THE police are called to an incident every thirty seconds. In any given year, eight per cent of women will know its pain. One woman in England and Wales is killed every three days. A man loses his life every 21. Helen Thorne’s book faces head-on the painful and horrific reality of domestic abuse, which, sadly, includes the experience of many in our churches.
Earlier this year, an important study on domestic abuse among churchgoers appeared, from the Christian alliance Restored, the first such study to be conducted in the UK. In Churches Too: Church responses to domestic abuse by Kristin Aune (Coventry University) and Rebecca Barnes (Leicester University) (www.restoredrelationships.org/cumbriaresearch) found that one quarter of the churchgoers who responded had been physically hurt or abused in another way (News, 23 March).
Thorne’s book — a practical guide for those suffering domestic abuse of any kind, and for those supporting them specifically in a church context — is, therefore, timely. The book, like the study, dispels the notion that such abuse does not happen in churches. It calls on the Church to be much more proactive in identifying and dealing with it.
As you would expect from a title from IVP, the book assumes an Evangelical context and readership. Aimed at pastors, small-group leaders, mentors, and friends, it is easy to read. It brings together practical advice and snippets of real-life stories with boxes and charts summarising the key information. The threefold structure — how to identify the different forms that abuse can take and recognise the signs; how to give pastoral counsel; and how to help people take the next step — works well. The author is knowledgeable and experienced in her subject. She advocates a multi-agency approach, and rightly counsels churches to consult the safeguarding policies of their denomination. A resources sections at the back gives useful links.
I thought that the prayer section (in the appendix) could have been richer — there are further biblically based liturgical resources in Pastoral Prayers (Continuum, 1996). I also found some of Thorne’s more theological passages quite challenging. She often describes God as big and powerful, but I wondered whether — in a book that describes so eloquently and shockingly the sense of utter worthlessness which repeated subjection to such abuse can cause — more could have been made of the vulnerability of God. The passages about the Cross, which were interesting, would have been an obvious place to do this.
By the same token, there is an absence of biblical female images for God from scripture (for example, the woman with the lost coin) which could help dispel the idea that it is always men who hold positions of power. A crucial problem for me, especially in a book on this subject, is that Thorne seems to fight shy of saying either that women are equal to men, or that they can have a position of leadership over men.
I welcomed her realism about the need for divorce in many cases of domestic violence, but had reservations about her interpretation of Ephesians 5.22. While she does at least insist that this verse must not be “twisted into a weapon” in the hands of an abuser, she appears to take it as read that — while submission is mutual — the correct application of this verse is that there is a particular onus on wives to submit to their husbands, more than vice versa.
For that reason, I would struggle to recommend this book to others. Even if I did, I don’t think that this interpretation would get a very favourable response from my (many) parishioners who have been subjected to domestic abuse in the past or present.
Nevertheless, Thorne is refreshingly hopeful about the real part that churches can play in highlighting the issue and helping people, adamant that the Church must not collude with the problem, but must get better at responding in a way that is, in her words, “radical, positive and lasting”. This is a brave and bold message that the Church really needs to hear. Clearly, there is an urgent need for more research on domestic abuse and the churches’ responses to it in the UK. Used together with the executive summary and recommendations in Aune and Barnes’s study, this book is welcome and could be a very valuable starting-point.
The Revd Anna Macham is the Priest-in-Charge of St Philip’s, Camberwell, in south London.
Walking with Domestic Abuse Sufferers
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