should work that way, and certainly not to imply that it’s a good thing.  Christians have been blessed by people who have come that route, but we would have even more blessed if we had had other voices from other backgrounds as well.  I don’t think the ones I’m thinking of (John Stott, David Watson, etc.) would have dreamt of preventing anyone else from flourishing; that’s not the issue. Outliers like J.I.Packer and Alec Motyer were happily recognised as peers and seniors. Stott and Watson weren’t in the business of closing doors or pulling up ladders; but they were of the generation and background when doors were more obviously opened for some rather than others, and ladders more easily obtained.

I don’t believe that our movement has, as a whole, been complicit in physical abuse. With one exception (a victim), everyone I have spoken to about Smyth has been as sickened and shocked as I was.  And I leave to others to argue over what should have happened to the investigative report: it looks to me (with all the wisdom of outsider’s hindsight) that some senior people acted very stupidly. Although when we see what other organisations did about abuse and worse within their own ranks at the time (the BBC, the Met), it doesn’t look that out of step with its own times, however much it is out of step with ours.

But I do believe that large parts of of our movement have been complicit in making assumptions about accents, backgrounds, which have been sinful and worldly.  Often times it’s just been a matter of it being small groups people all knowing each other, and as innocent as that – but where it has excluded, then we need to be ready to acknowledge that, and address it.  And it has excluded. Deliberately so. 

So, my silence should not be interpreted as a cover up, but nor should it be taken as complacency.  I have nothing to contribute on Smyth, but I have something to contribute on class.  Again, I’m not saying that this is a binary, In/Out thing. I’m a lower middle class, grammar school, Edinburgh graduate, and if the ‘Secret Club’ myth were true, I would be outside the Inner Ring looking in, rather than having conference invitations, book contracts and trusteeships.  I have had the privilege being ‘in the room’ for quite some time, and I am far from the only one.

It’s just that if you have one kind of background it is easier to get ‘in the room’ in the first place.  The same, by way, is as true of the White House or the Elysée; this is not a uniquely British vice  (and nor do I mean ‘English’; I’m looking at you, Fettes).

Let’s raise the stakes yet further.

Jonathan Fletcher

Because of the circles I’ve moved in, it is quite inevitable that I have known Jonathan Fletcher for decades. Known, and respected –  because for all his deliberate eccentricity, he would always be a charming bible teacher, with an enviable simplicity of style and content. I have had, with others, many meetings at his home, and been on conferences where he has been an attendee and a speaker.  Over time, maybe once or twice a year, such encounters add up.

Never once, over those decades, did I have the slightest indication of what was going on, or what he was covering up. Let me underline, for the sake of clarity, I believe the stories that are now emerging.  Now the report has come out on this, I am shocked, sickened, and saddened, yet again. The Report is consistently withering in its criticism of the leadership culture, structures at Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon, and it’s clear that there were many there who knew, and yet did nothing. They do have difficult questions to answer.

But, like many other people close-isa to RZ, or most people involved in Iwerne, I stare into the middle distance, and ask, ‘How did that happen?  What did I miss?’

And the answer may very well be, I missed nothing. Because what happened was happening out of sight, even to many members of his church, with powerful but invisible control lines of guilt, and power, and abuse.  

Here is one of the hard lessons about abuse which is very hard to believe unless you happen to stand close to it some time: it is quite possible, genuinely, to know nothing.  Ask the teacher who never saw the bruises.  Ask the neighbour who never heard the cries.  For abuse to go on for decades it must not only be ruthlessly applied, it must be very well hidden. 

So, please don’t automatically take silence as a cover-up, for this or any other abuse that appears. It might be, and that needs proper investigating.  But don’t assume that silence always means there’s a secret.

Sometimes, we just know nothing.

And yet at the same time, at the heart of this, we know that some people keep their secrets very well.  Silence in that case is a cover-up: by the perpetrator, a colluding circle maybe, and – most hideously – the silence of the victims themselves.

We need to learn to parse the different kinds of silence.

Uncomfortable truths

Which means I have to face up to some uncomfortable truths. One is that if I saw and heard nothing, in all likelihood I have been played as a gullible dunce. If I wasn’t worth grooming or abusing, then I was at least giving plausible camouflage. I could honestly say that I never heard a thing; had the news not broken in a reputable newspaper, backed up by an authoritative statement from Vaughan Roberts, I’d have probably defended Jonathan Fletcher. Possibly you’d have done better than me, but you can probably hear me say that I doubt it. 

A second is that, if I listen carefully to the canaries singing in the coal mine, I really should have noticed a couple of occasions where I heard of women feeling deeply uncomfortable. Not abused – but disrespected, or on edge. Only a couple, but I should have noticed. 

Was that a product of Jonathan Fletcher’s theology of men and women? Probably – although it is also a product of his preferences over who he thought worth grooming and who could be safely ignored. And in case people join the dots too quickly, remember that the most high profile scandal of recent years was Bill Hybels’, whose theology was the extreme opposite of Fletcher’s. His egalitarian theology was a cover for abuse of women, just as Fletcher’s complementarian theology was a cover for degrading them. 

Abusers abuse theology, and will use any convenient theology to mask their abuse. There are no easy scapegoats here. 

Third observation: like all outsiders, I’m a snob. Put me in the same bucket as Albert Steptoe, Basil Fawlty, and a ton of other comedy twerps. I’m a grown man, but I still defer to a public school accent or an Oxbridge degree. There’s a reason I enjoy Inspector Morse – I feel inside the senior common room for a change. 

Build on that. I’m not alone. Like I said above, we Conservative Evangelicals have assumed that certain people are more likely to lead us than others. It is ghastly and immature. 

Throughout this article I’ve been writing as an Anglican Evangelical to other Anglican Evangelicals, so let’s have another honest but hard truth – the primary people who have been not-so-subtly excluded have been people who are not Anglicans.  Our brilliant Free Church sisters and brothers have felt the serrated edge of our snobbery, and turned away as we ignored them. Formally welcomed, of course, but as one said to me after a particularly bruising conference, ‘I felt like I was a sergeant who had walked into the officers’ mess.’

Let that sting.

But build further – I’m an Anglican, in a denomination riddled with snobbery and class distinctions. Again, don’t mishear me  – this is an Evangelical problem and we must address it. But if my fellow Anglicans think this is only an Evangelical problem, or derives uniquely from our theology, then there’s a hard lesson or two coming. Look at the faces, the voices, the histories, of those who rise to higher office. Of course there are many exceptions – just like I am in my little ecosystem – but the trend, the norm, is clear. 

A public request

One final word inside my little ecosystem. The main Report recommends, and the Independent Advisory Group (IAG) statement which accompanies it, concurs, that within the Conservative Evangelical world, there need to be a number of resignations. Let me finesse that.

Having said that, and outside how ECW handles those recommendations, calls for a blanket Iwerne ‘boycott’ seem to me to be petulant and aggressive. Leave aside criminal investigations and assuming proven innocence over abuse, I don’t think there’s anything that makes me want to ask any of my friends to resign their ministries, although a number of people (myself included) are in for a serious period of reflection and scrutiny. However uncomfortable, and humbling, that’s essential.

But the waters have been sufficiently muddied for me to make a request publicly which I have already made to some in private in the recent past. Let me speak to the innocent best. To my dear respected friends who are part of the Iwerne tribe, and its descendants, many of whom I have known for decades, and whose gospel partnership I treasure: Please stand away from the national microphone. Resign your national committee memberships and trusteeships. Turn down every speaking and writing opportunity. And if you’re in the next generation down, assume they won’t come your way either. Not for ever – but for a marked season; maybe five years or so. Under normal circumstances I’d be arguing for a broader range of voices anyway, but these are abnormal times. 

Let others lead. This isn’t a punishment. You have work to do on your own and in your churches, hard and soul-searching work. We have work to do too, and no doubt we need you in the conversations, which will not always be easy, but – dear friends – we need to do it without your assuming you’re going to be in charge this time. And let’s show the watching world that our Conservative Evangelical world is so much wider, deeper, richer than the monochrome ‘Iwerne’ word might mean.

A word to the abused

But what do we say to those who have been abused? Because I’m pretty sure a number of them will also be my friends. And in many ways, speaking to them is the most important part of the post.

I can only say how sorry I have been for missing or ignoring anything I could and should have seen. If you tried to tell me and I blanked you, I’m ashamed. If you thought I saw something and I turned aside, all I can say is that I don’t deny your story for a moment, but hear me say that I never saw or heard anything to raise an eyebrow; I never turned a blind eye, even if it looks as if I did. 

Your story also needs to be heard, even if the report has even been published. Even if all you’re saying is more of the same, that is important for the right people to know.  You know where to find the report and the contact details. 

One of the problems the Report makes repeatedly clear, is that there was no safe place for a victim to speak. That was a major (deliberate) problem at Emmanuel Church, and the recommendations address that. Harder to fix is the informal culture of conferences and courses, and we have as a movement to face our collective failure to be able to be trusted with hard confidences. There will be those who will paint a picture of a vast conspiracy theory within the Conservative Evangelical world; that’s easy, adolescent and wrong. There clearly was a conspiracy, but I am troubled that light friendships over decades did not prove strong enough for people to go to someone for help.

And if I can be of any help myself, from just outside the inner ring, you know where to find me. 

Should a reader wish to draw me into a wider discussion, or another discussion on another topic of abuse, the answer will be a polite ‘no’. Take that as read.

Comments are closed.