After Jonathan Fletcher: changing evangelical culture

Jonathan Fletcher

How do evangelicals go forward after the recent terrible revelations about abuse perpetrated by some of their leaders?

The report a few weeks ago from UK safeguarding charity Thirty-One:Eight into disgraced former church minister Jonathan Fletcher's actions and how they were handled makes shocking reading. So does the independent review into how Scripture Union dealt with reports of Fletcher's friend John Smyth, who engaged in savage beatings of young men.

There are many questions unanswered. Our thoughts must continue to be with the survivors and victims of these abuses. But both reports have thrown up wider questions about some parts of conservative evangelical culture, especially within the Church of England. And it is important these begin to be addressed.

For example, among other things, the Thirty-One:Eight report speaks of a particular brand of 'leadership, muscular Christianity and exclusivity' which 'was reported to pervade much of this culture' and how 'protecting the gospel' and 'protecting the network' became synonymous.

Let me tell you about one experience which is wholly unrelated to abuse of any kind in any way, but which may be symptomatic of the wider cultural issues to which the report alludes.

I was at the Oxford theological college, Wycliffe Hall, training for Anglican ministry from 1994 to 1997. During one (or possibly two) of those years the college had a visiting lecturer from an Australian evangelical body. It was a bit of an interesting match for all sorts of reasons.

But here's what I remember particularly from this visiting lecturer's time with us: as our weekly lunchtime college fellowship groups drew to a close, there was a body of students (perhaps a quarter) who couldn't wait to get away as soon as they could. Off they would rush, down the stairs, hasten to their bikes and zoom off en masse for their own special gathering.

And these were the students who the visiting lecturer had apparently hand-picked for some form of special private weekly instruction. Almost to a man (and I think it was nearly all or possibly entirely men) they were people associated with public school Christian camps or Emmanuel Church Wimbledon or from backgrounds which were very, very similar. So far as I can remember these meetings were not advertised publicly, nor do I recall that there was any open invitation to students at Wycliffe generally.

The understanding among the rest of us was that these people – perceived as having been selected for a degree of soundness that the rest of us somehow lacked – were receiving teaching about Calvin's Institutes of Religion. There was a slightly tongue-in-cheek assumption this was to decontaminate them from any subtle heresies they might have inadvertently picked up at Wycliffe.

Well, you can imagine the sense of chagrin, exclusion and – to an extent – hurt that existed among the rest of the college as this chosen elite bolted out of fellowship groups and sped away to their 'super-sound' enclave.

Now I need to be slightly careful. Some of those who attended that group were – and are – some of my best friends, and are also very Godly people. I don't doubt their good motives for a moment, nor those of the lecturer. Nor, I should stress, has it left me permanently scarred or bitter! Honest! But culturally this sort of elitist cliquiness (as it seemed to the rest of us) appeared to embody a mindset quite different from the warm, open-hearted, gracious evangelicalism I had grown up with.

And of course it need never have been like that. What the visiting lecturer could have done, perhaps, would have been to book a room in the college itself (rather than off campus) and openly invite all the students to come and hear his teaching. He might even have made new friends and influenced more people! The challenge he brought might well have been good for some students – and perhaps the challenge from some students to him, had such interaction been permitted, could even have been a blessing for him too.

Again, I should stress that abuse played no part in what happened. But the point is that what took place seemed then, and still seems to me today, symptomatic of the sort of culture of exclusivity, secrecy, and elitism in which such abuse could – and as we now know did – flourish in other not dissimilar contexts. And this particular story is by no means an isolated example.

It is all very sad. For what many people now understand by the term 'conservative evangelicalism' in the C of E today as a result of this sort of thing is far from what that the label historically meant. There was – and is – an older, kinder and gentler strand of 'conservative evangelicalism' that still exists but which was perhaps more dominant in the past.

It was exemplified by bishops such as Maurice Wood, Timothy Dudley-Smith, Michael Baughen and their fellow clergy such as Keith Weston and John Stott. There was clarity and incisiveness of doctrine, for sure, but also graciousness, generosity of spirit and kindness within it. Devotion was seen as being as important as doctrine; emotion was not necessarily to be repressed; there was a place for healthy Christian experience. It sought instinctively, wherever possible Biblically, to include rather than exclude.

But in the late 20th century something changed. The abrasiveness of some (but not all, I should stress) parts of public school Christian camp culture was infused with a cultural acerbity and radical dogmatism from some (but again not all) influential Australian evangelical leaders who were frequent speakers at UK conferences. The result was a fairly potent mix. It reinforced the characteristics of elitism and cliquiness to which allusion has been made, and led to a mindset which circled the wagons ever tighter into smaller and smaller enclaves of those trusted to be truly sound.

Happily, the earlier, kinder, gentler form of evangelicalism still exists in places such as much of the FIEC (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches), the Keswick Convention, and indeed some parts of the Church of England. The culture (one perhaps might even dare say cult) of Jonathan Fletcher and the like is not necessarily representative of the movement as a whole, even if it has sometimes felt like that.

So what needs to happen now? Well, in his excellent book Revolution of Love, the founder of Operation Mobilisation (OM), that great missionary pioneer George Verwer, issued a powerful plea against the sort of sectarianism that has afflicted some parts of conservative evangelical culture. He was writing in 1969, which just goes to show how this sort of thing is a danger in every generation. And he rightly states that 'we are on a narrow road as Bible-believing Christians' when it comes to basic beliefs. That is, of course, undoubtedly true. But he also says, crucially, that when you read the Bible as a whole, you cannot but help ending up 'in the land of the open-hearted'. What a great phrase!

What's the change in culture we need? There is much more yet to be said, but for now let us just say this: in a nutshell, the change in culture that is needed is to become dwellers 'in the land of the open-hearted'. Reading or re-reading Verwer's Revolution of Love might be one good place to start.

David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.