By ‘senior leaders’ I mean the leaders of the larger churches, those who serve on Conservative Evangelical trust and committees, the people who make things happen. Overwhelmingly they are various stripes of Anglican. With my history I have to include myself in that group.
There are three reactions which are deadly. Why so? Because they are variations of what got us into this mess and will only heighten the problems.
‘What Jonathan Fletcher got up to was just horse play, high jinks from the dorm which have been misunderstood.’ Now leave aside the fact that we are dealing with grown men here, not adolescents, this is obviously what JF himself would want us to see. It’s the perpetrator’s script. It’s also the enabler’s script. Anyone who, on reading the report, reacts by saying ‘That’s just Jonathan’ is enabling. Now that the lights are on, that’s an inexcusable response.
2. Leave it to us.
This reaction carefully withdraws discussion from the public gaze, and takes it to – what, the senior common room, the officers’ mess. ‘A dirty business certainly, and it will be dealt with (trust us) but it needs to be done discreetly. For the gospel’s sake.’
Let’s name this for the game it is. It is patronising and secretive and controlling. It is exactly – exactly – what happened with Smyth, and if it happens again it shows that nothing has been learnt. The stupid instincts are still in place.
Reputational management and spin are not the right public messages. They are not the marks of repentance, either.
There needs to be public accountability for mistakes made, and visible implementation of the recommendations in full – both the Report and the IAG. Don’t even think about trying to find a chink of daylight between the two. This is not a day to play defence, and certainly not a day to attack the documents. In my view, the Report should have named names, because they will come out anyway, and sooner is better than later. The reputation of the gospel is at stake here, and it will not be defended by secrecy.
3. Turn the page.
‘Well, that was all very embarrassing and difficult, but it’s all out in the open, and there’s no point going over the past, so let’s shake our heads and get on with life. It was grim, but the page can be turned, lessons learnt. Let’s get back to preaching the gospel.’
Not so fast. The findings and criticisms of the report and the IAG statement are harshly true. There are deep cultural flaws we shall need to address and reverse for years to come. Addressing those is also about preaching the gospel. To ourselves.
This is not over. It has has hardly begun.
I described those three reactions as deadly because they are so easy. We have used them for decades – but look where they have got us.
So what are the two unwise reactions?
First, to assume that we now know everything. That the reckoning that needs to happen only has to deal with what is in the Report and the IAG.
Why is that unwise? Because the way of the behaviour was covert, and enforced by secrecy. It was enabled by secrecy too.
So we must assume that there are many more victims out there, who for a variety of reasons have not told their stories. Each will have their reasons, and none must be trivialised or kept quiet. Certainly none must be bullied to speak. But they should all know that there’s safe place where they can. Some will only do so in their own time. If some fear that JF’s power is still in place, we need to address that, too. Even if it’s only more of the same level of behaviour, we need to keep the door open for people to speak in safety.
The second unwise reaction is to assume that it will only be more of the same. More saunas and gym shoes.
Now I don’t want to assume the worst, but do you really think that’s likely? We already know that there’s one item of interest to the police. In the cold light of day, what’s your hunch of what will happen next?
So the only wise approach must be to assume that there is more to come. More of the same, more of different kinds of mess, and then to brace ourselves for worse. Reputations will be damaged. Faces will be red. Names will have to be named. I imagine some resignations will follow. Some churches will have to have difficult conversations. Some pulpits will be empty. That’s inevitable. Let’s just get used to it.
And, yes, there will be those in the Church of England and elsewhere, Christians and unbelievers, who will take an unholy glee in this. ‘I told you so’, they will say. Some will hashtag and haunt us on social media. And there will be ghastly witch hunts of innocent, and maybe vulnerable, people. It is deeply unpleasant, and once again – I’m not responding to any online trolls, whatever the agenda.
But responding, reacting, will make us, first, defensive, and secondly, aggressive. Social media is a dirty playground, and like they say about wrestling a pig, you both get dirty but only one of you enjoys it.
Instead, we need to see where they were right. Not, ‘make sure this never happens again’ – I take that as a given. Not ‘if they were right’ – I take that as a given too.
But where they were and are right. Even the most politicised, bitter, malcontents. Even about the stuff that has not yet gone public. We need to see this as the start, not the end, of the process.
We need to see this as the start, not the end, of the process.
A doctor who discovers evidence of cancer does not just treat that small growth. She commissions scans, tests. The whole body is explored to find primaries, secondaries, consequences and causes.
What a stupid patient who says, ‘No, please just treat the bit of cancer you found.’ Or worse, ‘Thank you, doctor, but I’m sure it’s just heartburn after that curry, and I’m taking the Gaviscon‘.
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