Pastoral Letter from Bishop Rod on the recent thirtyone:eight report – originally sent to incumbents of evangelical resolution churches

6th April 2021

Dear fellow ministers,

Despite the sense of fatigue associated with all the restrictions of the past few months, I do hope that the Easter period has left you and your congregations with a fresh appreciation of God’s self-giving love and joy in our gospel hope.

Much as I would like to reflect further on this, I do need to write to you about the recent thirtyone:eight report on Jonathan Fletcher and Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon. I hope you have had the opportunity to look at the report’s findings and recommendations – extensive as they are. For many of us it makes heart-breaking reading, not least for what some of those who have had to endure suffering, without feeling that they could turn to anyone.

Our first concern is rightly for the victims, and I hope you and the churches you serve will join me in praying for them over the coming months. They have shown courage in disclosing details of Jonathan Fletcher’s abusive activities, but have had to go through considerable suffering. The effects mean that this suffering continues.  We need not only to support them ourselves, but also commit them to the care and protection of our heavenly Father.

Next, and in the light of my own reflections on the report and the separate statement by the Independent Advisory Group, I want to offer you three assurances and ask you one question.

First, I want to assure you that I personally will be taking the findings and recommendations of the report very seriously. I am particularly troubled by what the report has to say about a climate of fear among conservative evangelicals, and the existence of closed circles which have inhibited people from drawing attention to misbehaviour, the inappropriate exercise of power, and abuse. The fact that I have never personally experienced this fear may well be an indication of my own lack of awareness – and I want to do something about that. There may well be things that I have not seen that I really should have seen, and I want to take this matter very seriously. I know that the ReNew network has committed itself to a process of listening, reflecting and repenting; I want to do likewise and to start by listening to what anyone has to say about experiences they have been through which have marked or damaged them.

If it would help, you are welcome to have a confidential telephone conversation with me personally (01342 834140) – or, alternatively with my Chaplain (Mark Wallace: 07772 615378), or Pastoral Advisers (David Banting: 0114 2305131 / Dick Farr: 01892 670888). Alternatively, each diocese will have its own arrangements, and you may find it more appropriate to talk with someone (such as the DSA) in the first instance. If ringing someone on the Maidstone Team, please remember not only that all conversations need to be subject to the usual safeguarding requirements, but also that it might be better to ring after 11th April as we have differing arrangements for post-Easter leave.

Secondly, I want to assure you that I believe it is right to hold myself to account and will also be following up those recommendations in the report that relate to the wider church. Specifically, I am a suffragan of the Archbishop of Canterbury and am accountable to him. Accordingly I have written to him with a full account of how I first came to hear of Jonathan Fletcher’s abusive behaviour in September 2018 and what I did in the months that followed. In my letter, I made clear that if he believed I had acted inappropriately, I would resign.

In his reply to me, which I have been given permission to quote, the Archbishop said:

‘I am very grateful to you for writing so fully and openly to me about your knowledge of the events around Jonathan Fletcher.  It is a shocking and tragic matter and as you rightly identify it is very important for us to listen carefully to all who have been abused and all who feel their trust has been ruined and are concerned about how they move forward.  I am very glad to learn of the steps you have taken and are continuing to take.  It is a gospel imperative that we care for all and value all and so ensuring we are a safe church for all is a key part of our calling. I am very pleased that you are writing to the clergy and do pass on my own concerns about these matters.  I want also to thank you Rod for the leadership you are showing in this regard and pray for you in all that you are undertaking.’

Separately, I intend to pursue those recommendations in the report that relate to the sharing of information when a clergyperson’s permission to officiate (PTO) is withdrawn. This has been the cause of much misunderstanding. The GDPR requirements of confidentiality that apply in these cases mean that third parties seldom hear of the reasons for such a withdrawal – if they hear at all. This situation does not encourage proper adherence to PTO requirements. In my own case, I had pastoral responsibilities at Emmanuel but no safeguarding oversight; this meant that to a substantial extent, I was treated as a ‘third party’.

As a result, I am currently seeking a meeting with colleagues in the national church, including the Interim Director of the National Safeguarding Team, in order to explore whether clearer and more effective arrangements can be introduced. I shall also be seeking a meeting with thirtyone:eight in order to understand more fully the concerns they themselves have voiced.

Thirdly, I want to assure you that I will do everything I can to help local churches – whether they are parish churches or congregations in non-parochial settings – to assess their own policies, practices and behaviour and together build a more healthy culture. In a few weeks I hope to release the results of a survey of female ministers (both voluntary and paid) and produce guidance materials on how we can better promote the flourishing of all who minister in our churches, both men and women. I shall also be working to establish a lay-led ‘Implementation Group’ to assess the help that is available to parishes as they seek to build and maintain healthy cultures and to commission extra assistance if necessary. Further information on this will follow soon.

Lastly, my question. Will you join with me in seeking to build a healthy culture so that, together, we can expose what is wrong (Ephesians 5:11); care for one another; act in obedience to the apostolic command to ‘keep your conduct honourable’ (1 Peter 2:12); and enable presbyters to be ‘well thought of by outsiders, so that (they) may not fall into disgrace, into the snare of the devil’ (1 Timothy 3:7)?

If so, there is some immediate action to take. I want to encourage all leaders (lay and ordained) to read the thirtyone:eight report carefully and to take time to consider the broad recommendations (cf. #29-66) in the most appropriate way. In doing so, as an immediate priority, it might be helpful to find a way to ensure that all licensed clergy in your parish remind themselves of their duties as laid out in the Ordinal, and as expressed very helpfully in the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy. These guidelines are helpfully available for free online via https://www.churchofengland.org/resources/clergy-resources/guidelines-professional-conduct-clergy).

Clearly, all the recommendations need to be carefully worked through and implemented, but there are a number which can be immediately addressed. For example, it would be good to:

  1. consider the extent to which your parish has a working and effective whistle-blowing policy (#42);
  2. ensure your parish has an understood framework for any personal work in which it is engaged, with clear PCC guidance around it (#49);
  3. double-check that your parish has an effective working relationship with the diocesan safeguarding department (#53);
  4. ensure that any Ministry Trainees, Apprentices, and other employees are being supervised appropriately (please take note of recommendation #59);
  5. ensure that any and all visiting clergy hold current PTO from their Diocesan (#60) through the appropriate channels;
  6. ensure that all clergy’s dealings with the media, and use of social media in particular, conforms with the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy (#63-66), and pay proper regard to the feelings of victims of abuse.

There will be more to say about the Report’s findings and recommendations over the course of this year and beyond. However, as we now prepare for more opportunities to gather together physically in our church buildings, I do hope that this will happen at a manageable pace and that despite all the present difficulties we will be able to rejoice not just in gathering together but also in encouraging one another and stirring one another up ‘to love and good works’ (Hebrews 10: 24-25).

I would be grateful if you would share the contents of this letter with your Churchwardens, your PCC or Church Councils, and members of your own staff team.

With best wishes

Rod Thomas
Bishop of Maidstone

 

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