This week we received statistical confirmation for a reality that many of us already knew: intimate partner violence (IPV) is experienced by Anglicans at the same rate or higher than the wider Australian community (‘Top Line Results’, National Anglican Family Violence Project (NAFVP)/NCLS Research, April 2021). The prevalence is same if you ask about the last 12 months (17% for Anglicans, 18% for the general public), and higher when asked about experiences of IPV over the person’s lifetime (44% versus 38%). Women, as expected, are more likely than men to have experienced IPV (44% versus 31%).T
IPV is a subset of Family Violence, occurring between people who are or have been married, de facto or dating. It can be physical but also includes sexual, psychological, social, emotional, financial and spiritual abuse, especially when part of a pattern or cycle of coercive control.
I’ve spoken to many ministers and churchgoers this week who are, like me, beyond devastated to see the scale of the problem put so clearly before us. Some of us have been reminded of past traumas — our own or those experienced by loved ones. Many of us in pastoral ministry have been weeping — in grief with those we have walked alongside, and perhaps in repentance for those we have failed.
My colleague Scott Harrower offers the right theological word for what is before us — horrors. For men — and it is overwhelmingly men — to abuse power to harm and control another person, let alone their partner, degrades human worth and defaces the very image of God. The idea is so heartbreaking, so egregious, to everything that Jesus teaches that one normal response is to think it cannot possibly be true — surely not in my church, Lord?.
Yet that’s reality, and we can’t change what we won’t confront. I’m grateful to the Anglican Church of Australia, and its Family Violence Working Group chaired by Rev Tracy Lauersen, for commissioning this research, and for making it public. Solid research on this issue is famously hard to come by, and so I particularly appreciate the expertise that Dr Ruth Powell and Dr Miriam Pepper from the National Church Life Survey and Charles Sturt University have brought to this question. We have known for a while that faith communities are key to addressing Australia’s endemic Domestic and Family Violence (DFV) problem, and this report gives us a much clearer picture of how Anglicans experience IPV and what we can do about it.
Unsurprisingly, the study found that the teachings of the Christian faith can both help and hinder in IPV situations. To be clear, despite social media commentary there is no warrant here or in any other study to claim that a particular theological teaching or tradition ‘causes’ IPV. Sadly I can assure you that IPV is no less a problem here in the Melbourne Anglican community, where we tend to have less traditional gender roles. By all means smash the patriarchy — but also know that’s not enough in itself.
I would urge my fellow ministers everywhere to avoid the temptation to see this as something ‘out there’ — rather than in your own pulpit. It doesn’t matter whether you’re complementarian or egalitarian, high church or low church, from Sydney or Perth. Abusers aren’t picky about which theology they weaponize. The research confirms what we’ve been hearing anecdotally from survivors and DFV specialists for years. Uncontroversial and (frankly) beautiful Christian teachings — faithfulness in marriage, grace and forgiveness, the example of Christ’s sufferings — can and will be co-opted to control. They can also — and I really want my fellow preachers to hear this — be taught and heard by you in unhelpful ways, that are then internalised by victims, and thus extend the cycle of IPV.
As depressing as the reality is, I find in this report a few glimmers of hope that I want to share with you. Of the very small number of Anglican victims of IPV who did seek help from the church, most found it positively changed their situation, or helped them feel supported. The interviews with victim-survivors suggest that, just as poor teaching can make it harder to leave an abusive relationship, good biblical teaching on marriage as covenant, the equality of men and women, God’s mercy and love can also empower them to get out. Even just acknowledging that FDV happens can make a difference. The church community, at its best, can offer victims practical, emotional and spiritual support — combating isolation and helping them recover and rebuild.
Alongside the NAFVP the group did a study of clergy (ordained) and lay (non-ordained/volunteer) leaders. It found that Australian clergy and lay leaders are reasonably well informed about FDV and had themselves responded to specific IPV situations by offering spiritual care, referrals to victim support services and assisting with safety plans — though the support available to clergy in this difficult and personally costly pastoral work is patchy.
I take this as encouragement that the tireless work in this space is starting to make a difference. We are well served here in Melbourne Anglican land by the Preventing Violence Against Women Program run by Robyn Boosey; the University of Melbourne’s recent evaluation of the program, also released this month, finds a promising shift in culture, attitudes and practices within the diocese.
Not all dioceses have the same resources, however. That’s why I’m encouraged that my friend, Common Grace spokesperson and Sydney Anglican powerhouse Erica Hamence has just finished recording a unit for the Ridley Certificate on Responding to Domestic and Family Violence. Thanks to some generous donors we are hoping to offer this subject for free. If I were in charge of a church or diocese I’d be making it, or something like it, compulsory for all workers.
Like many, I’ve spent a lot of this week sitting with the anger, sadness and hopelessness. How could Jesus let this happen to those in his church? But today the Lord has given me a vision of hope that I’m clinging to. What if bringing these horrors into the open leads not to defensiveness or denial or digits pointed elsewhere … but to repentance and change? That’s my prayer, and I hope you’ll join me in it.