The Jonathan Fletcher case: sex, power and abuse

Note: I wrote this blog post about two weeks ago. Due to personal and family circumstances since then, I have been taking some time off work. Therefore, there has been a gap between the writing and the posting. Apologies for the delay. 

There are times when I don’t want to be right. True, there are other times when I make a prediction and feel a bit smug when it turns out to be accurate. But in this case, I can’t help wishing I had been wrong.

It’s nearly ten years ago now since I was invited onto BBC Breakfast to talk about the sexual abuse scandal then engulfing the Roman Catholic Church. I predicted that it was only a matter of time before revelations emerged about levels of sexual abuse in other churches. I said to several people that there would soon be a major sexual abuse scandal in Protestant churches, including the Church of England, and that I was inclined to think that in many cases this would involve the abuse of adults rather than children.

Sexual abuse allegations in the Church of England have trickled out since then, but have now reached a critical level. In 2015, the Methodist Church announced an investigation into sexual abuse (to be fair to the Methodists, they did this pro-actively, before they were under much pressure to do so). In late December, the Daily Telegraph published the results of an investigation into leading evangelical Anglican priest Jonathan Fletcher, formerly of Emmanuel Church, Waterloo.

The Fletcher allegations have some unique aspects as well other features that are depressingly familiar. They are a reminder of how the abuse scandals in the Church of England are both the same and different to those that have become so familiar in the Roman Catholic Church.

Fletcher has been accused by five men who were members of his church in the 1980s and 1990s. They were adults at the time. Fletcher has admitted to much (but not all) of the alleged behaviour, though claims that it was neither abusive nor sexual, and that the men in question consented.

It seems that Fletcher ran small groups for church members to pray, talk and read the Bible together. Such an idea will be familiar to anyone who has belonged to a church house group or cell group. But these do not appear to have your average prayer-and-a-cup-of-tea set-ups. For one thing, the groups in question were single-sex, with all members being male. Secondly, they were designed to offer mutual accountability, with members confessing to each other if they had behaved in sinful or unhealthy ways.

Such an arrangement is not necessarily abusive in itself. Mutual accountability can be helpful and effective, if it is entered into freely and carefully by people who treat each other as equals. It is not likely to work if one member of the group is a charismatic leader, who chooses punishments for others (and himself) to undergo if they fail to keep to their commitments. Fletcher is alleged to have beaten the men across their naked bottoms and pressurised them into taking ice baths. Fletcher has admitted to the bare-bottom beatings but describes them as “light-hearted forfeits”. He also accepts that he proscribed cold baths as a punishment, but insists that this was only very occasional and that they did not involve ice.

In short, Fletcher has admitted to most of the behaviour. He has apologised for any hurt he caused, while insisting that the actions were consensual. It might well be that on some level be genuinely believed at the time that what he was doing was OK. But his argument about consent undermines his apology. How far is something consensual when one party is much more powerful than the other?

The definition of consent in this context is much debated. That makes it sound like an academic exercise, but of course this is a very real and practical case about behaviour that, according to the five men interviewed by the Telegraph, had lasting and deeply harmful effects on them.

Of course, bare-bottom beatings and such like can be meaningfully consensual in other contexts. There is nothing wrong, for example, with a loving couple spanking each other’s bottoms because they both enjoy it and when they enter into the action as equals with genuine freedom to say no or to change their mind at any point. Consensual kinky sexual behaviour can be an expression of love and affection. This is not what we are talking about in the case of Fletcher.

The issue is not whether Fletcher’s beatings and cold baths were “sexual” or not, but to what extent they were consensual and healthy. The five interviewees, alongside other former members of Emmanuel Church, talk of Fletcher as a larger-than-life figure who was treated as some sort of hero or saint and whose goodness and wisdom were difficult to question. If you belong to a church led by such a person, you may not be inclined to say when he tells you that a particular act will help you to move on from a sin about which you’re already feeling really bad.

Most (but by no means all) of the abuse scandals associated with the Catholic Church have involved children, as have many of those in other churches. The Fletcher case may seem different. But the child abuse in the Catholic Church continued in part because of priests who could hardly be questioned, and was sustained by a cover-up culture that refused to see priests as accountable for their crimes. As with Jonathan Fletcher, the priests in question operated in a situation of vastly unequal power.

Abuse in both cases is about power. It always is.

This is not to deny that there are differences, nor that there are other issues present. I am not for a moment trying to downplay the sexual nature of much abuse, nor the particular revulsion associated with the abuse of children. Among the differences, unequal power remains a commonality.

I am glad that there is an inquiry going on into Emmanuel Church. However, identifying the abuse in one particular church will not in itself lead to major change if there is not also a change of culture. And this can come about only with changes to church structures and theologies, so that the church functions as a community of equals, with no-one whose ideas or actions are beyond question, and no-one whose ideas and actions are ignored or marginalised.

Several times in his writings, the apostle Paul wrote of the Christian Church as being like a body. The head, the foot, the hand and all the other parts cannot function alone. Indeed, the parts are equally important. These passages are often read in church to emphasise that every person’s contribution should be valued. But this is not the only point that such passages seem to be making. At the time that Paul wrote, the Roman Empire was often compared to a body: the emperor was the head, with the ranks of society identified with other parts of the body, going downwards until reaching the feet, representing the poorest and supposedly least important people in the empire. Paul’s original readers undoubtedly knew this. They would have recognised his analogy as a subversion of the imperial myth. For Paul, and for Christianity, all the parts of the body, all the members of the church, are equals. This is a challenge to social, political and economic ideas that set some people above others.

At times, churches seem to function more like the body as viewed by the Roman Empire than the body as viewed by Paul. If everyone is equal, nobody should occupy a position of unquestioned power and authority. Of course, it is very hard for a church to function as a community of equals, especially in such an unequal society. But at the moment, most churches are not even trying. Equality involves hard work.

Until we do that work, until we ditch the theologies and political myths that uphold hierarchy and inequality, churches are likely to remain oppressive and abusive for many. Of course, abuse can happen even in a church striving to be a community of equals. But such abuse, are attempts to cover it up, are less likely. The nature of equality, consent, abuse and power would be discussed, with everyone helping each other to develop their understanding of such things.

There are many things we need to do to defeat abuse in the church. But if we don’t commit ourselves to building equality, many of them will be futile.

One response to “The Jonathan Fletcher case: sex, power and abuse

  1. The evangelical churches (including the CofE) I used to belong to made much of Paul’s ‘body’ analogy. Thirty years ago I realised that this was hiding hierarchical and patriarchal systems of power, which eventually led me to the Quakers. At the same time I noticed something never mentioned in those churches, which always preached 1 Corinthians 12 on the body analogy and 1 Corinthians 13 on love as though they were in entirely separate letters. In fact: ‘and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.’ (1 Corinthians 12.31b). So the ‘subversion of the imperial myth’ for Paul actually does not go far enough, for without love even being equals is not enough, for even then abuse can creep in.

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