What abuse survivors want from Christian brothers and sisters

Allowing victims of domestic abuse (DA) to separate themselves spiritually from their abuser is even more important than allowing them to remarry in the church, says DA activist Isabella Young*.

She was reacting to this week’s historic vote by the Sydney Anglican Synod (church parliament) to ask their Bishops to consider allowing divorced survivors of abuse to remarry – on the basis that abuse is a Biblical ground for divorce. Many churches, from Pentecostal to Presbyterian, have had similar debates over many years. For some churches, abuse is seen as a form of desertion, long held to be a ground of divorce. The conservative Westminster Confession of Faith specifies “such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate” as a sufficient ground for divorce. Isabella Young has also discussed a 1553 proposal for a new  law by the Anglican reformer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: “If a man is cruel to his wife and displays excessive harshness of word and of deed toward her… and if he refuses to abandon his cruelty… Then he must be considered his wife’s mortal enemy and a threat to her life…

“In her peril, recourse must be made to the remedy of divorce, no less than if her life had been openly attacked… it is our will that parties set free in this manner may contract a new marriage, while those convicted of the said crimes be punished either by perpetual exile or imprisonment for life.” Cranmer was beheaded before it could become law.

“It’s more about the fact that they aren’t tied spiritually to someone who was abusive.” – Isabella Young

But for Young, who was married to a man who used the Bible to force her into a state of subservience, the issue is not just about remarriage.

“To someone who has been abused, it’s more about the fact that they aren’t tied spiritually to someone who was abusive. They may or may not choose to remarry at some point in the future, but it’s actually very traumatising to be physically, spiritually, emotionally bound to someone who is being abusive to you and you feel like you can never escape from them,” she said today.

She said the Anglican decision – to request bishops to approve the remarriage of a divorced person who has been abused physically or emotionally by their former spouse – would clear up damaging confusion about the status of people who were often anxious about whether they were allowed to remarry according to church law.

“It removes a little bit of confusion about whether they are a single person upon exiting an abusive situation,” she said.

“Until now there’s not been anything on the Anglican website that is very clear on what they are to do. So, depending on whether they’re in a very conservative church or a slightly more progressive one, they will get a mixed message from whatever minister or rector they talk to as to what they are allowed to do and what church teaching is.”

“This has given some people hope that they’re not regarded as evil or wrong or ungodly to even be considering this.” – Isabella Young

She said most of the women she knew would now feel confident to challenge a minister who told them that the biblical view was that marriage is indissoluble.

“I think this is just as important a thing from a consideration of leaving as it is for consideration of whether you are to remarry, because it has to do with that issue of separateness and individual personhood. You’re either one flesh or you’re not,” she said.

“I feel very heartened by the fact that this has given some people hope that they’re not regarded as evil or wrong or ungodly to even be considering this – and a little more confidence is a wonderful thing,” she said.

Young made the point that as far back as the Reformation in England in the 16th Century, heroes of the faith such as Archbishop Cranmer were in favour of divorce and remarriage for abused spouses. However, until this week, no action had been taken on a paper commissioned and discussed in the Anglican Church since 1984, although some rectors (ministers) have been quietly marrying divorced people in their churches for years.

Young said she would like the Church now to consider the situation of abused clergy, who often find their status in jeopardy if they leave a marriage.

“Ministry wives are an extremely vulnerable group but those people in ministry who have been abused are at least as vulnerable as that because they have the potential to be thought of as not godly people because they’ve left a marriage; and I think there is always suspicion over people who have divorced due to abuse and their employment situation may not be as confident as if they were still with their partner.”

*Isabella Young is a pseudonym for a survivor of abuse.