IT IS Tuesday morning, and in a candlelit chapel in Birmingham, ten women and a priest gather to pray, sing, and listen to Bible readings or poetry.
This service takes place in an Anglican parish once a fortnight, but it will never appear on a church bulletin or website. All the women taking part have experienced some form of domestic violence or abuse. Not all have a religious background, and some previous church experiences have been difficult. One woman was told in a church setting to “pull herself together” and go back to her perpetrator. Another returned to her husband each time he asked for God’s forgiveness, and he hurt her repeatedly.
Another participant, Anne, nearly died after her husband attacked her with a stick. He initially told police that she had fallen over after drinking wine, but he is currently serving a prison sentence after changing his plea to guilty at the last minute.
Anne says: “I can now see that, from day one of the marriage, his behaviour was coercive. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes not so much.
“He took away my control of my life, and I found myself isolated and sad. I lost contact with my friends — it’s that manipulative. . . Spending time with him instead was good for our relationship, so he said.”
On the morning of the attack, Anne had been to church. “When I got home, he was angry because he’d been waiting for me, before he had breakfast, and I’d had tea and toast after the service.”
Later that day, as she was doing the washing-up, Anne’s husband attacked her with a stick. He hit her 30 times, until it broke.
“I was so frightened I wet myself. I went into the bedroom, and he followed me in, put a pillow over my head and tried to suffocate me.” Anne eventually escaped, received help, and her ex-husband was arrested. The police ran out of space on the assault charge sheet to record all her wounds.
ACCORDING to the Crown Prosecution Service, domestic abuse covers a range of types of abuse, “including, but not limited to, psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional”. “Domestic abuse” can be prosecuted under a range of offences, and the term is used “to describe a range of controlling and coercive behaviours, used by one person to maintain control over another with whom they have, or have had, an intimate or family relationship”. In 2015, as part of the Serious Crime Act, “coercive control” became a crime in England and Wales.
For the year ending March 2018, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that 7.9 per cent of women (1.3 million) and 4.2 per cent of men (695,000) had experienced domestic abuse in the previous year. Women’s Aid says, however: “Women are considerably more likely to experience repeated and severe forms of abuse, including sexual violence. They are also more likely to have experienced sustained physical, psychological, or emotional abuse, or violence which results in injury or death.”
Between 2009 and 2017, the Femicide Census found that, on average, one woman in the UK was killed by her partner, or former partner, on average every four days. One third of these women were killed after they had left the relationship.
Mandy Marshall, a co-founder and co-director of Restored, a Christian organisation that works to end violence against women, says that the new Act, and the #Metoo and #Churchtoo online movements, have raised awareness of the issue in the Church. “It’s that classic thing where there is a light, the darkness is revealed, and you start to see clearly what is happening,” she says.
The campaigner Natalie Collins (Back Page Interview, 18 January; Comment, 23 November 2018), the author of Out of Control (SPCK 2019), a book which explores what domestic abuse is, and the impact it has, agrees. But she warns that, despite this shift in consciousness, victims have less access to justice. “Disclosure, and the amount of reports to the police, have gone up, but the rates of charging offenders have gone down,” she says. “The rate that men are killing women is at a five-year high.
“We are getting to a point where we are less able to rely on services. The statutory and charitable sectors have had a lot of their funding cut, owing to austerity and ideologically driven cuts. There’s potential here for churches to educate themselves and step into the gap where there is this huge societal failure. It’s an opportunity for the Church to get its act together, to offer something that is really needed in our society.”
Mrs Collins was part of a church at the time that she was being abused by her husband, who is now her ex. “On the one hand, the church was really damaging to me. It wasn’t just that the church responded badly when it emerged that my husband was abusive: it was that I grew up in a church community which inculturated me into attitudes and beliefs that made me vulnerable to an abuser in the first place: a culture that said you need to be forgiving, loving, kind, submissive; you mustn’t have sex before marriage; and it’s your responsibility to stop men being sexually interested in you.
“All this, partnered with wider societal messages — from music, magazines, films — all perpetuated these narratives of romance and love, which created a perfect storm into which an abuser could come. I did not recognise that his behaviour was abusive.”
ANOTHER woman, Kudakwashe Nyakudya, recognises this cultural conditioning. She was subjected to ten years of abuse by her Christian husband.
“The church and culture where I was raised always preached that a woman should submit herself to her husband,” she says. “Unfortunately, that principle only works when the husband loves his wife; when the judgement that the husband makes is going to be good for his wife and his family.
“Where there’s abuse, that principle is toxic. I was born and married in Zimbabwe, and, shortly after, my husband announced we were moving to England. I was isolated, and didn’t have anything else to compare the marriage with.
“The abuse intensified over time: name-calling, sexual abuse — ‘other women do this for their husbands.’ The physical abuse — the slapping, the dragging, the pushing — started four years into the marriage. There was financial abuse also: I’d had a good job as a senior nurse, but I had no control over my finances.
“I had tried to get help for the children and me, but the abuse was interpreted as difficulties like a ‘communication problem’ and ‘lack of submission’. Christian friends told me: ‘You have a big testimony if God will recover this marriage.’ No one said that my husband should take responsibility for what was happening.
“Whenever I did speak out, and they contacted him, he would give a twisted version of what was going on. If I said that he hit me, he would say: ‘Oh she did this, she was the one.’ He also said that I had mental-health problems.”
Ms Nyakudya left with her children after her husband confiscated their official documents. She phoned the police, terrified that he was planning to kill them.
“Within 30 minutes, a police officer came. The police believed me. I was offered a refuge place. At the time, I didn’t accept, but they gave me a safety plan which led to me leaving.”
After the separation, her ex-husband convinced the courts that he should have contact with his children.
“Then one of my children was completing a routine activity at school, where they had to give examples of consequences and rewards at home, and what she described was clearly physical abuse. That opened a police and social-services inquiry that led to court proceedings. So the courts did not believe me, but they believed a professional.
“And that is a problem — not just in the Church, but one that crosses all cultures. It is that perpetrators are very, very cunning. They groom the victim, and they also groom the environment around the victim. They will appear to be very good people on the outside; but the victim knows the terror at home.”
KATE (not her real name) was divorced from her husband, who is a priest, six years ago. Her divorce petition details adultery, financial abuse, and a threat to kill. But, after the divorce was granted on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour, Kate heard nothing from the diocese, and was later shocked to discover that no action had been taken against her ex-husband.
Most divorces based on unreasonable behaviour are not tested by the court. “That is why the granting of a decree absolute by a civil court for unreasonable behaviour cannot be taken at face value for the purpose of CDM proceedings,” a statement from Church House said.
“I never knew that what was happening to me was abusive,” says Kate. “I’d been referred to hospital with some memory loss and confusion, and a range of tests was carried out on me, including a head scan. I was told that everything was fine, but that the way I was having to live with my husband and his abusive behaviour was causing me medical problems.”
Counselling was arranged, and Kate’s medical records at the time show one counsellor expressing concern for her safety while she remained with her husband.
Eventually, she did leave. “After the first session of counselling, [the counsellor] summarised what I’d said, and hearing it from her made me realise I needed to go.
“I’d talked about his affairs and how hit me on the head — if you punch someone there, the bruises don’t show.
“He’d take things from my bag and my purse, and move things around; so I had to lock stuff away and hide my phone and car keys. It’s been suggested to me that he wanted me to think I was going crazy, to disorient me.
“I stayed with him because he wasn’t like that all the time: he could be very charming. Sometimes, after he did something, or he thought that I’d discovered something, he’d bring me chocolates or flowers. In between these things happening, he seemed like the man that I married. He seemed caring, and he didn’t lie to me all the time — sometimes, he would be telling me the truth.
“For quite a long time, there would be a very bad atmosphere, and then suddenly he would be charming again. And, when he was like that, the person I’d known originally, I couldn’t quite believe he’d done the things that he’d done, and I doubted myself — until he did it again.”
After her divorce, Kate went to see the police. Her ex-husband was arrested, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed.
“This allowed him to say he was innocent, and that I was lying,” she says.
In 2016, she made a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure, supported by five witness statements. “It was the only route I had. This was the only way the Church allows you to do it. The whole process is awful, and I was offered no care whatsoever.”
Her ex responded with denial — citing Kate as a jealous, obsessive woman — and included a statement from a counsellor friend of his (who did not know Kate), which suggested that Kate had been experiencing psychotic episodes.
The complaint was conditionally deferred. The Bishop said that he did not find claims of serious misconduct proven, and wrote that Kate “has not understood that, for any allegation to be considered, she has to provide evidence for her assertions”.
Kate says: “He took my ex-husband’s denials at face value, questioned why I didn’t report to police at the time, and stated that there was no corroborating evidence from other family members.”
To counter the mental-instability claims, Kate arranged and underwent an examination by a consultant psychologist, who ruled out psychosis, and stated: “Her degree of conviction, involvement, and preoccupation in these beliefs are no greater than would be expected if someone has been abused in the way she has described.”
Kate was told that this report could not be considered under the CDM, and further attempts to provide evidence of other serious misconduct to the diocese have stalled.
”It’s so easy for a woman in my situation to be painted as hysterical and vengeful. It’s easy for the man to lie and carry on with his life as before. No one has asked: ‘Is something actually happening here?’”
The CDM process relating to safeguarding is currently being officially examined, chaired by the Bishop at Lambeth. If a complaint is dismissed, or no further action is taken, a complainant can seek a review, a Church House spokesperson said.
LONG after she had separated from her husband, Ms Nyakudya was asked in church where her husband was. “When I said I had left him because of domestic abuse, they usually wanted to find ways of reconciling me to my ex.
“I spent a long time not going into a church, [instead] preaching the Bible to my kids and having our own service because of this.”
In contrast, for Mrs Collins, a supportive church community was a crucial part of her recovery from abuse. “They offered lots of healing resources, including free trauma-informed counselling from one church member. They were very available; they made space for me, and created a community where my children could be looked after if I needed them to.
“What women often find [who] go to a church as a single parent [is that] they will be treated as someone who needs support. But the same church could have a couple where the man is abusing his wife, and they could offer a very toxic response, such as trying to save the marriage.”
Anne says that she received great support from her church as she came to terms with her experiences, and also as part of what the women call the Freedom Service in Birmingham (described in the introduction).
The service developed organically through a link between a secular charity and a local church, Anne says. “Sometimes, we bring a reading along — a poem or something inspirational we’ve seen — and the Vicar chooses the [Bible] reading; sometimes, it’s the lectern reading from the Sunday before. We may talk about the religious side of it, or even the theological aspect of it, but then we also talk about how it affects us in our recovery.
“The Vicar sets it up as a church service, and he prepares the chapel with candles. Sometimes, we light tea lights, particularly if something significant has happened to one of us that week. We do sing hymns, but it’s very low-key: some women have not been to church before.”
There are often difficult questions raised at the Freedom Service. “‘Do we have to forgive our perpetrator?’ is one that came up recently,” Anne says. “At the moment, I can’t, not in my heart, and I have been quite angry with God.
“I’m still not sure why it happened, or why God let it happen. I might never sort that out in my head. The Freedom Service really helps, though, and I have found a tremendous amount of peace there.”
For more information about the Freedom Service, email firstname.lastname@example.org.