Jonathan Fletcher responds to allegations of 'physical discipline'

Jonathan Fletcher

A retired Church of England minister has responded to allegations that he engaged in forms of "physical discipline" that amounted to spiritual abuse.

Jonathan Fletcher is accused of hitting men "on their naked backsides" and engaging in one-to-one massage with partially clothed or sometimes fully naked men as a form of "physical discipline in the context of discipling relationships".

The accusations were described in a statement delivered to hundreds of Christians at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly (EMA) this week by Rev Vaughan Roberts, minister of St Ebbe's Church, Oxford, Sarah Hall, safeguarding officer at Mr Fletcher's former church, Emmanuel Wimbledon, and Andrew Wales QC, who has been assisting the church in connection with the accusations.

Allegations first surfaced in 2017 and again in late September 2018, and "involved men hitting each other on their naked backsides with a trainer for failing to meet personal targets", Ms Hall said.

"This took place over a period of time; it happened infrequently; the number of hits was small; and we do not believe any physical injuries were sustained, though it has been described as very painful," she said.

Allegations concerning massage came to light in March this year, with those involved alleged "to have taken turns to massage each other", she added.

The disclosures were reported to the Diocese of Southwark and then to the police, but no further action was taken.

However, the Bishop of Southwark removed Mr Fletcher's Permission to Officiate as a result of the allegations - ministers need a PTO in order to continue preaching and officiating at services in their retirement.

Reform, of which Mr Fletcher was a former trustee, petitioned members of the evangelical group earlier this year to refrain from inviting him to minister in their churches over concerns about his alleged conduct.

The allegations were first reported in The Telegraph, at which time Mr Fletcher issued a denial.

In a statement to the Church Times on Friday, Mr Fletcher again denied any wrongdoing in light of the account given at the EMA.

He said that he had engaged in "light-hearted forfeits" with other members of a prayer group which were applied if they failed to meet spiritual targets.

"As part of a long-standing prayer group, I have in the past been involved in a system of mutual encouragement whereby we set ourselves targets in healthy and holy living and then imposed what I thought of as light-hearted forfeits if we failed," he said.

"These included going without chocolate, cold baths and school-type gym shoe punishments. Although at the time we definitely did not think we were doing anything wrong, I've seen since that it could have caused much harm both to individuals and to the reputation of conservative evangelicalism for which I am profoundly sorry. Needless to say, this activity has now stopped."

He admitted receiving massage from male friends but insisted it was not sexual in nature.

"In addition, a number of people are reporting that I have had naked massages with them," he said.

"I enjoy massage and benefit from it. To that end I regularly have it professionally administered. However, if I can avoid the cost by finding a male friend to administer, and in return receive, massage, I do.

"These sessions categorically do not have erotic or sexual overtones and I have never coerced or intended to coerce anyone into an arrangement. If any have felt pressurised by me to do this, I apologise.

"Again, I realise that in the position I have held in the past as an incumbent, it was unwise of me to involve anyone to whom I was also ministering and I apologise for doing so.

"I confirm that I no longer engage in public ministry."

The Diocese of Southwark has issued a statement in response to the reports in which it said that a "lessons learnt" review would be carried out in line with guidance from the House of Bishops. 

"Once the diocese was informed there was no criminal case to answer, the Bishop of Southwark commissioned an independent safeguarding assessment based on information available at the time," the statement reads. 

"It concluded that whilst there was no evidence from the assessment that Jonathan Fletcher posed a significant sexual or physical risk to children there was a risk of him behaving towards vulnerable adults who may be seeking his spiritual guidance in a manner which may be harmful.

"In consequence, he has not been allowed to officiate in the Church of England since and formal contact has been made with him to explain this.

"We have been alerted to further disclosures about Jonathan Fletcher's behaviour and the diocese is looking at taking further formal action working closely with the National Safeguarding Team and Emmanuel, Wimbledon."