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Evangelicals are facing a period of soul searching, heartache and challenge as three separate scandals unfolded.

By Evangelical News staff
March 5, 2021

The report into Jonathan Fletcher -- by safeguarding organisation Thirtyone:eight -- was commissioned by Emmanuel Church after allegations about his behaviour became public. These included 'men hitting each other on their naked backsides'.

In the run-up to the review's publication, a survivor has told EN that close acquaintances of Fletcher should disclose all they know, and not presume to lead evangelicals out of the crisis prompted by the revelations.

And Christian broadcaster and writer Anne Atkins, whose articles helped bring the case to wider public attention, has also spoken to en and warned of the traps she fears evangelicals could fall into once the report is published.

The scandal was brought into the spotlight with a statement at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly (EMA) in 2019, following a story in the Daily Telegraph.

Sarah Hall, safeguarding officer at Emmanuel, said Fletcher had been involved in 'physical discipline in the context of discipling relationships' which included 'men hitting each other on their naked backsides with a trainer'. She said these had been described by recipients as 'very painful'.

It was also stated, among other things, that he took part in massages with other men where both were 'fully naked throughout' and that this was 'a regular part of the relationship between Jonathan and certain men over a period of time'. Fletcher was minister of Emmanuel from 1982 to 2012.

Fletcher later claimed the spankings were 'light-hearted forfeits' in a 'system of mutual encouragement'. He added that he enjoyed massages, and had regularly hired professionals to do it. 'However, if I can avoid the cost by finding a male friend to administer, and in return receive massage, I do,' he said.

Andrew Wales QC, also speaking at that EMA, said Southwark Diocese had established that 'there was a risk of Jonathan behaving towards vulnerable adults seeking his spiritual guidance in a manner which may be harmful'. As a result, Emmanuel Church commissioned the independent review concerning Fletcher and the church, which is now about to be published.

One survivor of Fletcher's behaviour, who spoke said: 'We must learn that to EN, abusers like Jonathan cannot operate except as part of a network of leaders and disciples who benefit from the abuser's patronage and charm. We need to ponder the egregious damage that will be done if leaders who [are] close to Jonathan -- and there are many -- see fit to oversee the rehabilitation of our constituency. It would neither be good for them or us.'

The survivor added: 'I realise that it is hard for people to accept, but in many ways I find the obviously abusive and damaging actions of Jonathan toward me not as life wrecking as the glib assumption by the clergy who have been his close acquaintances for decades that they ought to remain in charge of teaching the rest of the church how to be godly leaders. I will not feel at peace until they are willing to disclose all they knew, and how they benefitted from Jonathan's patronage.'

Broadcaster and writer Anne Atkins told en of her concerns about how evangelicals might make mistakes once the Thirtyone:eight report is published. She said: 'There are ... three errors we can fall into. The first, of course, is not take it seriously -- not be utterly appalled. I am told there are still idiots out there claiming Jonathan Fletcher didn't do much wrong. Public School japes, you know. Fortunately, I haven't come across many of these.'

She continued: 'The second is to view him as a sub-human monster. No. Just a sinner, like us. Well, I hope not just like us. If so, I beg you to march yourself to the nearest police station, give yourself up and ask for help. But like us, he still needs friends, forgiveness, prayer. Let's leave punishment to others, shall we? The saintly Lord Longford modelled Christian acceptance in the face of appalling atrocity, and I am profoundly grateful for the few I know still persevering, beyond all encouragement, helping Jonathan Fletcher face his sins, praying with him. A close friend offered to stay friends with him... but she is a woman, so he didn't reply.'

Referring to the late John Smyth QC, an abuser who conducted 'horrific' beatings of Christian young men, Anne Atkins said: 'There is a third tendency which seems far more insidious and ubiquitous, which is to spread the blame. Logically, this is too crude to take most of us in: Justin Welby knew Smyth; Smyth did evil; ergo blame Justin Welby for Smyth.' But she warned: 'On an emotional level ... guilt by association is far more dangerous. The wrongs inflicted by Smyth were just beginning to be recognised when he died. This cruel frustration of justice caused numerous peripheral characters to be blamed as part of the story, part of the guilt.

'The same is now happening with Jonathan Fletcher. We don't seem able to credit one man with so much vice, all on his own. So it must be Lambeth... substitutionary atonement... British schooling... Emmanuel Church.'

She said: 'Find fault with any or all if you must, but on their own merits. Don't tar them with Jonathan's brush. Why? Because this lets him off the hook. There is only one place to find the author of Jonathan's sins, and that is with Jonathan himself. Of course cover-up, indifference, apathy, are culpable. But they are not the quarry. So even if we didn't know or do enough to stop him -- I plead guilty -- we didn't commit [these acts].'

Meanwhile, one former member of Emmanuel Wimbledon, with whom en spoke, said he himself had never witnessed anything untoward. He said: 'I knew him [Jonathan Fletcher] as a man who did nothing but help me to know Jesus better and live a holy life. To say I didn't see abuse isn't to deny that abuse happened -- it just means not everybody saw it.

'Over and above that, what is it about evangelicalism that seems to demand that we must have heroes and villains; with us, of course, always keen to be on the right side? Why is it that I dare not put my name to this? My fear is that, if the high priesthood of evangelicalism has spoken, woe betide any recalcitrant who fails to fall into line and condemn Jonathan Fletcher.

'Of course the victim must speak and be heard with understanding, compassion and tolerance, just as the abuser will face the due penalty for their crime in this world and the next. But sometimes there are bystanders who saw nothing, and can only say what they know. The fear of the abused to speak is not made better if those who only know of love and goodness are made timid, criticised and silenced in turn. Until all can be "truthing in love" -- whether that's telling the truth of abuse or the truth of seeing only the good in someone -- perhaps evangelicalism itself needs a cry of repentance and mercy. May God forgive us if we divide into groups who are pro or anti any man.'

'We used to teach that sin separates us from God, spoils our relationships, and spreads through societies including churches. Maybe we should have added that it sickens our souls too. It is only there, in the very depths of seeing our sin, that we see our Saviour, to paraphrase Corrie ten Boom. Seeing [Jesus], the question will not be what we make of Jonathan Fletcher, but what we make of Him, [for] in Christ alone my hope is found.

Whatever the report reveals, will we pray for a deep repentance and a deeper-yet mercy?'

Writing more generally about the issue of spiritual abuse -- on the IVP blog, recently -- All Souls' Langham Place student worker Ollie Lansdowne said he had been much challenged by some words spoken to him 12 months ago, which were: 'At some point, you're going to need to get together with some of your conservative evangelical friends and ask a hard question -- "What ways of thinking have we been formed in that perpetuate abuse, and what will reformation look like"?'

Lansdowne wrote: 'If the conservative evangelical church in Britain is fertile ground for abuse -- and at this point that seems undeniable -- then it won't just have been the corrupt ends to which power was used that made us that way, but also the corrupt means by which power has been exercised.

'Whether it's over the handling of historic abuse, the urgency of resisting contemporary culture, or the strategy for future ministry -- too many conservative evangelicals are too quick to close ranks amongst outsiders and to pull rank amongst insiders, under the pretext of gospel conservation.'

He added: 'Our churches have become fertile ground for abuse, and passivity about our power structures will only perpetuate our desecration ... We will only preserve the message of the cross by nailing ourselves to it. If the conservative evangelical church is fertile ground for abuse, then this is the cruciform reformation we need.'

Ollie Lansdown's full article can be read by googling "Guest Post: How Penal Substitution is the antithesis of Spiritual Abuse".

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