THE House of Bishops has updated its ten-year-old policy that condemned “all forms” of domestic abuse, and is offering new guidance to clerics and lay leaders on how better to support survivors in the digital age.
The guidance is laid out in the report Responding Well to Domestic Abuse: Policy and practice guidance, published by the Archbishops’ Council on Wednesday. It is the second edition of Responding to Domestic Abuse: Guidelines for those with pastoral responsibilities, which was issued in 2006 in response to a motion passed by the General Synod in 2004. The motion called on the Church to view with “extreme alarm” the rise of domestic-abuse incidences in the UK, and for national safeguarding guidelines to be issued to the clergy.
The original document, which included a foreword from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, offered a detailed background on domestic abuse in the UK, and specific advice on the pastoral needs of children and young people. It also documented the experiences of women in black and minority ethnic communities, case studies of survivors, and contained appendices on abuse of the elderly, abusers among the clergy, and working with perpetrators.
The latest report revisits these areas, but has been updated to reflect a change in the Serious Crime Act 2015, which recognised the exercise of “coercive control” over victims as psychological abuse. It also tackles digital abuse (through texting and social media), besides physical, financial, sexual, same-sex, and spiritual abuse, while offering advice on confidentiality and data protection.
The report revisits “unhelpful” or harmful theology concerning obedience, marriage, women, divorce, and suffering in the Bible. It points to data from 2015 that suggests that one woman is killed every three days in the UK as a result of domestic violence, and that two women are killed every week by their current or former partners.
The elderly, women, children, and young people are the most vulnerable, it says, with one in five teenagers experiencing physical abuse from their boyfriend or girlfriend, and 30 per cent of domestic-abuse incidents “starting or intensifying” during pregnancy.
Churches should recognise those at risk, and be prepared to offer welcome and support, the report says. It includes official parish and diocesan statements condemning all forms of abuse and pledging to protect survivors and to report perpetrators.
A “safety and exit plan” has also been drafted for the vulnerable to provide the church with information and contacts to minimise the risk of abuse: for example, listing neighbours, relatives, or friends who might be relied on to report domestic incidences, look after any children, or provide a safe house.
Under the revised policy, and the Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure 2016, all authorised clerics, bishops, archdeacons, and readers and lay workers, churchwardens, and PCC members who work with children, young people, and vulnerable adults, must comply with the latest safeguarding guidance, or face disciplinary action. This includes churchpeople who are involved with youth groups, marriage preparation, and ordination training.
In a short foreword to the report, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, who is the lead bishop on safeguarding, writes: “The Church remains committed to those who have been survivors/victims of domestic abuse and to addressing the processes that lead to domestic abuse. Domestic abuse in all its forms is contrary to the will of God and an affront to human dignity. All need to play their part in preventing or halting it.”
‘It never occurred to me that I was being abused’
Jane, a mother of two, has been involved in church support for abuse victims after leaving an abusive marriage.
Can you describe what happened, and how it made you feel?
I was emotionally abused by my ex-husband in a marriage lasting 13 years. From the beginning, he was very controlling. Initially, I would try and find ways around his control, such as arranging my working hours so that I could attend church while he was out with friends.
But the longer it went on, the more I got worn down. I took the line of least resistance, and tried to become the person I thought he wanted me to be.
Although he felt threatening, he did not actually hit me; so it never occurred to me that I was being abused.
Can you give some examples of his behaviour?
He would tell me that if I tried to leave him he would call social services and tell them I was an unfit mother, and have the children taken away.
I was always in the wrong. Even when I knew I was right, on some factual point, I would be told I was wrong.
He made it very difficult to keep in touch with my friends unless he approved of them. He would be rude and obnoxious if I invited them round. A friend once commented on the way I dressed as being more his taste than mine.
I lost all sense of self-worth. However hard I tried, I could never reach expectations. In fact, I tried to stop feeling.
When did things start to change?
At the time, I would not have acknowledged that I was being abused. I thought I had made a mistake, but had to stick with it.
But, after 12 years, he was openly having an affair, and at this point I turned to the chaplain at work to ask for help in staying in this difficult marriage.
After he had heard my story, he suggested that the marriage was dead, and therefore gave me permission to consider divorce. It took a lot of soul-searching before I finally took that step, his affair having given me grounds and nullified the impact of his threat to call social services.
What could the Church do?
The Church should be vocal in its condemnation of all forms of abuse, which destroys lives, and, in the case of domestic abuse, also has a negative effect on any children of the relationship. It should promote loving, caring, supportive relationships after the example of Jesus.
Churches should be places where victims/survivors can tell their story in confidence, and be heard and believed — not judged — and supported as they make decisions for the next steps of their life. I am glad that survivors’ input was sought for the [Church’s new] guidance. It was vital [that the issue] was seen from a survivor’s perspective.
I felt trapped by my belief in the Church’s teaching of lifelong marriage. I made my vows in church, and intended to stay in my marriage for life. My husband’s view on faith and God was that he didn’t want anything in my life to be more important than him.
How are you now? Is it possible to speak of recovery?
Recovery from abuse is a lifelong journey. The feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and failure stay with me. I have been lucky to meet people who have been supportive and encouraging, and have helped me on the path to a fulfilling life. Without their practical support, I would not have been able to continue in my profession. I still constantly battle with my low self-confidence, however.
My local church has been very supportive; I hope others take note from this guidance.
My life has been a lot better since I left him; so I no longer bear any grudge for myself. In fact, my experience helps to inform my current ministry. I am still angry on behalf of my children: I suppose that is for them to forgive.
Read commentary on the new guidance by Dr Elaine Storkey here