Women of faith suffer added layers of complexity in relationships of domestic violence, making abuse even more difficult to bear, a webinar on domestic violence in faith communities has been told.
“The church experience, or the experience in any faith community, has added spiritual abuse or ways that domestic violence is hidden or shamed or minimised or dismissed,” commented psychologist Kylie Maddox Pidgeon, one of a panel of four women experienced in working with domestic abuse in church settings.
The webinar, hosted by the St James Institute in Sydney last week, was designed to give faith workers practical tools to address domestic violence and create safer religious communities. It was attended by more than 100 people across various denominations, although the panel was dominated by Anglicans.
Tracy Lauersen, chair of the Family Violence Working Group for the Anglican Church of Australia, said recent research into the experiences of Anglican people with domestic violence had made her passionate about improving the situation for women of faith in this country.
“We have an overall picture that indicates that in Australia, one in four women in their lifetime, and about one in 13 men are impacted by domestic abuse,” she said. “We need to think about this as primarily a gendered issue, because it is primarily women who are the victims-survivors, and it is primarily perpetrated by men.”
Beyond physical violence, there was a pattern of coercion and control based on verbal or emotional abuse, psychological manipulation, gaslighting, and financial controls, and undermining her capacity as a parent.
“So the damage that we’re seeing is not just the shocking and tragic death of women, but the harming of women and the harming of children through this whole range of different behaviours … because at its heart, it’s about denying her personhood, really undermining who she is. And particularly in the Christian context, who she is as a daughter of God.”
“Churches are ill-equipped because we focus on forgiveness rather than accountability.” – Kylie Maddox Pidgeon
While many Christians were shocked by recent findings by NCLS Research that Anglicans experienced violence at slightly higher rates than the general population, Kylie said professional counsellors such as herself were not at all surprised. She said the research had given voice to what women in her counselling room were saying.
“It was saying things like churches are ill-equipped because we focus on forgiveness rather than accountability, which just places more responsibility on the victim or the survivor to get over it or to forgive him or to stay married, rather than [placing the] responsibility on him to relate with respect,” she said.
“Churches can have cultures of prioritising men’s voices, whether it’s preaching, teaching, leadership, which creates an unconscious bias that men are more credible or men are more likely to be believed. Whereas actually, all the research tells us that we need to believe the women, that the violence is probably worse than she’s telling us.
“And it’s probably been going on for longer because she’s not used to being believed in that church environment. The [scriptural] layers about ‘women should submit to men and women shouldn’t be preachers and teachers’ can cause women who are experiencing violence to have those extra layers of voicelessness. ‘I don’t have a position here; I’m not trusted or not believed. I don’t have a platform to speak out about what’s happening to me.’”
Additionally, the stigma of divorce created an inner battle against the desire to be the “perfect Anglican wife”.
“The church often believes that death is the only credible reason to be divorced, but we really need to understand that abuse has already ended a marriage. Someone filing for divorce is not the end of the marriage, but it’s the behaviour in the marriage that undermines love and trust and respect day after day after day – that really is the end of the marriage.”
“This is a bit of a hidden problem and we’re just starting to understand what it does look like.” – Tracy Lauersen
Three surveys by NCLS Research into domestic violence in Anglican circles studied its prevalence, clergy’s attitudes and pastoral experience, and the direct experience of family violence survivors who identified as Anglican.
“In fact, what domestic violence looks like is, it doesn’t look like anything. Most of the time it is largely invisible. Our study found that 88 per cent of Anglican victims did not seek help from church – they didn’t approach their minister; they didn’t approach staff in the church. So that tells us that there’s a lot of people who are affected possibly by domestic violence who simply aren’t sharing that information at church. Now they’re probably not sharing it elsewhere as well, but it says to us that this is a bit of a hidden problem and we’re just starting to understand what it does look like,” Tracy said.
Looking at how to prevent domestic violence and create safe spaces in churches, Kylie said gender inequality was the primary driver for domestic violence. She said a holistic primary, secondary, and tertiary approach was needed.
“I’m aware that that primary approach of gender equality in the church takes us to egalitarian and complementarian differences and debates. We are at the beginning of that discussion, but the science tells us that gender inequality is driving domestic violence,” she said.
“We don’t yet know how to navigate that well in complementarian spaces; we know that it’s an issue that we need to look at further. And that’s about as far as we’ve gotten so far.”
“If you are promoting gender inequality at the source, and then yet wondering why you’re having to mop up situations of domestic violence, you need to think very carefully.” – Kylie Maddox Pidgeon
She recognised that people would have different positions on ensuring gender equality in the operation of their faith communities, “and that is an ongoing conversation.”
“So it’s not saying that that’s going to come out looking the same for everybody. I think there is a real challenge there to think about how do we support the voice of women and men equally in our faith communities and how we think about the power differences that perhaps women and men might experience in both communities as well,” she said.
“I don’t want to undermine people’s prayerful, thorough, theological positions. I want to respect that, but if you are promoting gender inequality at the source, and then yet wondering why you’re having to mop up situations of domestic violence, you need to think very carefully because it’s like that example of throwing people in the river and then wondering why you have to fish them out later on.”
Kylie said she had written about the parallels that exist between complementarianism and domestic abuse in a chapter in Discovering Biblical Equality.
“I’m not saying they’re the same, but there are a number of parallels. And I go through the ways that complementarian theology and practice promotes some of the conditions that lead to domestic violence, like men’s voices being prioritised, women not having as much credibility in their congregation, women and children not being prioritised in terms of spiritual formation or wellbeing.
“The stigma that comes from that presents all sorts of issues … I understand this is very challenging. The complementarian-egalitarian debate is complex … but this is an important place for research.”
“Very often these male perpetrators present very well in church settings.” – Nicola Lock
Nicola Lock, Relationship Counsellor and a member of the Anglican Safe Ministry Commission, said the two key responses to a revelation of domestic abuse were to believe their story and check their safety and that of their children.
“I heard a shocking story from a friend this week of a woman who was quite clearly in a domestic violence relationship, went and told the counsellor at her church. The first response was, ‘I can’t believe your husband is behaving towards you like that’ … because very often these male perpetrators present very well in church settings,” she said.
“Domestic violence is often a crime. They need to be reported to the police or Family and Community Services. And you want to help them go and find the professional help that they need. This is a very complex area. Those of us who work in this area still struggle to work well in this area …And it’s important to remember that with an established pattern of power and control, relationship counselling is usually not appropriate. It’s about the perpetrator of the violence taking responsibility for their behaviour and learning to change their behaviour.”
Kylie said while she hated to do it, she often recommended that people suffering domestic violence not tell their church.
“I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish that churches were much safer at the moment, but generally churches are not yet equipped to be the sole organisation that supports her. So if you’re a church worker or a chaplain or in some kind of role like that, my advice would be to listen and then support her to access professional services.”
“It starts way back in our attitudes, and in things like inequalities and who’s got the voice, who’s got the power, who’s being listened to.” –Tracy Lauersen
As someone who helped develop the 10 Anglican commitments as a blueprint for Anglican churches to respond to abuse, however, Tracy felt there was a role for the church, particularly in the area of addressing gender inequalities.
“When we see someone who’s been murdered on the TV news … there’s this very long thread that led ultimately to the situation that ended her life … It starts way back in our attitudes, and in things like inequalities and who’s got the voice, who’s got the power, who’s being listened to, and so on. So we need to deal with that sort of stuff in order to prevent the very worst situation.”
In the last part of the discussion, Tracy introduced the idea of how can we talk in our communities in a way that will generate safer spaces.
As Rector of St Paul’s Anglican church in Warragul in Gippsland, she called on anyone who has access to a pulpit to preach about domestic violence.
“If you preach about it then you are opening up a space for people to actually have a conversation. You are putting yourself forward as someone who is approachable and who wants to actually talk to people who might be affected by domestic violence.”
Lynda Dunston, a social worker in family, domestic violence advice for Anglicare Sydney, said training was key for anyone preaching against domestic violence.
“When you start preaching, you are going to get more disclosures. People are going to come forward and talk about those things that have been so hidden. So you want to be ready for that … so make sure you’ve done some training and you’ve thought about the issues and you’ve got the resources at hand, so you know how to respond.”
“What does that look like from the parish up to the national level and how is this made a feature in our community life each Sunday?” – Tracy Lauersen
The 10 Anglican commitments that came out of the NCLS Research included measures such as lamenting publicly that the church has a problem, apologising to victims, being concerned about the training of clergy, and ensuring the message of equality of women and men in the church is taught in Sunday schools and from the pulpit.
“Under each of the commitments are strategies and goals of what this might look like at a diocesan level, at a big national level, and brought down to the parish level – and they do talk about equality,” Tracy said.
“It’s fantastic that we have these 10 commitments which have been adopted by our standing committee and they’re being gradually adopted by each of about 23 dioceses around the country. And those of us who are involved in parish ministry sometimes talk about the trinity of ‘If you want to deal with something, you’ve got to state it, you’ve got to staff it, you’ve got to stage it.’ You got to state that you want to deal with this issue, and you have to think about actually investing in staff and putting it up in the front of your church every Sunday.
“And so for our church, what stage we’re at is we have made a statement. We’ve got these 10 commitments, but all they are words at the moment. The next step for us as a church is to think of the investment into things like staff. And what does that look like from the parish up to the national level and how is this made a feature in our community life each Sunday?”
Creating Safe Spaces in Churches Responding to Domestic Violence in Faith Communities provided the following resource list:
a. In case of emergency, call 000
b. 1800 Respect: national helpline, 24-hour national number for sexual assault, family and domestic violence counseling and advice. 1800 737 732 or www.1800respect.org.au
c. MensLine Australia: A 24hr telephone and online counselling service for men with emotional health and relationship concerns. 1300 78 99 78 or www.mensline.org.au
d. No To Violence: Men’s Referral Service Telephone counselling, information and referral service for men using violence in families, male victims, and for their friends or relatives. 1300 766 491 or www.ntv.org.au e. Lifeline 24-hour telephone crisis line. 131 114 or www.lifeline.org.au/get-help
a. Beyer, E., & Arbeiter, S. (2021). Created to thrive: Cultivating abuse-free faith communities. “This comprehensive resource, Created to Thrive, was born out of the desire to equip pastors and Christian leaders to respond wisely to reports of abuse and to create a space in their church or organization where all members can flourish. The contributors, each highly qualified in their respective fields, tackle topics related to abuse, exposing myths and their dangerous consequences, and proposing remedies and best practices.”
Ebook available here:
b. Strickland, D. A. (2020). Is it abuse? A biblical guide to identifying domestic abuse and helping victims. “Providing practical tools and exercises, counselor Darby Strickland shows how anyone can recognize clues suggesting abuse, identify oppressive behavior, and work with a victim to bring clarity, help, and healing”
c. Hill, J. (2019). See what you made me do: Power, control, and domestic abuse. “Women are abused or killed by their partners at astonishing rates- in Australia, almost 17 per cent of women over the age of fifteen – one in six – have been abused by an intimate partner. In this confronting and deeply researched account, journalist Jess Hill uncovers the ways in which abusers exert control in the darkest – and most intimate – ways imaginable….Combining exhaustive research with riveting storytelling, See What You Made Me Do dismantles the flawed logic of victim-blaming and challenges everything you thought you knew about domestic and family violence.”
d. Bancroft, L. (2003). Why does he do that? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men. New York: Berkley Books. “Domestic violence expert Lundy Bancroft [helps] those who have been touched by abuse understand why abusers behave the way they do and what can be done about it. Bancroft teaches women how to survive and improve an abusive relationship; how to determine how dangerous an abuser is and when it is impossible to rectify a situation; and how to get out of a relationship safely. Bancroft identifies nine types of abusive men, addressing different styles, from the physical batterer to the strictly verbal abuser.”
a. SAFER: an online tool designed by Common Grace to help the Australian Christian community keep victims of domestic and family violence safe. SAFER offers practical ways to help victims plan for safety and help perpetrators face their personal responsibility for their abuse. SAFER is an evidence-based resource, created in consultation with experts in family violence, social work, mental health and Christian ministry.
b. KNOW Domestic Abuse course with the Sydney Anglican Safe Ministry team. This training course endeavours to assist participants, particularly those who are leaders in churches, to understand how to address the issue of domestic abuse and how to compassionately care for those who are experiencing it.
c. Baptist Resources: Home – Safer Spaces Toolkit. A resource of Australian Baptist Ministries to address domestic abuse and build relationally healthy communities.
d. Sydney Anglican Diocesan Domestic Abuse Policy and flow chart for response.
e. Melbourne Anglican Diocese Preventing Violence Against Women resources and training.
f. National Anglican Family and Domestic Violence Research Reports (2021) and General Synod 10 Commitments.
g. Before it Starts: Primary prevention program for church youth groups – Anglicare Sydney and YouthWorks.
h. Faith Safe: Faith Communities of Victoria. “Faith Resources: Preventative and responsive resources on family violence for use within a specific faith tradition.”
i. Restored (UK). “Restored is changing the story for women caught in the cycle of abuse by equipping the Church to make a difference, supporting survivors, advocating on their behalf and engaging men in the conversation. We want to see a network of churches that do not tolerate abuse, but instead provide a safe refuge for survivors, nurture them back to health and demonstrate God’s deep love for them.”