Doing the impossible

Reflections of David Fletcher on a lifetime of Anglican ministry

Ask yourself where the toughest mission fields of the 20th century have been, and you might well think of various distant foreign locations.

But while many of your guesses might be correct, you could easily overlook one of the hardest areas of gospel endeavour in Britain over the last 50 years - and you might be surprised by its location: the world of England's top public schoolboys.

'The schoolmasters on whom the work depended were in a tougher situation spiritually than many pioneer missionaries,' recalls David Fletcher, a recently retired Anglican clergyman who spent many years in a ministry to pupils from some of England's most exclusive educational establishments.

'It was easy to be sucked into the nominal Christianity of the school. There was all this typical middle-class niceness to people which was so superficial. It's different now,' he adds.

Iwerne camps

From the late 1960s to mid-80s, David Fletcher was responsible for running camps for boys from top public boarding schools at Iwerne (pronounced 'you-wern') Minster in Dorset, although he had been involved in various ways from the early 1950s onwards. [Iwerne Holidays can be contacted at info@iwerne.net or on 01865 779850.]

It is a ministry which, although very tough, has over the years produced some remarkable fruit. Since the camps were set up in the 1930s by E.J.H. Nash (known as 'Bash'), a stream of men have progressed into ministry.

'The impossible was done,' David Fletcher says. 'It was the power of the gospel. There was a lot of prayer there. Bash was told that his work would never succeed because it is hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but Jesus went on to say that with God all things are possible.'

Those who came from the Iwerne stable included Bishop Maurice Wood, John Stott, Michael Green, David Watson, David MacInnes, Richard Bewes and Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith.

A more recent graduate of Iwerne is Nicky Gumbel, the originator of the Alpha course, which David Fletcher describes - with typically mischievous humour - as 'basically the Iwerne camp talk scheme with charismatic stuff added on'.

'It was an awful responsibility to take over the leadership of a work which had been so significantly used,' he recalls. 'We aimed to do an in-depth work with a few, which is what Jesus did for three years with 12 men.'

MP father

For someone who spent much of his ministry in the rarefied atmosphere of England's upper-classes, it comes as something of a surprise to find out that David Fletcher's father was a Labour MP and member of Harold Wilson's government.

Eric Fletcher was a solicitor who became a Member of Parliament, minister without portfolio and then Deputy Speaker. He was subsequently made a life peer, a title which is not passed on to succeeding generations, but which did mean his son is technically the Honorable David Fletcher.

'Having lived among people who are mainly Tory, I have always taken a slight delight in being left-wing,' he says - again, rather mischievously. 'But being converted demonstrated that no political system can deliver', he adds hastily. 'I have often thought: "What can I best do for the country politically?" and the answer is to preach the gospel.

Conversion experience

David Fletcher was born in London in 1932 and attended schools in Oxford and then in Repton, Derbyshire. He dates his conversion to his first few days as an undergraduate.

'I went to hear the freshers' sermon at St. Aldgate's preached by Maurice Wood, later a bishop. I saw firstly that Jesus had died on the cross in my place and therefore forgiveness was possible, and secondly that he was standing outside the door of my life waiting to come in, and I knew I had kept him at arm's length. That Monday, there was a tea meeting at which Maurice Wood spoke again and two people gave their testimony. That evening I asked Christ into my life.'

David Fletcher then trained for ordination at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and when he left, became Maurice Wood's curate at St. Mary's, Islington.

'It was very tough but great fun,' he recalls. 'It was only when I went back after leaving that I saw the fruit of anything that had been done. Maurice Wood was brilliant. They were heady days. Maurice Wood and John Stott were rising stars in the evangelical firmament. Billy Graham had been and put things on the map.'

There followed his involvement with the Iwerne camps - and then, in 1986, another change, when David became rector of St. Ebbe's, an Anglican evangelical church in Oxford.

Aussie influences

Influential in his mind as he took up the new appointment was recent preaching he had heard by the Australian Philip Jensen ( who is the main speaker at this year's FIEC Caister conference).

'Jensen was saying that the way to change the church is to preach the Word. That was wonderfully reassuring for me because I'm not an administrator or innovator of new schemes. It was obvious there was just one thing to do. And that's all I could do.'

Now in his retirement, David Fletcher continues his involvement as a trustee and council member of Reform, a campaigning network of some Anglican evangelicals.

'I think Reform has a key role in encouraging and in leading the way for those within the Church of England who want to evangelise the country sticking as closely as possible to the Scriptures and contending for the faith,' he says.

'I would say to people who think Reform has presented itself badly that indeed Reform may well have done so, but the truth does need to be stood up for: come and help us stand up for it well.'

Anglican future

Asked whether there are any circumstances in which evangelicals might have to leave the Church of England, he replies with a firm 'no' but adds: 'I see circumstances in which evangelicals will be unable to accept the spiritual oversight of certain bishops because of their open flouting of Scriptural truths.'

Reflecting on his years in ministry, David Fletcher concludes: 'It is not success or achievement which counts but only faithfulness to Christ in eternity. We are too success and achievement orientated.'

David Baker