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Listening on abuse

15 March 2013

Sue Atkinson finds a study illuminating


How Survivors of Abuse Relate to God
Susan Shooter
Ashgate £55
Church Times Bookshop £49.50 (Use code CT618 )

SUSAN SHOOTER's book is based on her doctoral thesis, and explores the faith of people traumatised by abuse. The methodology is clearly outlined, indicating a thorough piece of research that comes to us at a crucial time in the Church, with the publication of Responding Well (House of Bishops), and the number of people disclosing sexual abuse after the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Shooter searched for interviewees who were established, regular worshippers. She ended up with just nine who agreed to the publication of their stories. Shooter recorded uninterrupted accounts from these women (she did not set out to include only women, but that is how it worked out) of their abuse in relation to their faith.

There is a fascinating chapter where Shooter draws parallels between the interviewees and the words of Job, and another where she relates the women's stories to the words of the medieval mystic Marguerite Porete.

Shooter describes the main outcomes of her analysis in terms of "God's Timeless Presence", "Transformation", and "Knowing Ministry"; and there is a well-argued challenge to the patriarchal flavour of much of our church life, showing, for example, some of the interviewees' not being listened to in their church - although the women were active in pastoral care and ministry.

I did not entirely understand Shooter's insistence that this research is not "about how to minister [to survivors of abuse]"; but she gives examples of some appalling responses - from inappropriate exorcisms to damaging views on forgiveness, and the awful effects of some atonement theology. If my experiences of working with clergy in "responding well" to people who have been abused are anything to go by, I suspect many ministers reading Shooter's book would find their pastoral practice turned on its head.

This is essential reading for anyone in the Church with authority, those in ministerial training, all clergy in pastoral positions, and those who hope to understand the estimated one in five people who are abused at some point in their lives.

And the main message of the book? Listen! Listen to that tiny voice from survivors, so easily drowned out by simplistic views on forgiving and an unwillingness to engage with profound pain. Many survivors are already excellent listeners, and pastors with great empathy and skill. This is an unacknowledged source of ministerial expertise in our churches.

This is a timely and important book.

Sue Atkinson is the author of several books, including  Breaking the Chains of Abuse (Lion, 2006).

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