An Obfuscation Master Class

Turn it up to 1

After maintaining an Arctic silence for most of the last decade, the UK’s conservative evangelical establishment has finally started talking about the Stephen Sizer antisemitism scandal… quietly. First, the May issue of Evangelicals Now reported that Sizer was facing a new CDM. EN mentioned the criticisms made by me and Bernard Howard about the failure of conservative evangelical organisations to speak out or act against Sizer. It also included the little-known but ball-breaking quote of the late Mike Ovey, who, commenting on some of Sizer’s online posts, had said, “If a member of my Faculty had made these links, I would have had no course, nor inclination, but to dismiss them.” Quite conspicuously omitted, however, was any mention of mine and Bernard’s open-access article in the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism (JCA), titled “A Lesser Bigotry? The Conservative Evangelical Response to Stephen Sizer’s Antisemitism”. And whilst EN highlighted the commendable blog posts of Matthew Mason and Stephen Kneale, here again it included no actual links. Is this because those links shine an uncomfortable light on various influential organisations and leaders?

In EN’s June edition, there is a report on the commencement of the Sizer hearing, which again refers to criticisms made by me and Bernard, but again gives readers no indication of where those criticisms might be found or of the evidence on which they rest. There is also a letter from us, as well as one from Carl Chambers – with the editorial comment, “We regret that on the basis of legal advice it was necessary to redact some parts of the next two letters.” In each case, the details of our JCA piece are edited out. Whilst Stephen Sizer is known to have taken legal action against at least one Christian publication in the past, it’s hard to see how EN would be defaming him, or affecting the CDM process, by mentioning what has already been published elsewhere. Redacting our identification of two problems with evangelical leadership (the toleration of antisemitism, and a repeated refusal of evangelical leaders to face up to their own responsibilities) down to just one (the refusal to take responsibility), is arguably more sinister. There has, after all, already been at least one apparent attempt to conceal allegations in relation to this particular scandal, when someone connected with St Helen’s Bishopsgate edited one of my own tweets to hide the claim that Rev William Taylor attempted to intimidate a whistleblower

And then there’s John Stevens, National Director of the FIEC. In two segments of an FIEC podcast dated 27 May 2022, Stevens became only the second senior UK conservative evangelical leader to comment publicly on the Sizer scandal. (The first was Lee Gatiss of Church Society, whose input was – to say the least – questionable.) Stevens’ remarks warrant close attention – both for what he does say, and for what is conspicuous by its absence.

Segment 1 (16:49): “Stephen Sizer’s public hearing, and antisemitism”

At 17:27, Stevens summarises the claim of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, that Sizer is antisemitic, noting also Sizer’s strong denial. At 17:35, he describes the long-running debate about Sizer’s ministry. He observes that Sizer is renowned for being antizionist, adding (17:45), “That’s been characterised by some as being antisemitic.” He does not say who has done this “characterising”, nor the evidence upon which they base that claim, nor whether he himself agrees with them.

At 17:50, Stevens states, “At various points [Sizer] has linked to websites… that have been regarded as antisemitic, and complaints have been made about him… he has denied that he is personally antisemitic… in a couple of instances he has taken those posts down and has apologised for them”. Stevens does not mention the explicitly antisemitic nature of those websites (which included the Palestine Telegraph, Veterans Today, and The Ugly Truth), nor Sizer’s unpersuasive explanations for linking to them.

From 18:09-18:44, Stevens summarises the first complaint made against Sizer by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which was resolved in 2013, when Sizer agreed to regulate his use of social media. He then recounts (18:45) how the issue blew up again in 2015, when Sizer posted another link to a site which was “offensive to the Jewish community”. Stevens does not explain that the link was to a conspiracy theory website promoting the antisemitic myth of Israeli involvement in 9/11. He explains that this led to an investigation by the Bishop of Guildford, whom he pointedly (circa 18:55) describes as “an evangelical bishop” – a comment which stands out, because nowhere does Stevens mention that Stephen Sizer is an evangelical, still less a conservative evangelical with links to some of Britain’s most prominent and influential conservative evangelical organisations

Stevens relates the bishop’s conclusion, that the material which Sizer had linked to “was clearly antisemitic” but that Sizer himself was not antisemitic. He outlines how Sizer’s social media activity was controlled from then on. From 19:15, Stevens notes, “At a subsequent point [Sizer] then posted again, was banned from preaching and then he retired from ministry.” At 19:20, Stevens summarises the May CDM, informing listeners that the Board of Deputies has again claimed that Sizer is antisemitic; that Sizer claims he is not antisemitic, just antizionist; that some of the debates are about the meaning of antisemitism and when criticism of Israel crosses over into antisemitism; and that it will be some time before the results are known and any appropriate action is taken. 

At no point does Stevens himself express his own opinion on any of those salient questions.  For someone who has not been shy about calling on evangelicals to confront racism, who has recently given a “master class” on critical race theory, and who is certainly not shy of criticising the Anglican hierarchy, Stevens seems remarkably reluctant to state his own views on some of Stephen Sizer’s greatest hits, such as equating Israeli policy with the Holocaust, making distasteful allusions to Monica Lewinsky’s Jewishness, falsley claiming that British Jews (sorry, “Zionists”) are working alongside the EDL, captioning a gallery of photographs of Israeli soldiers with the title “Herod’s soldiers operating in Bethlehem today”, promoting the antisemitic myth that multinational companies “channel their profits to the Zionist agenda”, insinuating (at least twice) that Israel was complicit in 9/11, and so on and on and on and on

Segment 2 (20:07): “Does evangelicalism have a problem with anti-Semitism?

At the start of this segment, Stevens is asked, “Do we have a problem, in conservative evangelicalism, with antisemitism?” In response to this very specific and direct question, Stevens answers, “Well it is certainly the case that the church has historically had a long problem of antisemitism, and I think we need to recognise that.” He stresses that antisemitism is “utterly wrong” and “a form of racism.” He refers to the “absolutely appalling” antisemitism of Martin Luther, and the eviction of Jews from England in the Middle Ages (plus our readmission by Oliver Cromwell). He discusses the growth of antisemitism in contemporary society, both on the right (in the context of white supremacism) and on the left (in the context of the politics of the Middle East). He mentions the Church of England’s recent apology for historic antisemitism.

Only at 21:30 does Stevens address the question he was actually asked: “But I’m not aware of a range of claims being made of specific antisemitism on the part certainly of British evangelicals.” And indeed he may not be aware of “a range of claims” (plural), but he cannot fail to be aware of the specific, detailed and longstanding claim, made by Bernard and myself, that the failure of British evangelicals to address Stephen Sizer’s antisemitism is itself a form of antisemitism, akin to the headmaster who is alerted to the antisemitic bullying of a Jewish pupil but who fails to address it. Stevens is certainly aware of our blogs, because he has said so; he is also aware of our claim (which, needless to say, we can back up with evidence) that his ally William Taylor put Bernard’s job at risk in order to deter him from continuing to campaign on this issue. He cannot fail to be aware of the references to that campaign in Evangelicals Now, because he is an associate editor of that very publication. Yet no-one listening to him would gain the slightest inkling of it.

The segment ends (21:55) with Stevens saying, unprompted, that “Those of us watching don’t have all the information about the hearing… we’re slightly in the dark… we don’t necessarily know everything that is being watched from a distance.” He tells listeners that while there had been reports of the first day of the hearing, there had not been reports of subsequent days. Whilst it is true that the precise allegations made by the Board of Deputies at the outset of this particular hearing remain largely unknown, it is equally true that Sizer’s own conduct has been extensively reported in the national media, and indeed formed part of the backdrop to both the 2017 and 2019 General Elections. Once again, listeners would gain very little inkling of this from Stevens’ comments. 

Overall, Stevens’ remarks constitute – so to speak – an obfuscation master class.

Bold as a lion?

However, Stevens’ most interesting words are at the start of the first segment (17:20) where, entirely unprompted and without being asked, he stresses, “I’ve never met Stephen Sizer, I’ve never been at anything he’s ever spoken at, I don’t know him”. I always find this sort of unprompted defensiveness fascinating, because it gives me the impression that there is something to hide – a view which the Bible seems to confirm. This of course begs the question as to what it is that Stevens might be seeking to hide. It could be the fact that he was one of several senior British conservative evangelical leaders contacted about the Sizer scandal by an imploring Bernard Howard in January 2015, and that he failed to reply. Or maybe it was his comment, from the same period, that he was “glad that the CofE [was] taking swift action to investigate and… would hope that when they have reached their conclusions others [would] act appropriately”. Yet despite the various steps since taken by the CofE, not a single UK conservative evangelical organisation or senior leader has ever publicly condemned Stephen Sizer – a state of affairs of which Stevens must be aware. 

Given his own stature within British evangelicalism, it would have been easy for John Stevens to say to William Taylor in 2015: “We don’t trust the CofE to handle this well. Sizer is a public nuisance who never learns his lesson. It’s time to chuck him out of the South East Gospel Partnership.” His failure to do so, and an acute awareness of the similar failings of his fellow senior leaders, is the most logical explanation both for his pervasive obfuscation and for his opening statement of denial. It’s still not too late for John Stevens – and for those other senior leaders – to apologise to Britain’s Jews for that failure. 

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