It is shameful and shocking that an investigation has found the Conservative Evangelical subculture to be characterised by fear. Let’s state the obvious – this should not be, and should not have been. It must not be. It’s presence is a sin and a stain
Fear does not bear the marks of a Saviour who is, in the title of a superb and relevant book, ‘Gentle and Lowly’.
Now, let me add a personal qualification right from the front, which is not meant to deny anything that has been uncovered. ‘Fear’ is not a word I recognise, in the Conservative Evangelical world I’ve been nurtured in and still stand in. Here I’ve found life-long friends, both men and women, from a rich slice of society, multi-ethnic, around the world, from people with two PhDs to Wally, a lovely old-school pig farmer. Even among those who lead I have found always – always – warmth, trust, vast good humour and deep partnership. It’s been an experience of gospel relationships at their very best.
I have never felt afraid. Daunted, often, with each increasing responsibility or opportunity. Nervous, frequently, as someone whose books have shaped me has sat across the dinner table. But fear, never.
So if anyone gets or give the impression that our entire sub-culture is riddled with or run by power, fear, and a fierce grip, they really have got things wrong.
It is now clear that a significant slice of our subculture has had a very different experience to mine, and for years. The two investigative lines that are being followed at the moment, one into John Smyth and the other into Jonathan Fletcher, show (for all their differences), a common mode of working, of which ‘fear’ was – is – a key element.
Let’s try and parse it. I have the occasional flashing fragment which might help – you might have others which underline, or even undermine, what I say. I’m trying to help start the conversation going, in a safe way. As always, I’m turning comments off and I’m not responding to social media trails – my contact email is here on the blog: email@example.com.
I’m focussing on the issues surrounding Fletcher (JF), and you’d be wise to assume I know nothing more than is in the public domain, in the news, in the Reports (both ThirtyOne Eight and IAG), and what has been confirmed first-hand in social media. Where I do have my own stories, which I do, they are inconsequential.
And, let’s not forget, this is not only about Conservative Evangelicals. It’s public knowledge that Smyth was on camp at the same time as Justin Welby, and that Nicky Gumbel was discipled early on by Jonathan Fletcher. In both cases I’m prepared to believe they knew as little as I and many others; there’s no shame in saying you were fooled, misdirected, or just of no interest. But any investigation must be appropriately focused: simultaneously wider and narrower than Conservative Evangelicals as a clump.
I find it helpful to split the fear three ways: fear for the future, fear in the present, and fear of the past.
Fear for the future
For years, JF has had both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ patronage to make doors open.
Allow me an Anglican explanation (Anglicans: what follows is a crude oversimplification). When a senior pastor (Vicar, Rector) is appointed, there are three groups whose decisions have to align. There are the representatives of the church, there is the bishop, and there are the Patrons (note the capital letter), an external group who manage the process, and represent the long-term interest of the church. It’s an historic quirk, but when it works, each one has a rightful interest in the appointment, and counterbalances the others. The Patrons can make sure that the church’s representatives aren’t the eccentric choice of a dominant few, or that the diocese isn’t playing a politico-financial game. And if things go wrong in a church, the Patrons, along with the diocese, are expected to act as external referees.
That’s ‘hard’, officially sanctioned Patronage. And it seems that there have been a handful of churches where JF exercised that role. There’s nothing secretive or seedy in that, because it is a proper and public office, although of course there would be if any Patron used the offer of a job as a lure.
But JF seems to have had a much wider use of ‘soft’ patronage. Now, this is really easy to describe and recognise because C S Lewis did it for us, in his Inner Ring essay. It’s the sense that someone is in a position of influence and access, knowing people, knowing things. It’s what is often called ‘social capital’.
It’s very widespread, and I know I have it. When one of my family was looking for work experience in politics, I reached out to an MP with whom I’m on first-name terms. There are internationally known Christians whose mobile numbers are in my contacts.
Because of his age, family, experiences, connections, wealth, JF’s social capital was widespread and very senior (note this) within the denomination and broader than evangelicalism.That is, for a number of reasons, it appears he was in a position where he could smooth the way for people towards particular jobs. Or not.
Let’s be honest – this is everywhere. In theory, in every organisation people are appointed and promoted solely on merit. And maybe in large corporates that’s true. Maybe for routine roles where personality is not an issue, that’s true. But there’s an inescapable human element in the mix which we crave, especially when we’re building small, relational staff teams. When I appoint someone, I’m not just looking at whether they can do the job, I want to know if he or she will ‘fit’. So we use our social capital to find out. When I have a vacancy, I might spend some social capital to find out who’s out there, looking.
And it gets flipped. So only last week, a student at a seminary contacted me to ask if I had a staff vacancy coming up which might suit them, or whether I knew of any that were coming up elsewhere.
This happens all the time, in all walks of life.
The question, to which I do not have the answer, is whether, where and when JF used that reality to control people, and lead them in an unsavoury way (forgive the mealy-mouthed ‘unsavoury’ – it’s a shorthand for the whole spectrum of his behaviours, but I don’t want to be lurid. People’s lives and health have been ruined in this tragedy). JF certainly had that patronage, in both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms.
What I do have the answer to, though, is whether we are open to being tempted by offers of a brighter future. At least, I know the temptations Ito which am prone.
Would I be tempted by the help of a patron? Heck, yes. Would that mean I would submit to being controlled? Would I fear the person who had that control? Good questions.
Fear in the present
In some ways this is the easiest to see, and the nastiest to experience. But it is complex. Let me tell you two stories.
I was once at a residential conference, and there were a number of colleagues there who I’d got to know well over the years. The conferences ran every year, so this was a 48 hr break, with a couple of evenings to catch up with each other.
It was about 11.30 in the evening, and about eight of us were lounging on sofas, shooting the breeze. You get the scenario. JF came in, and said – lightly, but abruptly – ‘Christians on their way to heaven should be in bed before eleven.’ It was obviously the kind of motto used on summer houseparties, and I’m sure I’d have used something similar on the camps I ran; they were hard work, and the young team needed their rest. I’d have chivvied them to their rooms as well.
But these were men in their twenties and thirties, some of them married with kids, and on a residential conference.
And what shocked me was that for some of them, their instinct was still to stand up and do as they were told.
I’m afraid that wasn’t mine. I lounged further, looked straight back JF and improvised a response: ‘Christians who have talks to do, may stay up till half past two.’ It was light-hearted, slightly mocking I admit, and it would have been inappropriate on camp. But we weren’t young leaders on camp.
What struck me was the look of fierce anger in JF’s eyes. I had broken a rule and defied him.
I brushed it off, and it made no impact on me other than as a memory of a moment. He certainly didn’t try to exercise any control over me. But with hindsight, and now knowing of the patterns of authority at his church (and, one assumes, in his wider circles) I can see how fear would be a strong element. A man used to command, had a look to control defiance. If I had been younger, under his authority, in a social context where doing what one was told was the expected norm, I can see how it would be a very effective mechanism.
I wouldn’t want that glare of disapproval.
Now, let me complicate things.
A different conference, a different room, a different bunch of people. On this occasion, I was one of the speakers. If that makes me sound important, let me pop the balloon. In the audience was John Stott, and I was terrified. Probably no-one had had a greater impact on my thinking than Stott, and yet I had hardly met him. I had massively over-prepared my talk, in large measure because I knew he would be there.
I gave the lecture, there was a polite smattering of applause, and then there was Q and A. I was asked about for details about one of the books I had referenced. But I got it wrong. Stott’s booming, clear voice corrected me from the front row – he, of course, knew the book, the title, the author (knew him personally).
And there was a look, in those blue eyes, of disappointment. I died inside. And, in all honesty, it wasn’t the only time over the years that I saw the look when I said had something foolish.
Of course, he was charming and friendly later, and he boosted me over breakfast the next morning quite nicely, but nevertheless, those eyes…
Now, compare and contrast. Both men (similar background) were used to command. Because of my background, I had an inherent respect for Stott that I didn’t for JF, but it’s important for me to recognise that things could easily have been different, and I could have held both men in high regard.
So what’s the difference? I think it’s this – and remember, because I wasn’t in JF’s inner circles, I can’t speak for how true this would ring for them – I feared disappointing Stott, but I never feared Stott himself. Now, he never employed me, and I never had to give an account of myself to him in that sense, but I don’t think my high regard and respect is the same as fear.
If I interpret the different voices in what is coming out correctly, both strands are present within JF’s circles. There are those – and they seem to have been many – who simply held him in high regard and respect. When he spoke, they listened. And they did so, even with some affection.
Our concern must lie with those for whom that attitude contains the element of visceral fear as well. They will be the victims.
And I’m guessing that there are quite a group of people who were never cajoled into doing anything remotely unsavoury, but who are having to recheck the nature of their respect for JF, whether there was an element of fear and control in there which would have laid them open to danger. And if you’ve never met JF, you would be wise to check your own heart to see if there’s someone who occupies that space for you.
Because you might have learnt to glare as well. It’s very effective.
Fear of the past
And here’s the legacy.
I don’t want to overstate this, but my guess is that there are a number of Anglican evangelical clergy who are currently anxious about parts of their past going public. It might have been a mild indiscretion, or years of humiliation. The ThirtyOne Eight report and the IAG are both coy about names, and their scope was necessarily limited to one church and some ripples.
So, let’s be honest, there will be those who would rather have any further investigations be brushed under the carpet – not because of their guilt and complicity, but because of their shame.
We are talking about people who have been controlled and shamed into consensual behaviour of which they are deeply embarrassed. There don’t have to have been bruises for there to have been victims. For some, it will simply have been that they were controlled and shamed which is humiliating. For others, they won’t want their church members imagining them skinny dipping. It would make them, to put it mildly, less plausible and a bit ridiculous. They might even reject the label ‘victim’. Someone might have been groomed into a pattern of behaviour which only with insight do they realise was abnormal or odd; the instigator has blame and guilt for this – but how does the the person groomed address those feelings? What happens when social media finds out? There are those will have simply been a fellow committee members with JF (as have I), who will fear guilt by association. And of course there are the men who weep into their pillows at night.
All of them fear the next revelation, the next blog post, the next leak. Because they will happen. And names will emerge. It’s unavoidable.
It will be far better if there were another, wider, formally commissioned investigation – maybe under the aegis of the Church of England Evangelical Council, or CPAS – which can provide a safe, confidential space for people to tell their stories, and the fuller picture can emerge.