Australian Church Confronts Domestic Violence

Photo: Andrew Neel, Unsplash

By Robyn Douglass

Australians love “mateship,” but the stereotype of tough manliness has a dark underbelly. Australia as a whole is grappling with the ugly truth of domestic violence. One in six women and one in 16 men has experienced violence by a current or previous partner.

A recent report reveals that churchgoing Anglicans are just as or more likely to be exposed to domestic violence than ordinary Australians — and most victims (88 percent) did not seek help from their churches.

The survey, conducted by NCLS Research and Australia’s General Synod, was conducted in December 2019. It involved more than 2,000 men and women

When asked whether they had ever been in a violent relationship with a partner, 22 percent of Anglicans said they had. This compares with 15 percent for the equivalent group of the general Australian public.

The report said that when asked about their experiences over a lifetime and given examples of abuse, 38 percent of the general population had experienced IPV but 44 percent of Anglicans had.

The convener of the national Family Violence Working Group, the Rev. Tracy Lauersen, told The Living Church that it is the first known national denominational study of intimate partner violence, and was prompted by the General Synod in 2017.

“Violence against women is a national emergency, and the Anglican Church of Australia wants to be part of the solution,” she said.

Lauersen said the survey is “ultimately a good news story for the church, as the research and resulting report and ten commitments can be used to propel important prevention action in our own church, and encourage other Christian churches and other faith groups to address this issue.”

Nevertheless, the Anglican Church of Australia has taken a public whipping over the issue. Prominent Sydney Anglican journalist Julia Baird asked in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Where is the urgency, the garment-tearing, the rage, shame, fury and thunder from the church, that this is happening in its ranks?”

The Primate’s response was more muted. “All Anglicans will feel deep sadness over these results,” Archbishop Geoffrey Smith said. “But armed with this data, we can develop a better response to protect those within our church communities from domestic violence.

“There is a strong resolve among the church leadership to address the problem and to provide an appropriate response and adequate support for victims.”

The General Synod report said that some church teachings, including that marriage is lifelong and that forgiveness should be unconditional, can be harmful to those suffering from abuse.

The Movement for the Ordination of Women Australia drew a link between the prevalence of domestic violence and an interpretation of men’s headship found particularly in the Pauline pastoral letters, Timothy and Titus. MOW said Paul’s authorship of these letters is questioned by most modern scholars, and it contradicts his earliest letter, Galatians, where “in Christ there is neither male nor female.”

The doctrine of headship of men is promoted by the Sydney Anglican Diocese and spread around Australia,” said the Rev. Dr. Lesley McLean, MOW’s president. “This theology preaches the submission of women to men, and is harmful within the marriage, but also to the general well-being of women and men who are brought up to believe that women must not question the dictates of men, nor hold an office in the church where they teach or preach to men.”

“You don’t get much about headship from Jesus,” McLean told TLC.

“If men want to see God only as ‘father,’ they need to be careful — they may be seeing God in their own image.”

The Christian gospel, she said, says that God’s love is for everyone, and Christians are ordered to bring this radical love to those most in need of it.

“When the church fails to act on that, we lose credibility as well,” McLean said.

Rev. Dr. Steven G. Ogden says masculinity problematic in the church. He says many churches, like dysfunctional families, have been infected by an excessive sense of entitlement, in which “father knows best.”

The author of Violence, Entitlement and Politics, published in September, Ogden told TLC that based on his study of family and military violence, “an excessive sense of entitlement is predominantly a masculine gender pattern, fostering a predisposition to controlling and/or violent behavior. It thrives in a culture of entitlement.

“A culture of entitlement is characterized by proprietorial thinking. In domestic violence, for example, proprietorial thinking is often the catalyst, and justification, for controlling and/or violent behavior (‘you are my wife’).”

While there have been some responses from around the country, the Melbourne diocese is addressing the challenge — not only of dealing with violence in families, but addressing the culture in which abuse thrives.

Since April 2018, the diocese has been running a Prevention of Violence Against Women program that has been highly praised for its vision and practical training.

Last year, the diocese received funding from agencies including the state government to run a pilot program to prevent violence against women in faith communities.

Five parishes took part, from very different parts of this sprawling city. Archdeacon Nick White explained that while the diocesan program deals directly with family violence, the pilot “looked upstream,” to challenge the cultural understanding of what is appropriate and what’s respectful in relationships.

That such a project launched in a city under hard lockdown for 112 days straight speaks to the churches’ commitment to a difficult issue. Indeed, COVID-19 lockdowns made the response more pressing, as family violence was reported to increase during that time of high pressure.

The pilot project offered a range of resources, from Bible studies to age-appropriate activities for young people.

Lynley Giles was on the steering committee for the program in her parish, St. Thomas’s, in suburban Burwood. The parish has four Sunday congregations: two services in English, one in Cantonese, and one in Mandarin.

Giles had been a marriage counselor in church agencies for many years, and while she had plans for retirement, is still in demand for her advice and guidance. She has heard many heartbreaking stories from Christian and non-Christian couples, and said some of the saddest stories are from church communities that blithely assume abuse does not happen in Christian relationships.

“There are many churches who cannot believe anyone in their congregation would be abusive to their partner,” she said.

At St. Thomas’s, home groups were the focus for discussion. A questionnaire about gender balance in the church and its leadership prompted lively discussions, which were followed up by a series of sermons on equality, power, and stereotypes. Four Bible studies followed, and material was translated so all congregations could take part.

Giles, the former chairwoman of Christians for Biblical Equality, warns that the doctrine of headship can enable abusers.

“It doesn’t mean that everyone who teaches headship is abusive, but the doctrine gives them permission if they are that way inclined,” she warned.

In Melbourne’s inner city at St. Augustine’s Moreland, the parish council and vicar, the Rev. Angela Cook, jumped at the chance to be involved in the pilot.

The parish set up a steering committee that, like St Thomas’s, required staff and lay leaders to complete training.

“Every person on that committee could tell a story — ‘my sister was in a relationship,’ ‘I was in an abusive relationship prior to the one I am in now,’ or ‘my father was a minister and we used to have women turning up on our doorstep with black eyes,’” Cook said.

Just being able to speak about those experiences was liberating, she said, because there is so much shame associated with the issue.

“It’s not something we talk about. We say it doesn’t happen here, or it doesn’t happen in ‘good’ churches, and I think the reality is family violence happens in society and it happens in churches.

“Step one for me has been helping churches realize that just because that man is a good person or just because everyone is nice doesn’t mean that power and control issues, coercion, and emotional violence aren’t going on.”

Lynley Giles stresses that not all abuse in families is violent.

“I get clients who, when I ask them about violence, will react and say ‘Oh no, my partner is not violent.’ But they will tell me a story of terrible control — you know, he controls the money, he controls who she sees or what she does,” Giles said.

“We have to be really careful of using the word violence. People see it as hitting, pushing, or punching, when some of this other behavior is even worse.”

Both parishes have appointed a trained safety officer people can approach in a crisis if they don’t feel confident speaking to the minister in charge. Cook said even having the posters up to advertise their services made it clear that the parish was working on it.

Participants say there is much more work to be done, but this has been a good start.

At St. Augustine’s, a series of action points have been stymied by yet another lockdown. The challenges ahead include getting more people trained and developing appropriate support for perpetrators as well as victims, particularly when the couple comes from the church.

Cook has been proud that the diocese was on the front foot, leading the way in helping the wider community change its culture by making churches safe and healthy.

“Jesus says we move from death to life; we want to move from a culture of darkness to light, from a place that ignores or silently maybe condones these unhelpful patterns or relationships to an environment that says this is something we are aware of.

“We are actively trying to help people be healthier in their relationships and in our community.”

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