“Smoother than oil”

The publication of the ‘lessons-learnt’ report commissioned by Emmanuel Church Wimbledon on the activities of their former vicar, Jonathan Fletcher, has stirred a lot of memories for me. And because they go round and round in my head, I have decided to write them down. This may be quite long, as I am going to try and untangle several threads.

The first thing I want to say is that I was never a victim of Fletcher’s. But I was exposed to Iwerne and its methods, and I think they did me no good, and it might be useful to others besides myself to understand what was going on and what I suspect still goes on far too much.

When I was seventeen, I had a very powerful experience of coming to faith in Christ. I was not a happy teenager at that time. My mother had died two years before and I was very bereft. I think I was also realising that I was not like the other boys, and that the story I tried to tell myself about homosexual attraction being a passing phase was a lie in my case. And there was no one to talk to about all of this. Besides, I could hardly talk to myself let alone anyone else.

I had grown up with a reasonable amount of conventional churchgoing. I had sung in a church choir. My very loving parents had considered sending me to a choir school, but somehow never did. I was a fairly thoughtful child and wondered about things, and had had some rather inexplicable spiritual experiences. But the death of my mother made me decide that God was probably there but that he was careless of the chaos of the world and its pains. So I was very angry about that.

A friend of mine had been to the Christian festival Spree ‘73 in the summer of that year and had heard Billy Graham speak. He was, as it happens, the only school friend to whom I had felt able to confide my deep unhappiness. When he returned to school in the autumn, he wanted to share his newly deepened faith. He did so with me, and I had an overwhelming spiritual encounter. It was my last term at school; I had stayed on after A levels to do Oxbridge entrance exams, as you did in those days. My spiritual experience completely threw me off balance – I remember being told that the staff room had discussed whether I should be referred to a psychiatrist. My kind housemaster, a down to earth Methodist, was understanding and patient, didn’t undermine my enthusiasm, and helped steady me. I completed the term and left.

When I got to university, I found it quite hard to settle down to study. My interior life was both very spiritual and very tormented by what seemed very fleshly and forbidden desires. One way of dealing with the latter seemed to be to concentrate on the former. I went to chapel, to the Christian Union in college and centrally, and to St Aldate’s Church. My spiritual experience the previous year had included a discovery of the charismatic movement, and St Aldate’s seemed open to that. But in reality, I was thrashing around, out of my depth, looking for a toehold.

One afternoon, quite early on in my first term, there was a knock at my door. It was an ordinand from Wycliffe Hall. He told me that someone had told some friends of his that I was coming up to the university, and that I was a Christian, and he wondered if I would like to do some Bible Study with him each week. I was a fairly trusting soul, and he seemed all right, and I didn’t like disappointing people (a big theme in life for me), so even though it didn’t sound very exciting to me, I said yes. And that was my introduction to Iwerne.

The ordinand and I studied our way through the Letter to the Romans over the next few terms. I am not sure how much I retained or understood, nor indeed, how much he understood, but I knew he wanted to be helpful. He was a kind man, and a sincere one as well. So even though I often thought I didn’t want to carry on doing this, I did, and got on my bike and pedaled up to Wycliffe. He encouraged me to go to the OICCU (University Christian Union) meetings as well – peopled by very earnest young men and women. They all had an unnerving facility for extempore prayer that I did not possess, and which I found intimidating.

By the time we got to the summer term, he had explained to me about Iwerne Minster camps. I had gone to one of the “right” schools, so I could be invited. I was no longer a schoolboy, so I was asked to come as a senior camper and help out. I think at some point during that year I had met David Fletcher, who ran the camps, Jonathan Fletcher’s older brother. In the summer of 1975, I made my first visit to the ‘Bash’ camp at Iwerne Minster.

Clayesmore School, where the Iwerne Camps took place

It was like a hyper-Christian version of school. It had a tremendously strong ethos all its own. There were all kinds of things that you just didn’t do, and which real Iwernites knew. You didn’t talk about feelings, you didn’t talk to the largely unseen girls in the kitchens who did all the cooking for all these men and boys, you didn’t pray in tongues, and you certainly didn’t masturbate or find other men attractive (the last two were unspoken – except that purity was talked about a lot). I was told off for the first three at my first camp.

I wanted to like it. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be like some of the devastatingly beautiful young men who were there. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. I didn’t like David Fletcher. He was oleaginous. I somehow didn’t and couldn’t trust him. John Smyth was there and Jonathan Fletcher. They were so far above me that I never remember speaking to either of them. Smyth was rather scary to me – very serious. And Jonathan Fletcher had his coterie, of which I was not a part. But everyone else seemed to love it, and said it was really important in their Christian growth, so I muted my fears.

I went again the next year. And now I noticed the mind control. That questions were not encouraged. That there was a system that you learnt of what was meant by sound teaching. In the intervening period I had ventured out of my first-year shell and been to worship at the Catholic Chaplaincy and with the Jesuits at Campion Hall. I had gone to the University Church to listen to sermons. I had started to read and to think about my faith, and wrestled with much that I heard at OICCU, and everywhere else.

I can’t remember precisely when I started to drift away from Iwerne, but I think I was invited to a post-Christmas house party, and I declined. That was when I got spoken to by David Fletcher. He wrote and then he saw me when he was in Oxford next and told me how concerned people were for my spiritual health. It was very unpleasant pressure, and all delivered with smiles and all the kinds of appeals to class and school ties that he could use. He told me the usual tropes about the importance of work among men from the right schools, of being part of something special. I smiled and was polite and inwardly decided not to have anything more to do with him.

My world and that of Iwerne diverged. Some of my friends at theological college were Iwerne men, and still very much in that world, doing “personal work” with the undergraduates from the right sort of schools. One of them told me about holidays on the south coast of Ireland at a holiday house owned by Jonathan Fletcher, where seven or eight of them would gather in the summer for swimming and fishing and boating and so forth. He said that when it was hot they would all be naked all the time. This story was at one and the same time rather disturbingly interesting, but also utterly creepy. I wondered aloud that my friend couldn’t see the homoerotic content in all this – but he denied it. I think now that he was dissembling. What I didn’t see at the time was the manipulation of young and dependent men on their spiritual leader. Now we know. Anyway, it all added to the picture of a rather sinister, cult-like organisation that I was well clear of.

Some years later, when I was a curate, I was invited to a preaching conference led by Jonathan Fletcher. I took preaching seriously (and still do) and decided to go. There was a relatively small number of young men at the conference – about ten to twelve of us, I think. No women, of course. The format of the event was that we had Bible readings given by Fletcher, and then each of us in turn expounded some passage of the Bible. Our exposition was then critiqued.

When I was in training in Cambridge, I was attached to St Barnabas Church, whose vicar at the time was Dennis Lennon. Dennis was a Londoner, who had played in the ruins of the blitzed city in his childhood, and who definitely did not go to the right kind of school. He had been a missionary in Thailand and was then ordained in the Church of England. He was also the most brilliant and thoughtful expository preacher. He was a man without affect, straight-forward, kindly, encouraging, and I owe him a huge amount. I well remember the service he took with his surplice on back to front, looking like he had lost his hands – when questioned afterwards, he showed the wine stain on the front – “I didn’t have time to get Sonja [his very kind Swiss wife] to wash it”. He died some years ago, and I remember him with great thankfulness very often.

Besides being a low church evangelical, Dennis was an intellectual. He read very widely, and his sermons might be peppered with quotations from some obscure Polish poet, or Dostoyevsky or sociological writings or almost anything else. And he really wrestled with the text he was preaching on.

So I was formed by this approach, and the conference that Jonathan Fletcher led seemed shallow and formulaic by comparison. If people did not exegete the text they had been given in the ‘correct’ way, then, with smiles and patronising words, they were cut down to size. I remember defending my reading of Proverbs 8, where Wisdom is shown as a loose woman (by patriarchal standards), prepared to act brazenly if only she can get people to listen to her. I was told this was not right and unhelpful (a crucial word – very present too, note, in Alpha). I disagreed; I said it was there in the text, and therefore it was helpful to draw it out. It might not be comfortable, it might be shocking, but it was helpful. I was definitely made to feel that I was straying from the path of righteousness.

I left the conference. I was a bit upset – and had a minor car accident on the way home. It was the end for me and Iwerne.  In fact, it was the beginning of the end for me and evangelicalism. I found the narrowness, the anti-intellectualism, the lack of honesty in facing difficulties all too much to take. I hovered on its edges by being a missionary and found some very noble evangelical souls among the missiological community. But I was, in truth, done. Of course, had I stayed, or had I been suckered into the whole conservative evangelical world I would never have been able to come out and live a healthy life as a gay man. So I have no regrets.

The title of this blog is taken from Psalm 55. The writer laments the way he has been betrayed not by his enemies and the people he might expect to let him down, but instead by ‘mine own familiar friend’, with whom he ‘took sweet counsel together and walked in the house of God as friends.” He goes on:

The words of his mouth were softer than butter, having war in his heart:
His words were smoother than oil, and yet be they very swords
Ps 55:22 

That is what Jonathan Fletcher was.

But I associate the smoothness with David Fletcher too. He too knew how to use the tools of effortless public-school pressurising. He inherited from EJH Nash and then built up the whole edifice of Iwerne and its spiritual style. He sustained and promoted a structure inside which Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth operated their horrendous regimes. What did David Fletcher know about what his brother was doing? I was only tangentially connected with the whole thing, and yet I knew about Jonathan Fletcher. The denials of sexual motive rang totally hollow to me. I knew that people were in thrall to him. I did not know quite how bad things were. But if I knew what I knew, then I simply can’t believe that people who were a lot more closely connected with Fletcher didn’t know too, and a lot more besides.

It is too early to pretend that lessons can be learned, when all the people who upheld the culture that shielded Smyth and Fletcher are still in post. They have been asked to consider their positions, but there is no sign that any of them think they should step down. They should. I am an outsider to it all, but I have some admiration for the evangelicals who want to see a very different culture. It would be some consolation for the victims of so much abuse by Smyth and Fletcher if the senior and shadowy figures in that whole milieu stepped aside for something new to grow. 

19 thoughts on ““Smoother than oil”

  1. Pingback: Review of Jonathan Fletcher case published | Thinking Anglicans

  2. Robert Ellis

    You bring back some very happy memories for me. When I was a Religious Programmes Producer at the BBC I used Dennis Lennon for a “Lent Course of the Air”. The subject was St Mark’s Gospel.He was absolutely superb and the series of programmes was a great hit with listeners who tuned in either alone or in Lent groups. I think I still have the accompanying booklet somewhere. Your memory of him was exactly the same as mine. A good man well remembered.

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  3. Moving, informative, insightful and, I suspect, spot on. I attended a few of the Cambridge college CU weekly lunches and your words bring back vividly the judgmental smarminess, the insufferable and infantile extempore prayer, and the sneering at those attending college chapel – including the Dean. Like sharks, they were ready to pounce on fresh-faced and often lonely young men (this was 1969-71, no women) away from home for the first time. Thank you.

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    1. Sonja Lennon

      After reading much of the JF sad saga your article brought much sought after sanity! I had been thinking about our time at the Round church and still cannot explain why I never suspected anything. Thank you so much for your lovely words about Dennis – heart warming…..
      I remember you with great affection, Sonja

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      1. Dear Sonja,
        How lovely to hear from you! I trust you are well. Dennis and you were so important for me – your kindness was something that made a huge difference. As for JF, I don’t think anyone at that time really understood how coercive and controlling he could be; maybe at that time he wasn’t, but it certainly got very bad in Wimbledon. And I am sure no blame attaches to you or Dennis for not spotting what may have been well-hidden at that point. I think of you often and I hold Dennis in my prayers frequently – he was a wonderful man and a true Christian inspiration to so many.
        Love
        Jeremy

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      2. You’ll be sad to hear that the Round Church is still alive and kicking in St Andrew’s the Great. I went to a service a couple of years ago when there was a sermon on Romans 1. This should be interesting, thought I: how would the heir to the Round Church deal with such a controversial passage, in view of the progress we have made as a society since Wolfenden. The sermon could have been lifted verbatim from a Round Church sermon. It was vile. I had to go back there last month for my brother’s funeral, and the oil is still very much in evidence. I very much doubt that I will ever set foot in any church again of any denomination.

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      3. I am very sorry to hear that, Andrew, though not at all surprised. I think the culture change that is required is enormous, and most of the entrenched power brokers just think that this is a little local difficulty that be smoothed over.

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  4. PS. Long buried memories come back. Seeking, as you say, a toehold, I attended The Round Church. Once was enough. Your comment about not wanting to let others down rings so very true. The need for approval.

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  5. Pingback: MARCH 24 2021 – “QUEER EYE FOR A FEARFUL CHURCH” BY REVD CANON DR EMMA PERCY | The Bell Society

  6. Gillian Argyle

    Thank you, Jeremy. A lot of this resonates with me, too. Knowing one or two families very deeply embedded in ECW it is going to be long time before they will feel it is safe to ‘let go’ in any way: I think that they are very afraid that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater if they speak out at all. BUT the baby won’t: he is born again and lives in us.

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  7. That was well written Jeremy. Your path and mine have crossed (largely electronically) from time to time over the years. One of the things that I hope will come out as a side effect of these various cases in the conservative evangelical world coming to light, will be how such strands of conservative evangelicalism have behaved towards women… who as you (and Anne Atkins) have made clear were (and I think largely still are) expected to ‘know their place’. I would these days be willing to say that such attitudes towards women also constitute a form of abuse. I certainly have come to feel that the way I was treated by the same mission organisation that you worked for (later than me I think) could be considered spiritually abusive. I do not feel that discriminatory attitudes and practices towards married women who worked for the organisation should ever have been justified by describing them as seeking to uphold ‘Christian marriage’.

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    1. Dear Clare, lovely to hear from you. I am entirely convinced by what you say – the abusive masculine heteronormativity of con evo churches is very deeply entrenched. I think the people I found most confusing, and for whom I felt vey sad, were the women who were suckered into complementarist theology. It astonishes me that the Church of England gives this kind of thinking an “honoured place”, and a bishop for those who can’t cope with female leadership among evangelicals.

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  8. This is a very useful piece – it’s important we recognise that there is still (in some parts of Evangelicalism, conservative or other) a tendency to control and to minimise / remove those who challenge those controlling structures. Sadly though I’ve seen the same in some liberals, especially senior leaders.

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  9. dde0apb

    Feeling the need to say “yes” to all of this Jeremy. I too went to one of the “right” schools and was encouraged to go to Iwerne. Jonathan Fletcher led my confirmation retreat. I am more disturbed by these revelations than I realised, and especially their loud echoes and reverberations still.

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      1. dde0apb

        Thanks. I tagged you on my Facebook with a link to your article. The disturbance is on finding one has been close to something that could have harmed, rather than as a result of being harmed. The same sort of feeling as when one’s narrowly avoided being in a big road accident. It makes you wonder how you avoided it, and what could be done to make the road safer.

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