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A haven for the victims — not the perpetrators

23 November 2018

Churches must do more to understand and respond to acts of violence against women, says Natalie Collins

DAVE is the life and soul of the party: everyone likes him. When Dave goes home, he is erratic, domineering, and controlling. His children and his wife, Julie, are scared of him. Julie cannot go to her church for support, because Dave is the Vicar.

Sarah’s husband, Mike, has assaulted her, manipulated her into large debts, and isolated her from her family. She spoke to her priest, Fr Ben, about Mike’s behaviour, and Fr Ben began meeting them as a couple. In the first session, Mike cried, and begged Sarah for forgiveness. He began attending church regularly, and started confirmation classes. Months later, Mike’s behaviour is worse than ever. Sarah cannot talk to her church because, to them, Mike is a success story: a triumph of the redemptive narrative.

Annie is 15. Her boyfriend, Jack, made her do sexual things that she was uncomfortable with. She feels ashamed and guilty. Her parents and youth leader have made it clear that sex should be saved for marriage. Annie attributes her bad feelings to a betrayal of Jesus; it does not occur to her that Jack has been sexually abusive.

RECENT research from Coventry and Leicester Universities suggested that only about two in seven churchgoers consider their church to be equipped to deal with a disclosure of domestic abuse. This is particularly shocking when, as the Office for National Statistics says, 30 per cent of women will be subjected to abuse by a partner, and, according to a definitive study by the NSPCC, a staggering 72 per cent of girls will be emotionally abused by a boyfriend by the age of 16.

It is likely that this prevalence of abuse is reflective of the abuse perpetrated in the Church. As such, it is of the utmost importance for churches to be equipped in responding to abuse. The Church of England’s 2017 policy and practice guidance, Responding Well to Domestic Abuse, instructs due regard for church-authorised individuals on the issue of domestic abuse; but, as is often the case, policies and procedures are only elements in a much broader response.

Sunday is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Instituted by the United Nations in 1999, this date was chosen in remembrance of political activists, the Mirabal sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa, who were assassinated on 25 November 1960 in the Dominican Republic. It is also known as White Ribbon Day: men are encouraged to wear a white ribbon signalling their commitment to stand with women against male violence.

Because the date falls on a Sunday this year, there is an opportunity for church leaders and congregations to acknowledge the harm that women and girls endure: domestic abuse, sexual violence, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, so-called “honour-based violence”, forced marriage, early marriage (a euphemism for child rape), infanticide, sex-selective abortion, maternal alienation, reproductive coercion, trafficking, exploitation in the sex industry, breast ironing, and online abuse.

Whether through a focus during intercessions, an invitation to local domestic-abuse or rape-crisis services to contribute to the worship, or a sermon focused on the issues, churches can choose to raise awareness of the injustices that women and girls face. For those considering preaching on the topic, Sojourners recently released their resource “100 Sermons”: 100 sermons about domestic and sexual violence (www.sojo.net/100sermons). It may provide ideas for preachers and interested others on how to broach the topic.

Opening up conversations about abuse invites disclosure. Ensuring that you provide details of local and national domestic-abuse and sexual-violence resources at the service is important, as is recognising that this is a specialist subject requiring ongoing learning and both personal and professional development.

MY WORK over the past decade within Christian communities has convinced me that the Church needs more support to understand and respond to abuse. I am therefore organising an event for Christians on 23 March 2019.

Out Of Control: #metoo, #churchtoo, #ustoo? is a one-day conference in London. Contributors include Dr Elaine Storkey, Rachel Gardner, Selina Stone, Dr Steve Holmes, and Dr Margaret Barker. With art, poetry, theatre, and more, it is a day to come together to respond to male violence. There are free tickets for those who have been subjected to abuse, and early bird tickets are £40 (until 23 December).

Through Jesus, our church communities should be places where liberation and fullness of life are available to all, yet that is often not the case for women and children subjected to abuse. Although change will be slow, it is possible. We can all work to create safe communities in which abusers are challenged, and women and children are given the resources and support they need.

For more information about the Out Of Control conference, visit nataliecollins.info/outofcontrolevent.

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