Jonathan Fletcher is very well-known within the Anglican part of conservative evangelicalism, though maybe less so among independents. He was the minister of Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon, from 1982 to 2012, but perhaps the single most influential Anglican conservative evangelical across a much wider spectrum of conferences, camps, and churches. Many flocked to his church, to his mentoring ministry, sought his patronage, with loyalty rewarded for a lifetime. Key appointments, speaking engagements, and organisational roles would all come the way of a loyal servant.
The revelation of the nature of his behaviour requires humility and repentance. The details are distressing, but also shocking. Simply how was he enabled to get away with such ungodly, inappropriate, and exploitative behaviour for so long? We all know that independent churches have also seen their share of unacceptable behaviours.
Emmanuel Wimbledon certainly got the tone right in their response to a report on the case under the auspices of Thirtyone:eight. The elders and trustees express their devastation and profound sorrow at the hurt, and offer an unreserved apology. They draw attention to lack of accountability, failure to respond to concerns, and arrogance. They add:
‘We are heartbroken, not only for those who have been victims of Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse, but also by his wholly wrong and inadequate response to the abuse being exposed over the past few years. We long to see credible evidence of his heartfelt repentance in the future.’
The report draws attention to two very important matters that cannot be ignored. Firstly, the unacceptable behaviour of a minister of the gospel with destructive consequences for individuals, churches, and the gospel. Secondly, issues of culture affecting leadership, accountability, and expectation within conservative evangelical churches and organisations
These are important and serious matters which all biblically faithful Christians need to take seriously. We would want to advocate and model appropriate biblical behaviours and practices, proper governance, and accountability for the spiritual welfare of all.
We often do not help ourselves by failing to adopt good practice. Indeed, those of us who believe in creation mandates for the good of all people and the principles of common grace will wish to affirm the central importance of good governance and accountability – spiritual and otherwise.
Yet there remains a worry. We find in this report the right and proper condemnation of abuse, but there is a considerable danger that a valid and appropriate point made is then extended significantly further than is reasonable, with dangerous long-term consequences for the teaching and liberties of the gospel. We need to remain vigilant for biblical teaching. The report often raises a good point but then, through a failure to properly appreciate biblical teaching, the danger is that a good point becomes a ‘Trojan horse’ for a wider agenda.
I call these points ‘Trojan horses’. The defenders of Troy thought they had defeated the Greek attackers who sailed away leaving their huge wooden horse which they had constructed. The Trojans took it into the city as a trophy. The Greeks, however, had hidden forces within the horse, who, once inside the city, emerged and ransacked Troy.
Are there aspects of this report, however well-founded, that pose an existential danger? Yes. I identify here five examples.
1. Proper leadership accountability principles are used against others
Accountability for leadership is a central issue. Good governance and a healthy Christian culture means proper processes which are implemented for the benefit of all. The failures here are acknowledged by Emmanuel Wimbledon. Rather bizarrely, the report then goes on to demand that the leaders of all conservative evangelical organisations connected to Jonathan Fletcher should stand down, resign. Why? Which ones? Who will decide? There is no justification for seeking to bring down other individuals and groups. In fact, this rather smacks of a negative wider agenda and should be resisted.
2. Appropriate structures are extended to embrace unbiblical teaching
The report discusses wider structures within Anglicanism in order to enhance the idea of holding the church, Emmanuel Wimbledon, to a wider control. In Anglican terms there are (though not many now) churches which were established as what are known as ‘proprietary chapels’; that is, independent in finance and appointments, but staffed by clergy licensed by a bishop. The whole point was to protect biblical evangelical teaching. To argue, as the report does, that this results in wider accountability and safeguarding failures and should be ended not only misunderstands the history, but it also fails to appreciate that thousands of non-Anglican independent churches of one type or another are able to establish systems of accountability and safeguarding without losing their independence. This sounds like an attempt to reinforce centralised power and weaken evangelical independence in the Church of England.
3. Reflection on the role of women ignores scriptural provision
The diversity agenda raises its head in this report. There is a proper place for thinking through the role of women in churches. The report, however, extends this appropriate debate about this role to eldership and the need for ‘valuing’ women across all areas of leadership. The report clearly does not understand evangelical biblical teaching around eldership, church leadership, and preaching, viewing the issue through one particular lens.
4. Assessment of mistrust proceeds to affirm false teaching
The report claims that many of the leadership issues were reinforced by establishing a narrative of mistrust towards, for example, other faiths, the diocese, and more liberal teaching. But faithful, biblical, Christian teaching would not wish to affirm the role of liberal teaching which denies the Scriptures. The report misunderstands both the nature of the biblical witness around false teaching and the problematic relationship with the Diocese of Southwark, perhaps the most liberal diocese in the Church of England. Emmanuel Wimbledon are not the only church with a problematic relationship with the Diocese of Southwark. At one point the report calls for mediation. However, mediation is not required; repentance of false teaching is what is needed.
5. Condemnation of bullying and coercion, viewing spiritual abuse as a separate category, threatens biblical teaching
There have been too many examples of bullying and coercion in church contexts, as indeed in many others. This is sinful and ungodly activity, and perpetrators must be properly held to account. However, the report clearly views these issues through the lens of ‘spiritual abuse’. This is positively dangerous. We will find, very quickly, that biblical teaching around marriage, sexuality, atonement, and the uniqueness of Christ are covered by the category of spiritual abuse.
We really should welcome what this report has to say about the basic principles of unacceptable behaviour, accountability, governance, and structure. We can never tolerate such activity nor be compliant in enabling such behaviour. Yet, at the same time, we must remain ever vigilant for both Christian teaching itself and, indeed, the freedom to teach the Bible.