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Press: Forceful personality raises troubling questions

28 February 2020


The Revd Jonathan Fletcher, in a 2016 video made by Moore College, Sydney

The Revd Jonathan Fletcher, in a 2016 video made by Moore College, Sydney

SATURDAY morning brought two dispiriting stories of sexual abuse within churches, and one quietly cheering account of a parish doing something practical about it.

The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail broke the story that an internal investiga­tion had found Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community, guilty of abusive sexual relationships with six women over a period of decades. Beyond the inevitable sadness that yet another saint had turned out to be human in unpleasant ways, there are a couple more un­­comfortable reflections to be had.

I met him only once. It was quite enough to be touched by the force of his personality. He didn’t strike me as a sexless man at all, and, in the absence of a wife, I rather assumed that he must be gay. In that case, any relationships he might have had would necessarily have been secret. I speculated no more on that side of his life, but thought on the good things, and on the power and self-control required to live out his ideas.

But the existence of a personality so forceful and dominating raises another troubling ques­tion. How many relationships can such a person have which are not potentially abusive, or, at the very least, marked by a great imbal­ance of power? To learn from people with disabilities is a radical idea, but to learn from those who want to worship you may be even more difficult.

Perhaps that is the strongest argument for a married, monogamous priesthood. Few things rub off a tendency to worship more effectively than marriage. The prominence of wives in some kinds of Evangelical leadership may be a tacit acknowledgement of this point. (I have encountered too few women who had that type of spiritual leadership to feel confident gener­alising about them.)

The second point is that the L’Arche com­munity faced up to the problem squarely, which is, in a way, a testimony to what Vanier accomplished. It’s not what he would have wanted, but it is what his ideals would have demanded.

THE Jonathan Fletcher story shows no willing­ness on the part of his followers to face things squarely. Martin Bashir had a shocking piece in the Telegraph about his own experiences as a peripheral congregation member.

Bashir became concerned that one member of the congregation, a businessman with a record of both jail and bankruptcy, was managing the savings of another parishioner, and wrote privately to Mr Fletcher asking him to stop him. But, no: “I assumed that Fletcher would have a quiet word, the monies would be returned, and the matter resolved with no ill-effect upon anybody’s reputation.

“Instead, Fletcher not only showed my letter to the businessman, he proceeded to cast as­­per­sions upon my motives to other members of the congregation in a classic smear opera­tion.

“Having been shown what I intended as private correspondence, the businessman then wrote to me threatening a lawsuit.”

The kicker of the article, however, comes with the very last sentences: “I now understand why he acted in ways that seemed inexplicable at the time.

“During a telephone conversation on Thurs­­day morning with me, Jonathan Fletcher admitted that he had engaged in naked mas­sage sessions with him.”

THERE is only one Tagalog-speaking congre­ga­tion in the Church of England which I know of: at St John’s, Notting Hill, in west London. It played a part in the Financial Timess investi­gations into contemporary slavery.

“Elizabeth Canuday got away on the last Sunday of August 2016. Having been asked to pack the belongings of her Saudi employer’s family after a stay in London, Canuday . . . ended two years of overwork, underpayment and underfeeding by slipping through a throng of people and into the street.” She walked for a couple of miles through the streets, and then heard singing in her native language. She had found the congregation at St John’s. They welcomed her, took her in, and put her in contact with refugee organisations.

It would have made an entirely inspiring story were it not for the intrusion of the Home Office. In 2012, under Theresa May, the rules for domestic workers were changed to make it almost impossible for escaping slaves to work or settle legally in Britain. Ms Canuday is still trapped in a legal limbo, unable to work legally and threatened with deportation, because the Home Office affects to believe that she left the country with her passport (which, of course, her employers, or owners, kept) and then re-­entered Britain illegally.

The end may be the most shocking thing you read this week about the real power relations in the world: “In Saudi Arabia, her employer had paid her only around SR500 (about £100) a month, instead of the SR2,500 she was promised. But she says she was nevertheless able to remit SR100 or SR200 a month to her family.

“‘For the sake of my family, it’s better [if] I’m in Saudi,’ Ms Canuday says. ‘I’m suffering too much but [then] my family can survive.’”

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