Please don’t abuse abuse.

Back in the mid 1980s, when I was a Post Graduate student at Oxford, I attended a fascinating talk by John Wolffe, now a Professor at the Open University, on his doctoral research on anti-Catholicism in Britain in the middle years of the nineteenth century.[1] Among other things he introduced his audience on that occasion to a now largely forgotten sub-genre of Victorian literature, the anti-Catholic novel. He explained that books had been written with titles such as Griselda the demon nun in which naïve Victorian maidens were led astray by the Church of Rome and ended up in continental nunneries where they were subjected to various unspeakable horrors until they were eventually rescued by their brother/ father/rejected fiancé.

The point of such literature was to try to establish a link between Roman Catholic theology and moral error. Not only was Roman Catholicism doctrinally erroneous, the argument went, but its erroneous doctrines led its adherents towards the kind of immoral behaviour to which the novels refer.

I was reminded of this sad episode in British religious history by an article by Stephen Parsons which was published on the website Surviving Church on 11 April this year. The article is entitled ‘Towards humility? Anglican conservatives after Jonathan Fletcher.’ [2] and it follows the pattern of the Victorian literature I have just referred to by attempting to link theological error with immoral behaviour, in this case the abuse perpetrated by Jonathan Fletcher at Emmanuel Wimbledon.

There are two key sections in the article which contain the heart of Parsons’ argument.

The first declares:

‘Within the world of the conservative Anglicanism, as exemplified by JF, St Helen’s Bishopsgate and All Souls, the inerrant authority of Scripture, interpreted by the godly ‘sound’ preachers gives a semblance of unity to the whole institution.  If the appointed leader has the divine authority to preach the word of God, this logically allows him to exercise control in other areas of church governance.  If any part of this authority is shown to be shaky, then the rest of the authority structure is under threat.  The democratic impulse is not one well cultivated in these circles. If the hard line preaching on moral issues is ever contested, the institution must push back strongly.  Any concession to another version of truth puts a possible doubt over the legitimacy of the leaders.  JF skilfully used the structures of conservative Anglicanism to maintain an enormous amount of power for himself.  He used the power of the institution to resist challengers within.  More importantly, he had power as the preacher of the infallible word of God.  To oppose such a leader, is to oppose God himself.  Who wants to be on the wrong side of God?’

The second declares that in conservative Anglicanism:

‘The Bible, the institution, the doctrine and the leaders – all have to be part of seamless whole that knows no doubt or error.  The logic of infallibility as a doctrine of the Bible is extended to the whole structure, including leadership decisions.  No questioning of leaders, decisions or structures can be tolerated.  That would undermine the fantasy of perfection and certainty which holds the whole structure together.  It is this promise of certainty available to the followers that gives the leaders much of their enormous power.’

What we see from these two sections is that, according to Parsons, in the world of ‘conservative Anglicanism’ the infallibility of the Bible extends to the infallibility of those who preach it. This infallibility of the preacher then extends to all other areas of their activity and this then opens the door to the sort of abuse perpetuated by Jonathan Fletcher in that what they chose to do is necessarily beyond question because it has the sanction of God himself.

In assessing the strength of Parsons’ argument it needs to be understood first of all that he is not in fact talking about conservative Anglicanism as such. A large number of conservative Anglicans are Anglo-Catholics, but these are not the people he has in mind, because if this was the case the argument would have to include not just authority to preach, but also the authority of the Priest to celebrate the Mass and to grant the remission of sins after confession.

What Parsons is actually talking about is conservative Evangelical Anglicanism, but even if this is what he is talking about then his argument is entirely misleading.

First, he is wrong to suggest that conservative Evangelical Anglicanism is exemplified either by Jonathan Fletcher, or by St Helen’s Bishopsgate, or by All Souls Langham Place. Conservative Evangelical Anglicanism is notoriously hard to define, but if we define it in terms of clergy, laity and churches that are in some way affiliated with the Church of England Evangelical Council and would agree with its statement of faith (which would be a generally acceptable definition) then what we are dealing with is thousands of people and churches, most of whom have no connection at all with Jonathan Fletcher (and may never even have heard of him), and most of which are nothing like St Helen’s, or All Souls.

Secondly, the idea that a preacher has divine authority to preach is not a peculiarity of conservative Evangelical Anglicanism. It is in fact a part of basic Anglican theology (and indeed of basic Christian theology). The point of ordination services, for example, is precisely to be the occasion at which such divine authority is given through the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, according to standard conservative Evangelical Anglicanism such divine authority does not convey infallibility on the preaching or teaching of those who are ordained or licensed to preach, nor does it mean that such people are regarded as infallible in anything else they say or do. According to Evangelical theology God is infallible, and so is the Bible as God’s inspired word (2 Timothy 3:16 ,2 Peter 1:21),  but nothing, and no one, else has inherent freedom from error (which is why Evangelicals reject the doctrine of Papal infalliblity). The reason why Evangelicals have regarded the teaching of certain Evangelical leaders as having authority and have also accepted the authority of certain statements of belief (such as the historic Anglican formularies), is not because these are regarded as infallible in principle, but because they are seen to in fact be in line with the infallible teaching of Scripture.

Fourthly, as anyone who has inhabited the Evangelical world for any length of time will testify, in the world of conservative Evangelical Anglicanism not only is the ‘questioning of leaders, decisions and structures’ tolerated, but it is something that happens all the time. Although there is a stable core of traditional Evangelical faith and practice, everything else is endlessly discussed, debated, and argued about. Furthermore, conservative Evangelicals hold as one of their fundamental doctrinal tenets that the continuing effects of the Fall mean that everyone, including baptised believers, and including the ordained, ‘is of his own nature inclined to evil’ (Article IX) and therefore we must all be on guard against the effects of this inclination, whether in ourselves or others.

What this means is that if a leader goes off the rails either doctrinally or morally then according to basic Evangelical belief to oppose such a leader is most certainly not to oppose God, but rather to do God’s work (just as Paul did God’s work when he rebuked Peter for going off the rails in Antioch as recorded in Galatians 2:11-21). There is tragically now no doubt that abuse has been allowed to take place in in conservative Evangelical Anglican circles, but this took place in spite of conservative Evangelical Anglican belief, and not because of it. 

Abuse of children, adults when they are vulnerable, or anyone else, whether this takes a physical, mental, or sexual form, is a sin for which there can be no excuse. It involves a grievous failure to love our neighbours and, as such, a grievous failure to love God. The only legitimate response to such behaviour is lament, repentance, the application of ecclesiastical and civil discipline, and the taking of steps to support the victims and to ensure as far as possible that such abuse will not take place in future.

What is neither helpful nor legitimate, however, is to take the horrific reality of abuse and use it as a weapon to attack others with whose theology and practice we disagree. It is particularly wrong to do this in a way that perpetuates falsehoods about the people in question. That is what the Victorian writers to whom I referred at the beginning of this piece did, and I think it is what Parsons has done as well. This is an abuse of abuse and should not happen.

[1] This research was eventually published as John Wolffe , The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

[2] Stephen Parsons, ‘Towards humility? Anglican Conservatives after Jonathan Fletcher,’  Surviving Church, 11April 2021, at .