Not so long ago, the first anniversary of the UK’s Covid lockdowns starting was marked. ‘Celebrated’ is obviously not the word. And we’ve all gone a bit stir-crazy. The fact that this blog series appears neverending is a case in point.
Incidentally, I googled the etymology of that phrase and was delighted to discover how appropriate it is. For ‘stir’ was British slang for ‘prison’, possibly derived from the Romany word ‘start’ (itself the nickname of London’s notorious Newgate jail). So, yup. The majority of us have been crawling up the walls of our own homes, longing for the resumption of some kind of normality. We’ve all gone slightly mad.
I do wonder if this has been a factor in how we’ve all processed grim or difficult news during this bizarre season, serving to intensify already heightened emotional responses. What I am sure about is that the handling of recent issues has left some things to be desired. Regular readers must forgive me for zeroing in on what, for many, will seem the concerns of a minute demographic (at least in global terms). It is presumptuous in the extreme to imagine that the arguments between a few English (and not even British) church leaders of a particular constituency might have relevance elsewhere. Oh, the folly of assuming the world must still take note of what happens on these shores! But perhaps there are wider lessons. That’s for others to judge. If you’re from another context, feel free to skip down to the concluding pleas, if not the rest of it, and see you next time!
Some necessary background detail
To get very specific, last month saw the publication of the 31:8 Lessons Learned Review into the abusive culture exemplified by Jonathan Fletcher’s treatment of young men (in particular) over many years. I was not one of them, fortunately, despite Jonathan being instrumental in me coming to full Christian faith in February 1989 (for which I remain profoundly grateful). I have read the report closely twice now (which is quite enough, I can tell you) and heartbreakingly, found nothing in there to be implausible and far too much to be cultural recognisible. I could see how much I myself had been part of it. Even the most hard-hearted ought to have found themselves questioning whether at least echoes of such treatment of others in their own lives?’ And I know for a fact that many, myself included, are going further. Deep soul-searching and confronting inner darkness have become inescapable. I know I have needed friends who loved me enough to challenge me without malice or judgment about things I was saying or thinking or doing. I claim no perfection at all; I have many things in my past for which I am ashamed and have repented. So I for one do not claim any moral high ground in writing this stuff. Only tears and sadness.
So I have been unnerved by some responses to the statement accompanying the 31:8 report by the Independent Advisory Group (IAG) (it can be found here). I’ve not followed the details, as I avoid Facebook completely and have found Twitter a deeply unpleasant cesspit in recent weeks. So I’m only going on what one or two have passed onto me through in hearsay, questions, or concerns. If I’m wrong about this, then great! But if the cap fits…
Now, I probably need to explain a little of the background here. I know two of the 4 IAG external members reasonably well, and have corresponded a bit with one; but I don’t know the identity of the anonymous victim. These 4 were volunteers from within the Conservative Evangelical (CE) constituency. That is important – I’ll return to it in a moment. However, there were joining two others from 31:8 including its chair, Justin Humphreys. As a group of 6, their task was to interact with the work of the two engaged in the review.
What was their task? According to the Review itself:
A3. The IAG will then meet at agreed intervals throughout the process of the Review, with the overall purpose of guiding its work, acting as a point of reference and scrutiny, and ensuring complete independence. (p25)
My understanding is that this ‘independence’ did not mean they adopted a neutrality about the issues coming to light (why else would they have offered their services if they weren’t already concerned?); more that they did not report to anyone involved in the review process but were external to it. The IAG was not to be involved in writing the report and would have no access to interviewees’ information. Instead, they solely interacted with the review’s authors.
A3.1 The purpose of the IAG was shared with those shortlisted as outlined below:
Review and shape further the scope (terms of reference), to ensure all legitimate perspectives and appropriate lines of enquiry have been considered.
To have sight of and help shape the public statement(s) pertaining to the Review issued by ECW and thirtyone:eight and any associated communications inviting wider participation to the undertaking of the Review.
To meet with the Reviewers for updates to be shared on the progress of the Review.
To quality assure the draft report prior to submission to the commissioners. (p26)
So far so good.
Why I think it's important
After the main Lessons Learned Review was published, the 4 external IAG members put out their own accompanying statement. There are a lot of issues/questions apparently floating about e.g.: should they have even written it? Could it have been phrased differently or more diplomatically? Should they have named names?
It really isn’t my intention to parse details or go down timeline rabbit holes. I’ve neither the sufficient space nor facts. They felt the need to do this and that’s what matters. As Chris Green recently posted, trying to find daylight between the review and the IAG statement is counterproductive. They give several (I think) legitimate reasons:
- They ensured the 31:8 review could not be dismissed as theologically partisan: I know how these things play out. If the IAG 4 had not said this explicitly, the first defensive recourse would have been that old chestnut: denounce the review authors’ theology. Ahhh, that explains it. Hence we can safely ignore it. But the IAG statement cuts that off at the pass because they are all CE. And I think I detect some of their wordsmithing to this end within the review. This is why they put the gospel, and in particular the cross, front and centre in their statement’s conclusion.
- They ensured that those within the CE constituency advocate for victims/survivors. Inevitably they don’t speak for all. But they do speak for very many, not least those who have spoken with the reviewers. It is not enough to give that lipserve. It must be concrete.
- They ensured the review’s culture concerns are inescapably central: The review identifies genuine problems – to be sure, they are not experienced by or manifested in everybody within CE – but the fact that they are experienced by many is of profound concern. But the review is nearly 150 pages. There are summaries within it, but the IAG clearly felt nervous that these problems might get overshadowed by the focus on one individual. Things we must face: the insistence on absolute personal loyalty (in the guise of gospel loyalty); individuals’ genuine fears that missteps or relational breakdown with influential people damaging future prospects; the difficulty of challenging or speaking out when there are problems.
- They ensure there is recognition of the complexities. There are places that they go further than the review but only slightly: for example, in naming some names (some of whom are good friends of mine), and while I might understand why the initial review avoided doing so, there were moments of vagueness that caused more confusion. Most controversially, they repeat the review’s call for resignations, although they don’t specify what that actually means. To be honest I don’t really know what I think about this. As Chris’s blog suggested, it doesn’t necessarily require leaving ministry altogether, but it does surely mean a need for reflection and considering withdrawal from involvements beyond their immediate church. I don’t know. What is very clear, however, they know well how difficult this all is. We all make ‘mistakes and missteps’. The issue is to root out systematic flaws as much as humanly possible. There is not the slightest note of triumphalism about the IAG statement; nor do I sense any vendettas, to be quite frank. If anything, it merely encapsulates the difficult and angular questions of the awkward squad (questions which many are nervous about): agonising but ultimately necessary.
Two Pleas for Healthy Engagement
1. Please don’t shoot the messengers
This is a grim season. The lockdowns have only intensified that grimness. I know what I get like (and in fact, in recent weeks and months, have been like) when the clouds gather and the darkness looms. I lose my perspective, fears start to grip, and the future appears lurid but bleak.
But when there is genuine heart-searching to be done, defensiveness is a natural reaction in the best of times. We are by no means experiencing the best of times. The current season merely exacerbates this. Especially because actually meeting and talking with people in actual rooms is still almost impossible. There’s going to have to be a lot of this in the months to come. And I don’t mean with so-called allies or loyal subjects. With opponents who happen, still, to be brothers and sisters. For yes, I do believe that our Union with Christ trumps much more than we credit. It supersedes our differences of doctrinal emphasis.
This matters because there are a fair few who are feeling pretty nervous at the moment (and I must confess to being one). They perceive (however unfairly) a defensiveness which by its very nature betrays precisely something of the cultural problems the review identifies. The worry is that the constituency appears to operate just like any other in the world, with a reflexive, generalised rejection of charges and a diversionary attack on the supposedly ‘disloyal’ who are conveyers of those charges. This is profoundly unsettling for those watching and hoping. No wonder it undermines the cause of the gospel. Some are no doubt fearing they’d thrown their lot in with the wrong crowd. And who can blame them?
So please don’t shoot the messengers. Focus on the message – where it’s required, by all means, rebut and refute. That needs to be done. The IAG statement isn’t perfect. Those who know more details have every right to argue for clarification or corrections – and when they do so, we are not to presume collaboration, conspiracy or coverup (see below). But wherever that is to be done, it must surely be with humility while honouring those who think differently or who have genuine grievances. They are not the enemy here. From what I can tell, all those involved at least claim a shared loyalty to Christ and to the truth. Let us not allow that loyalty to be eclipsed by lesser loyalties to partisanship or face-saving.
2. Please avoid the hermeneutic of suspicion
We all do it. We are all quick to read motives and causes into others, particularly when they do something we dislike or despise. It’s one of the most toxic aspects of modern politics. It is also one of the root problems with identity politics – X disagrees with Y legislation because he/she hates Z people. Ahhh. That’s alright then. They hate people. So we can ignore them now. We can cancel them. This is a major theme at the heart of Wilderness of Mirrors. But it is truly disastrous. And very distressing to find it employed by Christians.
Rachel and I are coming up for our 24th wedding anniversary. We often misinterpret each other’s motives. That’s pretty normal in any relationship. And we’ve known each other for YEARS! Surely the task of interpreting the motives of people unknown to, or disliked by, us is infinitely harder! Ridiculous! Yet it can serve such a useful function, can’t it? It can take the fuse out of unwelcome spotlights. That’s alright then. They ‘clearly’ had agenda B or C – so let’s now move swiftly on.
And anyway, nobody’s motives are entirely pure. No doubt there were all kinds of motives in the mix for everybody involved: the reviewers, the IAG, the interviewees, the leaders etc etc. But the way to counter charges or conclusions is surely not to focus on those apparent motives. That merely deflects from the substance. And worse, for those who indulge in the suspicion hermeneutic, it is fundamentally counter-productive. It comes over as a deeply cynical defensive counter-move, especially if accompanied by power imbalances. After all, those with power would divert blame and opprobrium to the one who apparently seeks to undermine them, wouldn’t they? No wonder some struggle to trust the process.
For trust, and its loss, is ultimately what this agonising season is about at its heart. You can’t just tell somebody to stop being silly and trust again. Trust is grown over years but gets destroyed in nanoseconds. It can’t be restored with a click of the fingers or a reassuring word. It must be earned. Over time. Perhaps a very long time.
I weep as I write this. There is no glee, I can assure you. And from what I know of them, there is no glee in the IAG folks either. Far from it. I have lost sleep over all of this and I know I’m not the only one. Those who know me know that this really isn’t the kind of post I relish at all. As I say, I don’t precisely know what this all needs to look like. But I’m fairly sure that what’s happening at the moment is not it.
As I said, if I’ve misread the situation and tilting at windmills, then great! I’m relieved. But if the cap fits…