Abuse and bullying in the church

Before Coronavirus struck, I wrote a few articles around the subject of abuse. I don’t want those articles to be lost to distant pre-virus memory. The pain and wait for justice for abuse victims is still there. So, I am going to start adding some of them here.

An ugly story close to home

If you’ve been reading the national newspapers or hanging about on social media you may have picked up on a quite disturbing story describing two men accused of systematic and sickening abuse, Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth. If you are not familiar with the evangelical Anglican scene then accounts of public schools and camps may all be just a little bit bewildering.

I thought I’d take some time to try and explain a little of this and provide some comment. Why? Well for two reasons. First of all because this is deeply relevant to all evangelical Christians in the UK because it goes to the heart of challenges about leadership and culture. Secondly because whilst this is a hard subject to look at, it is important that we do. We have read disturbing stories about prosperity teachers fleecing their congregations and of dodgy Catholic priests. It is easy to push those stories away as the result of bad theology and not really to do with us. We cannot ignore the current storm, it is far closer to home.

Nor do I think we need to ignore it.   Whilst this story is ugly and disturbing and may leave us feeling shaken, it is not something that has to shake our faith. It is a reminder of the full extent of sin and fallenness. It is a reminder that the church is not perfect and that our trust is in Christ alone. It is a reminder that we can talk honestly about sin, evil and mess exactly because of grace, because Jesus on the cross bore the penalty for our sin.

What are the allegations

The background to the story goes back to the early part of the 20th Century and a man called EH Nash (nickname Bash). He had a concern to reach Britain with the good news of the Gospel. He believed that the best way to do that was by reaching the movers, shakers and influencers. For him that meant reaching future politicians and captions of industry by sharing the gospel with public school boys. He began organising summer camps for boys from some of the most elite private schools in the country.  The camps were incredibly influential in the conversion and discipling of a number of future high profile church leaders including John Stott, Dick Lucas, David Watson and Nicky Gumbell.

In 2017, a story broke about John Smyth who had been one of the leaders of these camps, John Smyth had used his position to physically abuse a number of the boys.  Concerns had first been raised in 1982 but effectively hushed over. Smyth had been encouraged to leave the country and settle in South Africa.  

This year, a further story broke. Jonathan Fletcher who had been the vicar of Emmanuel, Wimbledon, a large and prosperous church in London heavily involved in church planting had also been accused of abusive behaviour with young men including naked beatings.  Whilst Fletcher may not be a famous name, he is recognised as influential in conservative evangelical circles, a former staff member at The Round Church Cambridge and St Helens, Bishopsgate,  he was also involved in the setting up of the Proclamation Trust..  Fletcher has been a mentor to many gospel ministers.

Whilst much of the focus is on Anglican Evangelicalism, there is a significant overlap with independent churches in terms of training, fellowship and mentoring. 

What are the concerns

There are two significant concerns here. First of all, is this just a few rotten apples or is there a wider problem? It is too early to make that call in terms of the number of actual abusers. However, as I will explain a little later on a number of people have been expressing concerns about aspects of evangelical culture which have increased the risk of such things happening.

Secondly, there is the failure to deal with allegations seriously.  People were alert to concerns about Smyth 30 years ago. Fletcher had in fact been suspended from preaching by his Bishop in 2017 but had continued to preach internationally by invitation. The sense that things were hushed up and swept under the carpet is disquieting.

Some thoughts and reflections

As alluded to above, some of us have been raising concerns about evangelical culture for some time. These include.

  1. An over eagerness to unthinkingly allow the culture of the world to shape our culture. This was seen in the “Bash camp” methodology of focusing on an elite in the hope that this would trickle down to the rest of society. The church bought into our class system and public school culture.  But we also see the same temptation in a lot of church growth and evangelism methodology as we risk aping the business world, marketing methods and pop culture. This does not mean that we cannot learn from others even those outside of the church but all we do must be subject to the authority of Scripture.
  2. Tribalism and cliques.  I have mentioned before that in some church circles one of the first things I’ve been asked is “What camp did you go to?”  This apes the “old school tie” culture of the class system.  Other questions about church affiliation are designed to identify whether you belong, whether you fit in with the right circles.  The language of tribe is actually used to describe different types of Evangelical -conservative, independent, charismatic etc.  As the walls go up and we surround ourselves with people who look, think and sound exactly like us it is much harder to be accountable and be challenged.
  3. The fear of confrontation. There are all sorts of reasons for this. The reality is that most of us don’t like to do it.  In fact church leaders can be so overwhelmed by the relentless challenges they face that confrontation with difficult characters is hard.  I think there is the added challenge in independent churches where leaders are combining their church role with demanding stressful jobs where there is already a lot of confrontation.  This can be accompanied by a naïve of the gospel, the hope that as soon as someone becomes a Christian they experience a sort of instant sanctification.  This sadly means that churches are ideal places for bullies and accusers to target. Rather than dealing with the bullies, the leaders become bullied themselves.
  4. We don’t hold on tightly enough to our beliefs!  We believe in the sovereignty of God and the work of the Holy Spirit however, if truth be told we too often lose grip on those great truths and become frustrated so we resort to other methods. I have spoken and written before about how churches become “Guilt Driven” instead of “Grace Driven.” This means that even unintentionally a church can have a bullying culture.
  5. Linked to this I don’t think we really know what it means to enjoy God’s grace. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that church discipline is a vital means of helping to restore sinners, protect the church and encourage spiritual growth. However, I wonder if too often the methods of correction have a feel of “shame and shaming” about them.  If this is the church culture then it will affect how families bring up their children and it will give cover to the extremes of abuse resorted.
  6. Conversely we don’t treat the church discipline side of things seriously enough.  It is shocking that Fletcher was still being allowed to preach (I suspect he hid behind suspicions about the theology of his bishop). I can tell you that it is very rare for another church to contact us when one of our members has gone to join them this has included where there have been significant pastoral concerns and on one occasion where we had removed the person from membership due to serious sin.
  7. We are suspicious of the Law.  I think this comes with the sense of culture war but things like safeguarding rules and processes, employment law, charity law etc are seen as obstacles rather than there for our good.

Conclusion

All of the above paints a very bleak picture. In conclusion I want to give a little advice and then return to reasons for hope.

First of all, if you have been the victim of abuse you should report it to the police. Your abuser is committing a criminal offence and true repentance on their part will include a willingness to face justice.

Secondly, we need to be open to challenge.  I hope that as churches we are willing to face up to our own failings. No church is perfect, including Bearwood Chapel. So if there are things about our own culture and way of functioning that need to change, we want to talk about them (and act).

The reason for hope is this. No, the church isn’t perfect but we have a perfect saviour who we can cling to. Please don’t let the failings of his church distort your perception of him.  Yes the church is far from perfect but he is at work, cleansing her, preparing and perfecting her as his bride.

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