Anglican clergy across Australia are being urged to actively promote equality of the sexes and be more inclusive of women in worship, ministry, and mission to reduce and prevent the scourge of domestic and family violence.
Ministers need to “use the power of the pulpit” to promote equality and respect and mutuality and to preach against the misuse of Scripture, according to Reverend Tracy Lauersen, Convener of the Family Violence Working Group of the Anglican Church of Australia General Synod Office.
These are some of the concrete steps mapped out by representatives of the Anglican Church in a virtual conference held in response to the release of the first known National Church study into the prevalence of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) within a faith community.
The shocking top line results of the National Church study were that the prevalence of IPV (a subset of family violence) among Anglicans was the same or higher than in the wider Australian community; and that the prevalence of such violence among church-attending Anglicans was the same or higher than among other Anglicans.
“We cannot avoid talking about these issues, but rather we need to talk about them more, and from our pulpits.”
Speaking to Eternity after the conference, Rev Lauersen noted that every one of the 23 Anglican dioceses (districts) across Australia has work to do in improving its gender-inclusive practices and policies.
“Gender inequality is widely understood to be a primary driver of violence against women and any violence prevention commitment by an organisation must be responsive to this,” she said.
Rev Lauersen said it was vital to recognise that abusers had weaponised and distorted Scriptural teachings around submission, marriage and forgiveness, as a method of coercion, control and power.
“We cannot avoid talking about these issues, but rather we need to talk about them more, and from our pulpits in all their fullness,” said Rev Lauersen, who is rector of St Paul’s in Warragul, Victoria.
“So for example, where an abuser might weaponise the Bible’s teaching around forgiveness, I think we need to be talking a lot more about what forgiveness means, when and where the forgiveness has boundaries, how forgiveness might feature in conflict in relationships.
“We need to talk about it more so that it’s not something that can be distorted by abusers.”
As a first practical step, the standing committee of the Anglican Church of Australia had urged dioceses to adopt the 10 Commitments, and for clergy to familiarise themselves with the research. Secondly, Diocesan representatives are invited to be part of ongoing ‘communities of practice’ that can work out best strategies for implementing the prevention commitments.
“Thirdly, at the General Synod next May we’ll be looking at some national resourcing, so that all of our dioceses can be equipped to initiate change.”
“There’s an incredible amount of goodwill across the whole church to understand this problem and to address it.”
Asked if it required a similar approach to the safe ministry to children, with mandatory training and reporting, Rev Lauersen said there was “an incredible amount of goodwill across the whole church to understand this problem and to address it.
“Certainly I think that the frameworks that we introduced for safe ministry to children really help us to work together as a national church on this issue. We are 23 fairly independent dioceses, but the whole safe ministry to children approach helped us to understand that as a whole church, we can achieve so much.
“So that’s helped us to create a whole church approach to prevention of violence, and if you have a look at the 10 commitments, they do address many of the same things such as training and resourcing and being accountable, and what we’re communicating in our parishes and working with other agencies and being transparent and acknowledging problems. And all of that we could say is riding on the shoulders of the work the church has done for safe ministry with for children.”
“The whole safe ministry to children approach helped us to understand that as a whole church, we can achieve so much.”
Recognising the low levels of confidence among clergy to handle reports of IPV, Rev Lauersen said: “We need a lot more training of our clergy, our ordinands, of those who are training for ministry and those who are in ministry, giving them the right kind of resources that they can use in their parishes and also helping them to see how they can partner with agencies in the broader community in order to refer victims on.”
In response to the finding that only a few victims report their abuse, I asked her how victims can be encouraged to come forward and tell their rector or minister.
“It’s interesting to try and think about why that is, why people don’t come forward, and perhaps part of the reason is the culture of shame, which has been associated with being a victim of violence in the past. We know more broadly that many victims don’t speak to anyone about what’s happening to them.
“My own personal experience was when you preach about this from the pulpit, you invite people to actually talk about it, you mark yourself as a person that someone can approach to talk about these things. So it’s important that we just open up that conversation.”
“You’ve opened up the topic and you’ve implicitly invited people to come forward to talk about it.”
Rev Lauersen said that every time she preached on this issue, people had come forward to talk about it.
“Absolutely. Every time. It doesn’t matter what congregation it is, or whether I’m preaching to an elderly congregation or a young contemporary family congregation, it doesn’t matter, and it’s because you’ve opened up the topic and you’ve implicitly invited people to come forward to talk about it.”
Asked if she thought it was possible to stamp out intimate partner violence in the Anglican church, she avers: “It’s definitely preventable … Yes, I believe that we can change this statistic. However, we may paradoxically see a rise in reporting as we’ve opened up the issue and we’ve shone a light on the problem before we start to see a decline towards zero.
“We haven’t had a national church meeting to set targets, but it’s something that we could bring up in a General Synod.”
Rev Lauersen said the research had helped the church to understand the complex nature of violence against women who have faith and had “confirmed the important role of the church as being very influential for victims, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. And the fact that the church can play such a powerful role is wonderful to know as well because it says to us, we can be part of the solution here.”