Invoking and Distancing from Sacred Authority: Church Leaders’ Responses to a Report on the Rev. Jonathan Fletcher

This post forms part of a catalogue I am building on the subtle language of abuse. In this installment, I consider a common discursive strategy within texts that carry religious meaning: the invocation of sacred legitimating authority and, conversely, distancing from an illegitimate (often formerly sacred) authority. This strategy often works within an overall us vs. them narrative. To illustrate this, I use a set of prominent church leaders’ responses to the recent thirtyone:eight report on Rev. Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse while he was vicar at Emmanuel Church Wimbledon.

As I read the thirtyone:eight report, published on 23 March, detailing an investigation into former vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon Jonathan Fletcher’s horrific abuse of many victims over many years,
As I learn about Fletcher’s relationship to John Smyth’s likewise violent and sadistic abuse, even alleged murder of one victim,
As I read about the culture that enabled these men’s violence,
And as I’ve been reading various responses to the thirtyone:eight report, one dynamic among those close to Jonathan Fletcher has stuck with me:

distancing from de-legitimised sacred authority
and
claiming sacred legitimating authority.

A key part of analysing texts is getting to grips with who is mentioned, who is *not* mentioned but who is nonetheless important, and where in the text and in what ways various actors are mentioned. These linguistic choices reveal how an author wants us to think about various social actors and how they want us to think about the author themself.

In a text that carries religious meaning, this takes on a whole new significance since recognising, claiming, wielding and rejecting authority is a significant aspect of doing religion. In my book I talk about this as sacred legitimating authority.

What is important is that the [sacred legitimating] authority has the following qualities: the authority is admired as an exemplar of sacred ideals and practices, and the authority is accepted to a level that it is difficult to question. Appealing to authority works in affirming a way of thinking and living because of that authority’s sacred status …

Hobbs, 2021, p. 57

Drawing close to sacred legitimating authority people, texts and ideas is a form of strategic positioning. In appealing to authority, an individual or a community takes on some measure of sacred authority for themselves. They are no longer an individual but an individual on good authority.

But what happens when someone’s authority comes into question? In a scandal or some other kind of crisis, one thing to look out for is the ways people close to a questionable authority figure begin to talk about that person and their relationship with him or her. Rejecting or distancing from a person whose standing in a community is in doubt is often strategic, particularly if the person talking has previously been close to that questionable figure.

Let’s now look at the ways a few key figures in the Jonathan Fletcher case have talked about their relationship with Fletcher and their involvement in the culture that propped up his abuse. A recent IAG statement names all of these men, who are:

Revd Robin Weekes (Vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon),
Revd William Taylor (Rector of St Helen Bishopsgate),
Right Revd Rod Thomas (Church of England), and
Canon Vaughan Roberts (Chair of Proclamation Trust).

I will also be briefly considering a statement by Rev. John Stevens (FIEC National Director).


Revd Robin Weekes, Current Vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon

We begin with a series of statements by Revd Robin Weekes, current vicar of the church where Jonathan Fletcher bullied and abused his congregation for many years. Unlike others central to the Fletcher case, Weekes’s set of responses to the thirtyone:eight review has been spread across a variety of media outlets, including the Telegraph and Channel 4 News (both on 23 March 2021).

In his interview for Channel 4 News (transcript below), Weekes distances himself from Fletcher, first, by not explicitly mentioning the relevance or nature of his relationship with Fletcher. And second, by pushing back on the notion that he and others “deliberately” “facilitated” an abuser while acknowledging he had “inadvertently facilitated an abuser.” This admission is crucial in light of other church leaders’ quick expressions of confidence in their ability to safeguard, as we shall see shortly. Whether deliberately or inadvertently facilitated by the church culture, Jonathan Fletcher abused many victims over a significant period, on Weekes’s watch.

Weekes’s words in The Telegraph give more detail and raise further questions about his complicity. In his statement there on the same day, Weekes acknowledges that in fact he did know about Fletcher’s abuse, that someone had told him, and that he had brushed it off as “simply how Fletcher operated.”

While I was a curate, a ministry trainee once told me that they found Jonathan Fletcher domineering. At the time, I wrongly told that person that this is just how Fletcher operated and we needed to adapt to his leadership style.

Weekes goes on to express remorse for this, along with his desire to “be a component of the optimistic change that’s occurring.” But more than this, he clarifies that he will remain in his position and “lead from the front in ensuring this never happens again.”

And here’s where sacred legitimating authority comes powerfully into play again. At the start of his interview, he says his “constant priority in responding to this situation has been for the needs of his victims, for whom I remain heartbroken.” However, after acknowledging his culpability in Fletcher’s abuse, Weekes invokes the sacred authority of the “full backing” he is “grateful” to have from “the elders, trustees and congregation.” He does not mention any backing of victims in his decision. Again, one wonders at his naiete and insensitivity towards victims, whom he is asking to trust him for safeguarding, when he has already failed.

*See also the Statement from the Trustees of the Proclamation Trust about the thirtyone:eight review concerning Jonathan Fletcher


Reverend William Taylor, Rector

Next we have Revd William Taylor who posted two statements, also on 23 March, the same day the thirtyone:eight report was made public. The first is a brief “Statement from the PCC of St Helen Bishopsgate on Wednesday 23 March” and the second, a longer “Safeguarding Policy Statement.” Immediately, I note the proportion here between these two sections.

In the first statement, in the first of only two sentences, William Taylor (via the collective “We” of the church) “unreservedly condemns the abuse committed by Revd Jonathan Fletcher.” There is no mention of Fletcher’s victims nor of any relationship Taylor had to Fletcher. In fact, Taylor does not distinguish himself from the Parish Church Council (PCC) at any point in this first statement. Nor his complicity in the culture surrounding Fletcher’s violence. Taylor’s distancing from the sacred (de)legitimating authority of Jonathan Fletcher is in this way both quick and final.

Note how his language next shifts into greater ambiguity as he prepares to transition into his safeguarding statement. As a church, they will “consider carefully” the review and “reflect prayerfully.” What parts of the review? Taylor doesn’t say. But they are going to pray as they reflect. So take comfort, reader. In hidden conversation with God, they’ll see where he leads.

And with that difficult-to-challenge, subtle invocation of God’s authority, Taylor moves straight into the safeguarding statement below, where he asserts, like Robin Weekes, on behalf of the church council, both willingness and ability to safeguard, the very things he and they have failed to do. Taylor includes his name at the end of the statement, the only time he distinguishes himself from the PCC.


Rt. Revd. Rod Thomas, Bishop of Maidstone

Revd. Rod Thomas, former member of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon when Fletcher was vicar, now Bishop of Maidstone, likewise issued a statement on 25 March, 2021, on the website associated with his episcopal office.

His statement begins by emphasizing he has only just accessed the thirtyone:eight review report and that he was never interviewed by the reviewers. Having suggested a lack of preparedness, he goes on to further frame his response with his personal feelings of being “very distressed,” and “very sorry.” The review is “disturbing” to him, and the “abuse it describes is deeply shocking.” Like others responding to the review, Thomas’s emphasis is on lack of knowledge and surprise, reactions that likewise signal distance from the abuse, and on how “very seriously” he will be taking the report.

More than any other statements I’ve seen, Thomas uses the personal pronoun ‘I’ frequently and acknowledges connections he has had to Jonathan Fletcher. He writes about having known Fletcher for decades, starting with his time as a member of Fletcher’s church.

But he communicates a growing distance from Fletcher, starting in 1991. He emphasizes the loss of contact, uses the word “encounter,” suggesting little to no engagement with Fletcher. This sets up the reader for Thomas’s statement that he did not have “any knowledge of his harmful activities.” Nevertheless, the variety of social and ecclesial contexts in which Thomas and Fletcher moved across together, considering the leadership role Thomas holds, one wonders not only, Did you know? but also, Should you have known?

These questions in mind, we meet the final two paragraphs where it becomes clear that like other men close to Fletcher, Thomas does not consider the thirtyone:eight recommendation that key figures step down to apply to himself. Also like others, he commits to build a healthy safeguarding culture, clearly stating that he himself will be central to this process and specifying meetings where this will begin to take place.


Canon Vaughan Roberts, Chair of Proclamation Trust
An organisation Fletcher was instrumental in founding

Finally, we have the rather different and somewhat longer “Statement from Vaughan Roberts on the thirtyone:eight review concerning Jonathan Fletcher,” posted on 26 March.*

The statement begins by linking to the thirtyone:eight review “on Jonathan Fletcher’s abusive behaviour.” This signals Roberts may be drawing closer to Fletcher’s abuse, a potentially deferential way to begin. Likewise, unlike William Taylor, Roberts explicitly names Fletcher, creating an opportunity for him to acknowledge any proximity to Fletcher’s abuse and any complicity in the culture that surrounded it.

However, my ears prick up at the sight of the word “shocking,” which in my view is a quick distancing strategy. I also note that this language also appeared in Rod Thomas’s statement. And notice that Roberts doesn’t say he himself was shocked. The it-construction renders this ambiguous. In this way, Roberts subtly steps away from Fletcher, positioning himself alongside other, less involved readers. Roberts’s language choices here suggest that he, together with other readers, is shocked to read about abusive behaviour he did not know about and was not prepared for. The reader is guided to assume Roberts had nothing to do with Fletcher’s “damage.” “Our [collective] hearts” go out to all victims, he says, again positioning himself within the safety of a group. In these ways, Roberts subtly primes the reader to minimise any of his potential, personal complicity in victims’ suffering.

Like William Taylor, like Robin Weekes, Vaughan Roberts next moves quickly into a reassuring statement of safeguarding, likewise distancing himself as an individual from Fletcher’s actions. At this point, Roberts speaks again not on behalf of himself, rather “as a church.” Roberts and his church are together safe for victims because “we take safeguarding very seriously.” Note the present tense, universalising the time frame of the safety of this church.
We take.
We make.
We fully comply.

All this distancing from Fletcher now well in place, Roberts moves into some detail about his relationship with Fletcher (below). But see the order here, beginning not with Roberts himself but with his admission that “Some of our members” are linked to Jonathan Fletcher. Roberts is an afterthought here. He acknowledges Fletcher preached at St. Ebbe’s, but this was “occasional.” Even more distancing here.

Roberts then moves into how the review raises the same set of issues whether someone knew Fletcher or not. Here, he creeps ever further away from Fletcher, rendering himself indistinguishable from those who have never even met Fletcher or hardly knew him at all.

In a subsequent section Roberts goes on to note that he has “sought to examine my own heart before the Lord for personal blind spots and failings and recognise that I still have much to learn.” In the next paragraph (below), Roberts also acknowledges he has “come from, and have been in a leader within, the background and network that has had a major influence in shaping the culture.” He goes on to say that he will be stepping down from his role in the Proclamation Trust, an organisation Fletcher was instrumental in founding.

But again, Roberts does not mention Fletcher anywhere in this, again distancing himself from the center of abuse. He further minimises any suspicions that his stepping down is due to the thirtyone:eight review by drawing close to the sacred legitimating authority of the thirtyone:eight reviewers. “I have been fully accountable,” Roberts asserts.

Roberts is correct that the review does not explicitly express concern about him. But neither did the reviewers name any other specific individuals in its pointed recommendation that,

those having played a key role in the establishment and maintenance of that culture to no longer enjoy the influence they have had to date (i.e. considering their positions and stepping down).

p. 11

Roberts also here invokes the legitimating authority of John Stevens’s (lengthy) supportive statement, which Stevens posted only one day prior, his second statement in two days! Without going into great detail on Stevens’s statements, I note that Stevens likewise distances himself from Fletcher, in this case somewhat bitterly. Stevens describes never being invited to Fletcher’s “private hand-picked events,” talks about “slight friendly rivalry” between his free church circles and the ones Fletcher moved in, and explains how he felt he was merely “a tolerated outsider. “I was never of any interest to JF,” he says.

What strikes me in Stevens’s supportive statement is the contrast he communicates between his own feelings of exclusion and his adamant defense of Vaughan Roberts. Unlike Fletcher, Roberts did include Stevens, did seek Stevens council. “In essence,” Stevens writes, Vaughan Roberts asked him “to be a ‘conscience’ of the group and to witness whether it acted with integrity.” As a man who for a long time felt merely tolerated, even excluded from circles of influence, Stevens comes across as a man who feels finally seen and appreciated.

Having distanced himself from Fletcher and wielded the legitimating authority of the reviewers and of Stevens, Roberts closes his statement with a call to remember the victims. On its own, a noble and right thing to do. In light of the rest of his statement, particularly the over-confident safeguarding statement, as an expert reader I find this last section disengenous.

*See also the Statement from the Trustees of the Proclamation Trust about the thirtyone:eight review concerning Jonathan Fletcher


Given the patterns across these prominent church leader’s statements, their distancing from the now illegimate authority of Jonathan Fletcher, their minimisation of their own complicity, their confident assertions that victims can now trust them to safeguard, I wonder in what concrete ways they intend to, in the Rt Rev Rod Thomas’s words, “take very seriously” the thirtyone:eight reports’ “lessons for the wider church.”

2 thoughts on “Invoking and Distancing from Sacred Authority: Church Leaders’ Responses to a Report on the Rev. Jonathan Fletcher

  1. This was an interesting analysis. I found it via Twitter and read the discussion first, and this is a response to that as well as the post. I’ve experienced spiritual abuse, and coercive control in a church. I’m not a fan of any of the people mentioned and don’t share their outlooks. But I had to ask myself “Could I have written a better response than these 5 statements?” and having tried the answer is “No”.

    It may be that the writers aren’t good at writing or expressing. What I would write to express my feelings at what happened would be heartfelt, but comes over as stiff and formal to others and is frequently misunderstood.

    I feel there is an assumption of bad faith in the responses. Robin Weekes’ quote as transcribed in particular stands out. I’d have said the same. Assuming I wasn’t there saying “Come on John, let’s…” I would not say I had facilitated what happened. I may have been blind to what was visible, ignored what I heard, or being a conev have the sensitivities of a rhino and impervious to what’s going on around me. All would make me an idiot, but not in my view a facilitator.

    Thanks, this was thought-provoking. If you are willing to do a follow-up, what would a good response look like?

    Like

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. You raise some good points here, thanks for that.
      1. It’s become clear that some of these leaders have been disengenous in their distancing of themselves from Fletcher, so my analysis of their language has been vindicated in some ways. I have learned that Bishop Rod Thomas, for example, was in small, monthly preaching group with Jonathan Fletcher as recently as 2019. But there is also the matter that I have been a linguist for about 15 yrs now, and I am trained to spot patterns in language. Whether these men meant to make such poor statements or not, they should’ve done better. This takes me to my next point …
      2. Though I thought thirtyone:eight shouldve recommended this church close, I found this statement by TCH elders to be better than most I’ve seen (and better than some individual TCH leaders’ statements).

      https://www.thecrowdedhouse.org/news

      What’s different about this statement is that they do not rush to reassure anyone that they are a safe church. That acknowledge that they, as a body, have failed. Not just Steve Timmis. In this way, they do not seek to distance themselves from Timmis or his behaviour, rather taking it on as their own failure. They acknowledge that time will be needed to reflect fully and learn from the report. They apologise to the victims and say that there may be other victims they don’t know about. Overall, their statement comes across as humble and repentant. Of course, time will tell if they really mean what they say, but what they have said is in stark contrast to the Fletcher statements.

      I hope this helps and thanks again for engaging.

      Like

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