From the shadows

The Roys Report is a podcast run by Julie Roys with a particular focus on bringing abusive behaviour in the church into the light. Julie is doing an important job but even still she has a responsibility to get things right.

I was among a few people who questioned her reporting of the Jonathan Fletcher case in which she described Fletcher as something akin to the pope of conservative evangelicalism.

If your response to that statement is “what do you mean eading evangelical, I never heard of him?” You are not on your own.  I grew up within Evangelicalism, at University I attended one of the large Conservative Evangelical Anglican churches, I was a member of an FIEC church and I’ve regularly attended the Keswick Convention, one of the major evangelical Bible festivals. I studied at Oak Hill and then pastored an evangelical church for ten years.

I can hand on heart say that the first I knew about either Jonathan Fletcher was when news about the abuse cases came out.  Some “leading evangelical” indeed. Furthermore, it was only when I went to theological college that I became aware of the Iwerne Camp strategy.  I remember being shocked at the concept just as I found it so weird to be asked by people “which camp did you go to?” 

I did some checking back in case I’ve missed something. Fletcher does not appear to have been up there as a prominent and prolific author.  He was interviewed by The Briefing (an Australian based journal) in about 2006 and he was asked to do the Bible talks in the early days of Word Alive. However, that’s about it. There are Christian leaders with a far stronger claim to be the leading UK evangelical, even the leading conservative evangelical!

I say this not to minimise the horror, size or significance of what has come out but to emphasis it further. You see, the current narrative is that abusive and sinful behaviour is about one or two celebrity pastors letting fame go to their head and using that power and popularity for evil. But the Fletcher case is different to the Ravi Zacharias and the Bill Hybels cases.  So, it is important for us to understand what makes it different.

In response to Julie Roys I argued that the problem with Fletcher is that whilst not famous and at all known to most of us, it is obvious from the testimony coming out that within a certain circle within evangelicalism he had a lot of influence and power, in the background, in the shadows.

It is exactly from within the shadows that fear comes. It is exactly within the shadows, in the dark places out of sight where evil happens.  Furthermore, this perhaps helps explain why we have this dichotomy where people are saying “I’m afraid” and others are saying “but there is nothing to be afraid of.”

You see, it is unsurprising that senior and prominent people will react to something like this by saying (with complete integrity) that they just simply could not envisage a situation where not only the abuse itself but also the circumstances leading up to it would be acceptable.  Yet, such things were happening right under their noses, right under our noses, just a little out of sight in the shadows.  Indeed, that’s exactly how that type of power and fear functions.  The abuser relies on having the friends in the limelight who would not even be able to suspect a friend of such horrors. It’s how they can have the confidence to tell victims that they won’t be believed, they will be the ones suspected.

Furthermore, by recognising that there are people who have influence from the shadows, in the background is perhaps to alight on one of the specific cultural challenges that we have in the English church context.  Culturally, we are a nation of deputies, a nation of people who prefer to operate in the background. In national terms, we are happy to be the nation working in the background to support, act for but also moderate and control the behaviours and actions of the US (whether that’s the reality, it is what we like to tell ourselves is happening).  And, it’s the type of role that suits the natural introverts who seem to frequently be called into ministry.

At its best, this is a good thing when it encourages servant hearted leadership. Humility is a positive attribute, and we should encourage it.  We should not be seeking after the limelight. It is good when the focus is on God’s Word rather than the preacher, the vision/idea rather than the visionary, the pastoral or gospel outcome rather than the pastor.

However, just as Bill Hybels once observed that we can allow shadow visions to corrupt good and healthy visions, so too we can allow shadow ambitions to do the same with good ambitions. It is a good ambition to want to be the man in the background, to be the no 2 in an organisation, to assist and support. However, the shadow ambition here can be to be the puppet master, pulling the strings and to have a level of influence and power without the transparency and scrutiny. When that shadow ambition takes over, we are in danger.

So, It is as important to test humble ambitions as well as those that court attention.  It is important that we remember there are different ways to exercise influence and power and to check that all power is accountable and used for good. it is important to say that whilst not everyone should be in the limelight, everyone and everything should be in the light.

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