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Domestic abuse and the power of silence: why talking about domestic abuse is the first step forward for churches

Following on from the domestic abuse research we did in churches in Cumbria a few years ago, researchers Kristin Aune and Rebecca Barnes share about some new analysis of the data, and what it means for the Church.

In 2017, in Cumbria, we conducted the first UK academic survey of churchgoers’ views of domestic abuse that spanned different Christian denominations. This report was published. Parts of it made for depressing reading. For example, we found that 1 in 4 of the 438 churchgoers who responded had been subjected to domestic abuse within their current relationship. Of the 109 people who had experienced at least one abusive behaviour in a current relationship (physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual or financial), a dozen had experienced ten or more different abusive behaviours, and six were in relationships where they feared for their lives. If such findings were replicated across churches UK-wide, this suggests a very serious problem.

Several years on, having seen the study influence policy and practice in the Church in the UK, Australia and Canada, we have published a new analysis of the data in the Journal of Gender-Based Violence. One of the most striking findings is about the role of silence.

We often talk about the Church being silent on domestic abuse. We shake our heads and think, ‘if only our denomination sent their clergy on more training courses (such as Restored provide) about domestic abuse’, ‘if only more people knew when to refer someone to a GP, refuge or the police’, or ‘if only there was someone in the church who was a domestic abuse professional’ – then we could tackle the issue. We see it as a problem that demands more than what the average congregation member can offer.

We asked Cumbrian churchgoers to comment on the Church’s role in responding to domestic abuse. There were three sorts of responses.

The largest group of people wrote about the Church’s inadequate response. Domestic abuse is seen as ‘private’, or ‘hidden’. ‘Most of the community are either in denial that abuse happens in their neighbourhood or feel unempowered to act’, an Anglican male in his 60s told us. The church being rural, small or elderly was given as a reason for its silence. An Anglican woman in her 60s said:

Many think that because it is a predominantly white middle-class area, that domestic abuse does not exist.

— Anglican woman —

Even when people did report being abused, their church had not responded well. ‘I had one visit and no support since’, an Anglican woman in her 40s explained, while a Pentecostal woman aged 18-29 years old remarked ‘They don’t believe it is a church matter. I mentioned it at church and they thought I had become ‘over-reliant’ on them.’

The fact that the majority of church leaders are men was mentioned as an obstacle – especially in the Roman Catholic Church where only men can be priests. For Anglicans too, conservative teachings about women’s roles caused problems: an Anglican woman in her 30s commented:

This is an issue that should be talked about more in a church context – I think there are many church going families out there where domestic violence is a reality, but it is hidden by descriptions such as ‘wives being submissive to husbands’ – but taken out of all bounds and context.

A smaller group of people told a more positive story: they gave examples of churches involved in initiatives such as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, donating items to a local refuge, or offering listening and prayer support for victims/survivors.

A third set of responses talked about the need to raise awareness of the issue. People gave practical suggestions, including displaying posters, mentioning domestic abuse in sermons, running training sessions and including it in prayers in church services.

Moving from silence to talking was the main message. People used phrases like ‘strip away the secrecy’ (Male, 70–79 years, Roman Catholic) and ‘bring it out into the open’ (Female, 50–59 years, Anglican). ‘The Church should talk openly about domestic abuse, regardless of certain people who think it’s too personal & should not be spoken of’, said an Anglican woman in her 70s. ‘Talk about it so that it is not hidden or considered off limits’, a male Anglican in his 60s agreed.

These Cumbrian churchgoers were almost unanimous in their desire for the church to move from silence to speech. It got us wondering – why is there this problem of silence, and can simply speaking about domestic abuse solve the problem?

The churchgoers who talked about women’s lack of voice and power as a problem are on to something, we think. The church is traditionally a ‘patriarchal’, meaning male-dominated, institution. Yes, more women attend, particularly in churches with many older members, but those with voice and power have historically been men. Because domestic abuse is something women are subjected to more than men, more seriously than men and with worse impacts (see our article for an analysis of these gender differences), domestic abuse is much less a part of men’s experience, and they typically do not give it the prominence it deserves. Worse, some churches, particularly those with conservative theologies about marriage and women’s roles, uphold teachings that (perhaps inadvertently) encourage male domination. Husbands with a penchant for power can distort biblical teaching to demand obedience from their wives.

Silence upholds the status quo. It is a way of tacitly being content with the situation. In not condemning abuse, we allow it to continue unchecked. Part of the solution will be, we believe, a shift in power to include more women in leadership and allow women more of a voice. It is also important for men with power in the Church to recognise their influence and use this to challenge domestic abuse, as Restored’s First Man Standing initiative encourages. It’s a painful issue and one that may feel risky or uncomfortable to speak out about. But, only by ending the silence can we unburden victims/survivors of abuse of their suffering and the shame that ought not to be theirs to own.

Kristin Aune is Professor of Sociology of Religion at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University.

Rebecca Barnes is Senior Research Adviser in Qualitative and Social Research Methods at the Research Design Service East Midlands, University of Leicester.

They worked with Restored and Churches Together in Cumbria on a research study about domestic abuse among churchgoers in Cumbria and the church response, funded by the Allen Lane Foundation, the Andrews Charitable Trust, the Matthew 25:35 Trust and an anonymous foundation.