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Martin Bashir: I confronted 'dictatorial' vicar Jonathan Fletcher over exploitation of elderly parishioner - and he turned on me

Martin Bashir: I confronted 'dictatorial' vicar Jonathan Fletcher over exploitation of elderly parishioner - and he turned on me
The BBC's Religion Editor reveals how he confronted his vicar, who turned a blind eye to an elderly parishioner being exploited.

By Martin Bashir
21 February 2020

Following The Telegraph's reporting on the manipulative and controlling conduct of the Reverend Jonathan Fletcher, which included naked spanking, iced baths and massage sessions, many within the community of Anglican evangelicals have been bewildered and distressed.

Christopher Ash, author in residence at Tyndale House, Cambridge, and a personal friend of Fletcher's, said 'The revelations have taken us completely by surprise; we have been shocked and astonished. When we first heard about them, they were so unexpected that we thought they must be false accusations.'

The breadth and seriousness of the accusations are in marked contrast to the near universal admiration for his ministry and character.

In a book of Fletcher's parish newsletters, entitled 'Dear Friends' and published to coincide with his retirement as the vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon, there are glowing tributes and not a hint of the abuse that victims say he meted out over the course of his career.

One of the contributors, Nigel Stone, is senior partner and head of corporate at Boodle Hatfield Solicitors in London and church warden of Emmanuel from 1993 until 2007. His tribute begins with the words 'Jonathan lives his preaching', a preaching that demanded holiness of life but is now exposed as a sham. Mr Stone has told friends he 'saw nothing and heard nothing' during his fourteen years as church warden.

The book, which was published by Fletcher's friend and Emmanuel church member, Tim Thornborough, has since been withdrawn from sale with the publisher saying "all copies have been destroyed." All of Jonathan Fletcher's sermons have also been removed from Emmanuel's tape library and website.

But this attempt to erase Fletcher's record will not be the final word on the matter.

Three separate enquiries are underway.

Where there was once disbelief, there is now an increasing sense of anger. Jonathan Fletcher was one of the most revered preachers in Britain, had nurtured countless young men toward ordination and was responsible for the formation of one of the most exacting organisations ever created to militate for evangelical orthodoxy within the church (Reform).

He studied the Bible with Nicky Gumbel, who went on to establish the Alpha course, and Justin Welby, who is now the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a sought-after conference speaker and his church in Wimbledon was forced to introduce additional Sunday services in order to accommodate the number who wished to attend.

In a relatively small pool of London clerics who believed in the absolute authority of the Bible in all matters, temporal and eternal, Fletcher enjoyed the status of a prelate without ever going through the process of selection and installation. One city rector referred to him as 'the evangelical Pope of south London'.

When we bought a house in the area, it wasn't long before our family walked up to Wimbledon Village in order to visit this highly commended church. It also isn't long before my wife began to ask searching questions about quite what was going on at Emmanuel...

One of the most obvious warning signs was the sheer dominance of the man during Sunday services. On our first visit, he led worship, took the congregation through confession, the Lord's Prayer, Scripture reading, intercessions, preached the sermon and then closed with the Benediction. In a rural parish, with a small number in attendance, this might have been unavoidable but in the midst of a congregation that boasted senior lawyers, bankers, military figures, medics plus retired clergy and a curate, it seemed odd that he didn't share the dais with anyone else.

His leadership of Parochial Church Council meetings was even more pronounced.

He would attempt to break a relatively brief impasse with humour, saying "As you all know, I much prefer to run a benign dictatorship". PCC members would laugh on cue and he would get his way.

The monthly prayer meeting, on a Tuesday evening, was one of the most coercive and manipulated public gatherings. He would order people to "Keep your prayers short", warning that "We don't want to waste a second with meandering supplications," as if any form of self-reflection or meditation was anathema. Extemporary prayers were to be delivered like the firing of a semi-automatic weapon toward the Almighty. When members of the congregation stumbled or struggled to find words, one could hear his exasperation.

In secular gatherings, such bristling impatience might have been judged as bullying.

At Emmanuel Wimbledon, it was 'Just Jonathan...' and allowed to continue.

It soon became apparent that Fletcher's idiosyncratic behaviour was unimpeachable because of the nature of his incumbency.

Emmanuel, Wimbledon, is a proprietary chapel. Popular in 19th century Britain, these were churches that belonged not to the parish but private individuals who built them and charged pew rents to sustain their fabric. Critically, it meant that they were largely autonomous. In the case of Emmanuel, it is entirely self-supporting, wholly owns its buildings and clergy are appointed by a group of patrons.

In practice, the incumbent operated with little oversight or accountability, the perfect setting for a self-confessed 'benign dictator'. His working circumstances were not dissimilar to that enjoyed by the late Dr Harold Shipman; a sole practitioner who could do as he pleased for most of the time and with devastating effect.

Fletcher would also champion a few choice individuals within his congregation.

One such case involved a businessman who had been regularly promoted by Fletcher as 'the evangelical Richard Branson', though it's hard to imagine the latter being impressed by the comparison.

This businessman had been jailed in 1992 and declared bankrupt. But since serving time, he had joined Emmanuel, said he was regenerate and promised to spend the rest of his days making good on his debts. It was the perfect story of repentance and faith, one that Fletcher would regularly promote.


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