Church Society and Jonathan Fletcher: Unanswered Questions

Last year, I co-wrote two Medium posts about the response of British conservative evangelicals to Stephen Sizer’s antisemitism. Both mentioned Church Society. The first mentioned Church Society as one of many conservative evangelical organisations which had failed to respond appropriately. The second focused on Church Society itself – in particular, on the apparent dishonesty of its Director, Rev Dr Lee Gatiss. At the time of writing, Church Society has not responded publicly to the second post.

If you’re someone whose eyes just glazed over at the word “antisemitism”, the next few sentences are for you. We’re not talking about the kind of antisemitism which comes with swastikas and straight-armed salutes. We’re talking about the left-wing version – the kind seen in the Labour Party in recent years. You can read more about that in the books of Dave Rich and David Hirsh. (Alternatively – although he takes a somewhat different tack – get hold of David Baddiel’s new book.) 

This blog post, however, is not about antisemitism. It’s about something more basic: truth. And it revolves in particular around Church Society’s connection to a very different scandal: that involving Jonathan Fletcher. 

On 1 July 2019, Church Society announced that it had removed Jonathan Fletcher from a role with the linked Church Society Trust. The full announcement can be read here. The key part for our purposes is the first paragraph, which is reproduced below – in particular, the two bits which I have numbered and underlined. These beg two questions: (1) What was Jonathan Fletcher’s role with the Church Society Trust? and (2) When did Church Society’s council become aware of the allegations about him?

  1. What was Jonathan Fletcher’s role with the Church Society Trust?

Church Society’s statement simply says that Fletcher was “previously involved in the Church Society Trust, though not as a Director”. No further information is given. However, in November 2020, current Church Society council member Tom Woolford stated that Fletcher had been “a trustee of the Church Society Trust at the time the scandal broke.”

Church Society Trust is both a charity and a company. This means that the same people act as both its trustees and directors, owing overlapping responsibilities under both charities and companies legislation. According to a search of the organisation’s directors on the Companies House website, Jonathan Fletcher was never a director, which must also mean that he was never a trustee. Tom Woolford’s claim therefore contradicts Church Society’s claim of 1 July 2019. 

The question therefore remains. What was Jonathan Fletcher’s precise role with the Church Society Trust? In particular: was it a role in which he was able to pursue his harmful activities? 

  1. When did Church Society become aware of the allegations regarding Jonathan Fletcher?

Church Society’s statement of 1 July 2019 says that Jonathan Fletcher was removed from his (unspecified) role “after we saw this letter” – by which they mean the letter of 1 April 2019, which is reproduced in full below. 

Once again, Church Society’s statement obscures more than it reveals. Firstly, Church Society do not tell us exactly when they saw that letter. Secondly, “He was removed from this role after we saw this letter” is not the same as, “He was removed from this role as soon as we became aware of the allegations against him”. The two are not necessarily synonymous.   If we look at the letter of 1 April 2019, some troubling questions arise, because three of the signatories had a connection with Church Society, and – by their own words – knew about Fletcher’s abusive activities sooner. 

The first signatory, Rt Revd Rod Thomas, Bishop of Maidstone, became Church Society’s President when it merged with Reform and the Fellowship of Word and Spirit in May 2018. He has recently stated that he first became aware of Jonathan Fletcher’s abusive activities in September 2018

The second signatory, Revd Robin Weekes, Minister of Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon, has been a member of Church Society’s Council since May 2018. By this time, he was already aware of allegations regarding Jonathan Fletcher made in early 2017. According to the 31:8 Independent Lessons Learned Review, he had also been informed of the removal of Fletcher’s Permission To Officiate in November 2017. A further disclosure was made to him in September 2018.

The third signatory, Revd William Taylor, Rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, London, was a member of Church Society’s Council between July 2018 and October 2020. He has said that he first became aware of Fletcher’s abusive activities in February 2019.

In summary, all three men had a Church Society connection; and all three knew about Fletcher’s abusive activities some time before the letter of 1 April 2019. This raises an obvious question: why, then, was Jonathan Fletcher removed from his (unspecified) role with Church Society Trust only after Church Society’s Council saw that letter, and not earlier? 

To this question there can only be two possible answers. 

The first is that none of the three shared their knowledge with Church Society’s Council. If so, why didn’t they tell the Council? Their silence allowed Jonathan Fletcher to continue to receive and accept ministry invitations. 

The second possible answer is that at least one did mention it, but the Council nonetheless did nothing about it before seeing the letter of 1 April 2019, and then did not announce it until 1 July 2019 (the date of Church Society’s statement). If so, why did the Council remain silent?

Only the members of Church Society’s Council know which of those two possible answers is correct. Based on this recent blog post on Church Society’s website, they should be keen to volunteer the truth. Sadly, however, based on their conduct in relation to the Stephen Sizer scandal, they are unlikely to do so any time soon. 

Update 1: 

Church Society have updated their statement of 1 July 2019 with an addendum dated 1 April 2021, which is reproduced in full below (emphasis added). The addendum leaves unanswered the question as to why, given that its President and two Council members knew of the Fletcher abuse before 1 April 2019, Church Society did not act sooner. Additionally – assuming I have deduced correctly (and I am happy to be corrected) – the part I have emphasised would seem to suggest that Fletcher was re-appointed as a Church Society Trust member by a meeting of Church Society’s Council in the summer of 2018, despite at least one Council member, Robin Weekes being aware that he had already lost his PTO. Fletcher was not removed from that position until a year later.

Addendum

Various questions of detail have been raised about Church Society and Jonathan Fletcher since this blogpost. So this is just to clarify our previous statement about this from 1st July 2019 (above).

Like Church Society itself, the Church Society Trust has both members and trustees (also sometimes called directors). Jonathan Fletcher was previously a member of both, but not a trustee or director.

Directors of the Church Society Trust are the ones responsible for exercising the patronage duties of the Society. Those who are members of the Trust can assist the Directors if they have local knowledge or contacts relevant to a particular post. Occasionally they are able to deputise for Directors in certain circumstances, at meetings or presentations.

In the autumn of 2013, Dick Farr (Chairman of Church Society Trust) had a conversation with Jonathan Fletcher about the CST parish of St Mary’s Summerstown where Mr Fletcher was attending since his retirement, as the vicar of St Mary’s was also considering retirement. That same autumn, Mr Farr couldn’t make a meeting to do with the CST parish of St Peter’s Woking and it was decided at the CST Directors’ meeting that if Mark Burkill (another CST Director) couldn’t go either, they could ask Mr Fletcher as a member of Church Society Trust “to attend on our behalf.” He was then involved in that appointment. At the Church Society Trust meeting on 21st April 2015 we also noted that he had been appointed, but not by us, as Associate Minister at Summerstown, and would therefore look after the interregnum there. The last reference we have in our records to this ongoing situation is from a meeting Dick Farr had with the Archdeacon there in February 2017.

From a letter dated 1st April 2019 by Rod Thomas, William Taylor, Robin Weekes, and Vaughan Roberts which said that Jonathan Fletcher no longer had Permission to Officiate in the Church of England, it became clear to us that it was inappropriate for him to be in a position to possibly act on our behalf in such a situation again. Consequently, at the next Church Society Council meeting on 13th June 2019, Mr Fletcher ceased being a member of Church Society Trust (the members of which are simply appointed by the Council at this meeting annually).

There was very little detail in that 1st April 2019 letter. However, some further allegations about Mr Fletcher’s behaviour were released at the EMA conference on 27th June 2019 and in Church Times on 28th June 2019. We made people aware in this blogpost of 1st July 2019 (above) that we had removed him from Church Society Trust membership, and pointed people to various places they could go for help and support and further thinking about this.

As details continued to emerge, the Chairman of Church Society, Andrew Towner, then wrote to Jonathan Fletcher informing him that we were taking steps towards the removal of his CS membership in accordance with our Articles of Association, on 5th August. He wrote back, in a letter dated 7th August 2019, to resign from Church Society, with the effect that we no longer needed to convene a special meeting to hear and remove him.

I note there have been other questions about Mr Fletcher’s donations to Church Society from a charitable trust. These were his membership fee (paid by all members of the Society) and the price of attendance at our annual AGM (£10).

This evening we prayed again for all the victims of Jonathan Fletcher, and for the church in Wimbledon, in our weekly online prayer meeting. Our main concern, as in the original blogpost above, is for them.

Lee Gatiss

1st April 2021

Update 2:

In the comments below this blog post, Church Society Council member Tom Woolford (aka ptolemytortoise) has shed more light on the situation. He also states that Church Society will make a further update next week (w/c 6 April 2021). This blog post will be updated, as and when that happens.

Update 3:

I have been told that Robin Weekes is no longer on Church Society’s Council, though this is not yet reflected on the websites of Companies House, the Charity Commission or Church Society itself.

Update 4:

Church Society have circulated a news update, dated 5 April 2021. This states, “There is no suggestion that Jonathan’s connection with Church Society was linked with or enabled the abusive behaviours documented in the 31:8 review. However, we recognise the call for reflection throughout the conservative evangelical constituency and leadership as entirely appropriate and absolutely vital. We have called a special Council meeting to begin to consider the recommendations in detail and will keep our members informed as further action is taken.”

At the very least, Church Society will need to explain clearly why it was that two Council members and their President knew something of Fletcher’s abuse some time before 1 April 2019, but Church Society’s Council said nothing about Fletcher’s abuse until 1 July 2019.

Update 5:

As of 6 April 2021, Robin Weekes is no longer listed as a member of Church Society’s Council.

Update 6:

In this post of 7 April 2021, Church Society sets out a response to the 31:8 Review.

Update 7:

Nick Howard and I have written this post (dated 8 April 2021), which identifies the conduct of Church Society’s Chairman, Andrew Towner, as an example of the manipulative behaviour highlighted by the 31:8 Review.

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8 Responses to Church Society and Jonathan Fletcher: Unanswered Questions

  1. Hi James,
    Turns out I didn’t know how CST works. It, like CS, has ordinary members and directors. JF was a member of both and a director of neither. What CS said was accurate. Sorry for causing confusion by spreading my own confusion!

  2. Oh, PS Ptolemy Tortoise is me, Tom Woolford!

    • Thanks Tom. I’m surprised you don’t know more about the linked charity, but thanks for the clarification. I find it fascinating that Rev Dr Lee Gatiss’ addendum to his blogpost of 1.7.19 doesn’t address the issue of how it was that CS only acted against Fletcher in summer 2019 despite its President and two council members being aware of his abusive activities far sooner.

      • The President’s role is honorary/ceremonial; not hands-on at all. He chairs the AGM every other year and +Rod attended one council meeting a couple of years’ ago when we were mapping out what different parachurch Anglican evangelical things did. I *think* (but I don’t know!) that he doesn’t even receive council minutes. His presidency is rather more like the Queen’s presidency of the Royal Horticultural Society! He’s not briefing or being briefed by Council.
        The other two then-Council members certainly never mentioned anything to Council about JF before that letter was sent out. I agree that they should have.

      • We also have a number of linked charities and trusts. For instance, I’m the CS rep on the Central Blackpool Church of England Educational Trust. I know a fair bit about how that works. I’m sorry I misspoke about the CST. I’ve never been directly involved and didn’t know there was a distinction between members and trustees. Mea culpa

  3. If I was elected President of the super-duper merged con-evo-Ang super-organisation, I think I would let the council know about a key safeguarding issue, even if I was only an honorary president.

    Robin Weekes is still a Council member according to Church Society’s website, Companies House and the Charity Commission.

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