Jonathan Fletcher and the cancer of careerism among conservative evangelicals

Jonathan Fletcher

Like a CT scan detecting a cancerous growth in a body, the probe into the Rev Jonathan Fletcher abuse scandal has exposed the cancer of careerism among British conservative evangelicals.

Since the publication last week of the lessons learned review by Christian safeguarding charity, 31:8, into the former Church of England vicar's serial abuses, survivor Lee Furney has revealed his abuser's power to make or break a young man's career in the Anglican evangelical scene.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lee was a parish assistant at Emmanuel Church Wimbledon where Fletcher was vicar from 1982 to 2012. Lee lived in his abuser's parsonage. He has described how he tried to disclose Fletcher's abusive bullying to senior members of the church's staff team. He was told it would not be good for his career if he got on the wrong side of Fletcher.

Lee has spoken about his experience of Fletcher's abuse on Channel 4 News and on Glen Scrivener's Speak Life Podcast.

Fletcher, 78, arguably had more influence than any CofE Bishop. He was on the appointing committees of some of the CofE's largest churches; he had access to the Archbishop of Canterbury through his membership of the elite Nobody's Friends dining club at Lambeth Palace; and he was a trustee of two influential conservative evangelical networks, the preacher training provider, the Proclamation Trust, and the Anglican evangelical lobby group, Reform.

He also exercised great influence over five decades through the Iwerne evangelical holiday camps for pupils from the 'top 30' English boarding schools. Many Anglican evangelical clergy were encouraged into ordained ministry through these camps. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the savage serial abuser John Smyth groomed his victims at these camps, then held at Clayesmore School in the Dorset village of Iwerne Minster.

The John Smyth Independent Case Review, commissioned by the Scripture Union, under whose auspices the camps operated when Smyth was involved, last week revealed a little-known aspect of Fletcher's influence through Iwerne. The executive summary of the Review told how Fletcher, whose older brother David ran the camps, used to hold his own 'Iwerne D' camps in Ireland "with a select group of boys each summer", with no accountability to the SU.

Though few conservative evangelicals become Bishops in the CofE, there has been a recognisable career structure in that world in which Fletcher wielded such power. With Fletcher's power of patronage, his young proteges training for CofE ordained ministry at one of the Oxbridge theological colleges needed to stay in his good books if they wanted a big preaching platform. They could get this through landing a curacy (assistant minister role) at one of the large 'flagship' conservative evangelical churches in an affluent suburb or university town. Then, once their CofE ministries were underway, they could gun for a vicar or rector job at one of the big flagship churches.

These churches need pastors of course. But the problem with careerist jostling for position is that it runs counter to the example of the Lord and Saviour who "did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10v45 – NIV).

It is arguable that these large churches could become part of the solution to the pride problem if they were to leave the CofE and spread out in smaller units, each with their own pastor, across the towns and cities where they are located.

There has also been a pecking order problem in the big-platform conservative evangelical conference circuit. At the height of his influence, a thumbs up from Fletcher could see an aspiring preacher getting one of the headline speaker slots. But a thumbs down could see him off the bill next time around.

So, it would seem that Fletcher would not have had the power he had among conservative evangelicals without the cancer of careerism in their midst. Could Lee Furney's prophetic warning from his own experience of an abusive personality cult help produce the fruit of repentance?

Julian Mann is an evangelical journalist based in the UK and author of Christians in the Community of the Dome.