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Constructive Criticism?

This blog was initially prompted by The Speak Life Livecast on 13th April 2021.

We were unable to publish it at the time because the author who had approached us decided they could not face the inevitable barrage criticism. Together we still held back when the concerns raised here were independently confirmed (admittedly in a single, but important, context) with the publication of the 31:8 Cultural Review Concerning the Titus Trust.[1]

But in the light of the ongoing conversation about Blokes Worth Watching (BWW) raised, again by Glen Scrivener, in Evangelicals Now, the discussion in the Speak Life Livecast on June 30th 2022, Nay Dawson's response and the ongoing discussion in many other places, the author has now given us permission to publish.

We hope it will be a helpful contribution to an important conversation.

One of the key components of the Conservative Evangelical (Anglican) culture which has bred abusers such as John Smyth, Simon Doggart, Jonathan Fletcher and others is that of “constructive criticism”. It is intrinsic part of the “culture of fear” identified in the recent 31.8 Review concerning Jonathan Fletcher and Emmanuel Church Wimbledon.

As new, or even potential, leaders in the school camp networks that were Smyth and Fletcher’s powerbase, young men were expected to accept, “constructive criticism” from more senior men. Some of the criticism was public and brutal. Some of it was in intense one-to-one interactions.

All leaders need help to become better leaders and often the younger that starts, the better, but that is not the primary purpose of this type of “constructive criticism”, which works as follows.

The senior man is largely self-appointed, often by virtue of having been one of the men who best managed “constructive criticism” of himself in their own generation. They will be charismatic, often athletic, emphasise their own social superiority and have a natural “authority” arising from background. They will have been, at least to a degree, a “success” in the Conservative Evangelical world. From these things the right to critique is simply assumed by the senior and expected to be presumed by the junior.

Added to this, already entirely asymmetric power-relationship, is that the younger leader knows that not to receive, indeed to (be seen) to actively “welcome”, such criticism and the manner in which it is delivered is, of course, proof positive of the subject’s very need of it and demonstrates their potential unsuitability to be a leader. To be so rejected as a leader is not only to risk spiritual and social disgrace but, more prosaically, to lose all the privileged access to networks, relationships, roles, jobs etc that would otherwise be available to them. For those who see a future in ministry it is to effectively to elect to enter ministry as a “squaddie” rather than an officer. It is in the material and social interest of all concerned not to, “rock the boat”.

In the “constructive criticism” process there are no criteria against which “performance” is “evaluated”. Instead it is an after the event test (or as they would say ex post facto) , under which, by definition, fault can be found, thus “justifying” the whole process. The more of an “insider” and “the right type” a young man is the better he may have some insight into this and the better chance he may have of meeting the subtly unspoken expectations. However, all but the already pre-ordained “anointed” will be bound to “fail” regularly. Similarly, the favoured can be “approved” merely by adjusting the ex post facto criteria. Clearly, there will be considerable temptation to do whatever is necessary to become one of the (potentially- they never can know) favoured few. Even the anointed may have only become so because of evidencing early their willingness simply to acquiesce.

The primary form of criticism in this Kafkaesque world is for the senior man to tell the junior that, “you are not as good at being me as I am”. It is an essentially a subjective exercise dressed-up as an unquestionably objective one because of it purportedly being derived from years of study, experience, and, of course “wisdom”. As such, once again, the main aim is not to improve leadership skills or deepen maturity. Rather, the aim is to enforce the authority and superiority of the senior man and thereafter to enforce inter-generational conformity.

Only two lessons can flow from, “you need to be more like me”. First, that the junior man needs to learn not only not to challenge the senior, for that would be illogical, but to become, in so far as possible a “mini-me” of him. Second, that the more time the younger man can spend with the senior and the greater their intimacy the better the former will learn to be like the elder.

Much of the senior-junior relationship will take place in a context where, “mickey-taking”, “jolly japes” and “banter between blokes” is in fact thinly disguised systematic humiliation. The greater a man’s reputation (perhaps by studied cultivation) the more he can get away with such behaviour. Much is explained away by, it all being, “said in jest”, “light-hearted” or “all being a joke” and, of course if the victim “can’t take a joke”, they’ve simply not learned the lessons and they need to be “constructively criticised” for that.

Obviously, the whole process fundamentally undermines the confidence and self-esteem of the junior man by setting him up to fail indefinitely- he will never be as good at being his senior as his senior is. But worse than that it removes any real sense of “self” at all, making the younger leader an emptied and broken vessel fit only to be gradually re-modelled and re-filled in the image of his “superior”.

It will be seen that most of this is entirely self-reinforcing- non-compliance results in exclusion, continuing inclusion requires maximum compliance.

Save for avoiding exclusion from the ministry elite with all its privileges and advantages, the real “prize” in this process, is to become, in due time the senior man, able to command similar unquestioned authority over others, and so the cycle goes on.

The culture as established when new leaders were young persists throughout Conservative Evangelicalism. It is deployed to a greater or lesser extent all the time, every day, at all levels of “leadership”. “Offering”, “constructive criticism”, of a form at best partially uninvited, unwanted, unwarranted, dogmatic, arbitrary, manipulative and even threatening is assumed by many to be their unchallengeable right, which they are entitled to excuse and justify and have accepted in form and content.

Lest it be thought that this is to, “protest too much”, it should be noted that this supposedly, “constructive criticism” only ever “works” one way. In a genuinely helpful and healthy leadership forum it is acknowledged that all leaders are flawed, and all are open to, and indeed welcome, the critique of others, within a mutually safe environment. Not so in the Conservative Evangelical world for to allow genuine mutual critique would collapse the whole edifice hierarchy and assumption.

Equally, a standout feature is that that the senior man will never admit to the junior that the latter has done something better than they could do it or has done something that he is not capable of. Again, it is all one way- criticism flows with the implicit or explicit message that everything done well would have been done as well or better by the older leader and that only the younger man has anything to learn. For the senior to admit any need to learn would be to queer the power dynamic in a wholly unacceptable way. Naturally, a younger man offering any criticism of an elder is playing with fire. Done in public they might as well have set fire to themselves. Just this dynamic has been seen repeatedly in recent weeks.

For the same reasons this “tribe” will almost always refuse to work with other tribes- that would again be fatal to the edifice both by the inherent admission that all wisdom and practice as to ministry does not lie in the existing hierarchy and by an inevitable challenge to the existence of a hierarchical model at all. Only those willing to be assimilated into the hierarchy (at their deemed rank) and thereafter conform to expectation can be worked with.

Naturally, this is a model of “leadership development” wide open to abuse, indeed one profoundly attractive to abusers with the right social connections or who excel at deference and mimicry and are willing to do so to gain access.

But the problems go beyond that. Some spend years trying to be included without realising that, to whatever extent they conform, they are “marked” by some ineradicable blot that will always preclude acceptance- it might be racial heritage or not “quite” the “right”- school, university (or even college), family, hobby, wife, accent, connection or something simple absurdly arbitrary. Intellectual enquiry and endeavour will all but inevitably entail exclusion at some level sooner or later. They will be played along as useful until they realise their taint. They are often wasted years where time and energy and focus could have been better spent in an environment which prized spiritual maturity not inclusion by conformity.

Moreover, it is a perilous world, a man who ceases to conform or is, for whatever reason, excluded, finds himself utterly alone and lost because all he has known- gilded privilege has gone, perhaps, overnight. That man is not only profoundly hurt by being cast into outer darkness but also entirely ill-equipped and de-skilled for the new world in which he finds himself. He may face an impossible choice- to seek readmission to privilege by grovelling obeisance and assurances of greater future conformity or leave himself contactless, jobless, his family homeless etc.

It goes without saying that once these power-dynamics are prevalent and understood demands for conformity do not even have to be made. In a world where the expectations are so obvious it simply becomes a matter of accepting succumbing to the inevitable… or accepting leaving. The latter is a real issue when the potential alternative church “down the road”, will more likely than not be in the grip of the same attitudes and practices.

As has been said the power-dynamics produced by these practices are evident everywhere:

  • the vicar who happens to be visiting a church, who feels free to criticise, to his face, the sermon of a curate he barely knows.

  • the senior man who feels at liberty to phone a lay person not of his flock to tell him, or her, how to behave.

  • the requirement to follow without equivocation Bible study courses because they are said to embody exclusive, universal truths that no junior “leader” can improve upon, but which create unlimited opportunities for “constructively critical” feedback.

  • the awkwardly intimate and demanding “small group”, prayer group or preaching group where failure to attend regularly will be marked as a lack of “soundness”.

  • a certain preaching style as approved regardless of context or appropriateness.

  • intonation, language, dress, choice of Bible translation, expectation of leaving “secular” work, attitude to episcopacy, even choice of spouse- pretty much nowhere is there freedom to breath.

The choice is - conform or accept marginalisation, or more likely, banishment. Those who elect to leave are fortunate to escape if merely ignored, if they are of any prominence at all, they will be witheringly dismissed as committing an unforgiveable sin and their reputations ruthlessly dismantled, pour encourager les autres.

At the risk of stating the exceedingly obvious; this is also by definition a leadership culture in which, for all the “talk” of “complementarianism”, the development of female leaders has no place at all. It is thought to best for women to be left to be “dealt with” by women, thereby to “learn” how to “support” men as “nurtured” by “constructive criticism”. That being said, to the extent that female leaders are developed the process is inevitably skewed by the expectations of churches who demand unquestioning deference to the(male) status quo.

The culture also, plainly, excludes all but those with a certain social background unless they can to some (probably limited) extent infiltrate it later by a means of a sufficient degree of imitation and obeisance. Good leaders are simply not developed and inadequate leaders fill roles well outside their (under-developed) competence or the Godliness of their character.

Lastly, the Conservative Evangelical world thus created becomes ever thinner and more self-referential, as it refuses to admit unconventional personalities, a diversity of background or permit the challenge of new ideas, greater intellectualism etc. And in that environment the specific problems outlined above only become ever more problematic.


[1] Some examples of the confirmation from the Titus Trust Cultural Review

“I was not great at giving talks on the camps. On the one hand, I hated preparing them, but on the other I craved the recognition associated with speaking well. However, I felt almost entirely discouraged afterwards due to the crit I received. The positive - negative - positive feedback sandwich lacked "bread" and felt more about point scoring than helping me with future preaching. I found it crushing to have my faltering efforts dismantled in front of some of the people I respected most. Crit was supposed to be given privately first and then publicly after. In practise, this largely meant people would grab me 1 minute before the leaders' meeting and briefly outline the things they didn’t like, giving no chance for comeback or digesting, before the public humiliation. On more than one occasion, the crit was not even specific to the talk I had given but was a general airing of views on where talks were going wrong, pinned on me as a scapegoat. This was often from much older leaders, but not exclusively. It seemed to be competitive in who was most sound or correct, rather than seeking to help.” (page 58)

"Some experienced leaders’ behaviour has not been challenged: this has been due either to an acceptance that they hale from a different generation, or because of an assumption about the norms of public-school behaviour, or because they were in respected positions of leadership. In addition, harsh feedback and criticism of talks has been accepted in leaders’ meetings and not been sufficiently challenged. Allowances have been made because of their position in the hierarchy, or because they were held in high regard due to their roles outside of camp". (page 78)

Summary - Hierarchical structure Hierarchy within leaders’ teams was seen by some leaders as necessary in the context of busy and well organised holidays, where decisions needed to be made quickly. Others pointed out that hierarchy within leaders’ teams led to several areas which contributed to the risk of abuse happening on camps, and abuse being permitted. In particular: • Older, more experienced leaders were held in high regard and their views respected, and conversely, younger leaders were not encouraged to speak, and their views were filtered by older leaders before mention at meetings. This does not create an environment for younger leaders to voice any concerns freely. • Younger leaders could be intimidated. There was a sense of “knowing your place”, of acceptance of and obedience to, authority. • Some younger leaders felt they needed to please older leaders in order to progress. • Leaders could feel humiliated during feedback on talks in the leaders’ room, and this was permitted to happen. This could have significant impact on those receiving the feedback and gives a sense that leaders could give this feedback without sanction. • Certain Bible teachers were given additional respect and held in high regard, with the risk that any abusive or poor behaviours could be excused or ignored. (page 61)

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