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Leader comment: Finger points at conservative Evangelicals

26 March 2021

AS WITH people, so with organisations. Few would command respect, if any, were they to be judged by their worst behaviour. The Church as a whole would think it grossly unfair if people based their view of it on the abuse and prejudice exhibited by a minority (and would be horrified by the number of people who regard it in exactly that light). It is dangerous, then, to argue outwards from the accounts of abuse and mistreatment at Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon (“ECW” in the reviewers’ report, published on Tuesday). Yet this is precisely what the reviewers do, supported in a separate statement by members of the Independent Advisory Group, which was close to the investigation. The reviewers quite correctly concentrate on the activities of the Revd Jonathan Fletcher (who declined to participate in the review); but then argue that the factors that enabled him to operate unchecked extend far beyond a not-quite-parish church into the wider conservative Evangelical network.

The list of failings is damning: favouritism, the demand for unquestioning obedience, rule by charisma, the bequeathing and withdrawal of access to an inner circle, the exploitation of patronage (often in a literal sense), a lack of accountability, the “othering” of outside forces who might be expected to exercise oversight, warm fellowship followed by an escalating series of tests to prove that it is deserved, the calculated use of humiliation and fear to maintain loyalty, a sense of privilege, the “unfellowshipping” of people who are judged to have lost their attraction or usefulness, and an enforced code of silence, applied even to those who might ordinarily have been thought to have escaped the clutches of the leader. To label these factors as “cultic” is to put an undeserved religious gloss on them. What they most resemble is gang behaviour, found equally on south London estates and in the lavatories of public schools. What they least resemble, of course, is a healthy, humble, pastoral Christian community.

Wise leaders in the conservative Evangelical fold will recognise that there are particular susceptibilities in their branch of Christianity. It can be unkind to those who fail to conform to its codes; it likes to deal in certainties; it encourages fellowship that is close but can become closed; and it often defines itself in opposition to others, including other Christian traditions. This last tendency generates a defensiveness that discourages self-examination. Indeed, the ECW reviewers question whether leaders who overlooked Mr Fletcher’s behaviour are capable of addressing the “unhealthy culture” across the conservative Evangelical constituency, and whether they should not be considering their positions. The Church of England Evangelical Council is offering “a range of resources” on its website “to help Anglican Evangelicals in a time of lament”. We imagine that a more thoroughgoing response will be made in the near future.

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