Rev Adrian Miller is addressing the widespread problem of domestic abuse. He talks with Patricia (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) about her experience of abuse and the church’s response to her. Patricia currently works for a church.
Q: Patricia, you were married to an abusive husband for 25 years. What sort of things did he do?
A: When I think back on it (I didn’t realise at the time) but he manipulated me. He refused to use contraception. He didn’t help look after the children. He was very possessive. He was physically and verbally abusive. He put me down all the time. It was hard. But as well as that, there was another side to it – he would have loved me to death. After an incident, he would apologise most profusely, and he would buy these gifts and say it would never happen again – and then after a few days it was back to normal. So, it was very much a rollercoaster ride. You never knew what was going to happen.
Q: What was worse: the physical violence or the psychological pattern of control?
A: I think the worst thing was the fear of what was going to happen – you never knew what was around the corner. The verbal abuse was very hard to take, but you always knew it was going to lead to something worse, and you tried to tiptoe around this person in order not to upset them, and it didn’t matter what you did, you upset them – so it was verbal and physical and you never knew. The worst thing was the fear, the uncertainty, living with not knowing what would happen next. The physical wounds were always placed in a position that nobody else would see and I was always told “that’s nothing – I’m a policeman, I deal with people who are really abused – that was nothing”. Sadly, because my husband was a policeman he had a personal issued firearm, and he would have used it to threaten me, and he would have threatened to use it on himself – so sometimes I carried the gun around to try to prevent him from doing himself harm as well.
Q: You started going to church, almost in desperation, towards the end of your marriage. What did you hope to find there, and what happened?
A: I was hoping to find someone who would really understand and be able to help me and be able to help him – but sadly that wasn’t to be. I spent a year trying to pluck up the courage to go and talk to my minster and when I did he was very dismissive and I just knew I would never go back to talk to him again – it didn’t help in the slightest. It took another year to get over having gone to him. I don’t know if he even believed me because my husband was a very affable chap and the person you saw inside the house was not the person you saw outside the house, but the minister certainly had nothing to offer. I asked him what 1 Corinthians 13 meant, because it says that love never fails, and I had loved and loved and loved and no matter how hard I loved, it was failing – and he didn’t have an answer to that. I learnt later what that was – the agape love of Jesus is completely different to human love.
Q: The church’s response was really another betrayal. How did that make you feel?
A: You just knew that there was nowhere to go. I couldn’t go to the police, because my husband was a policeman. I couldn’t go to the church because the church weren’t any help - they didn’t seem to have any answers at all at that stage. Actually, I did get help from the church eventually, but not from that particular church. In fact I couldn’t have survived or come through it without the support that the church elsewhere did give.
Q: Praise God for where churches are doing well with this issue, but how could the church have served you better on that initial approach?
A: Some years later, I did get the courage to leave my husband. I talked to a Christian solicitor and I knew I had to leave for my own safety and my children’s safety (I had only 1 child at home by then). BUT whenever I had the courage to leave, my husband came with me to a church meeting and made a false profession of faith and I was told by the preacher that I needed to go home with my husband after having had the courage to move out in the first place – and that was awful! Thankfully, I didn’t move straight back but it’s so hard even to leave.
I think the church, well the best thing anyone can do, is really listen, really understand, really draw alongside, and really not listen to the abuser. Listen to the person because it takes so much courage to talk to someone in the first place – and not to do anything to put that person in jeopardy – because it’s so easy to put the person that has come to you in jeopardy by trying to check things out and make the other person more aggressive towards their partner. You can easily make it worse.
— Patricia —
Q: Perpetrators of abuse look for allies all the time and are very good at recruiting them, and they look for allies in the church, and will often make false professions of faith – if we understood how this all works a bit better, would that also help?
A: They get allies even among your own family, which is even harder to understand, because they are so charming. The woman looks like the psychological mess – because she is (!) – but not because of one incident. It’s because of so long trying to hold things together, trying to be normal in very abnormal circumstances, and sooner or later a woman cracks – so you end up with a spaghetti brain and so confused. The abuser looks so balanced and together even though they are not and the woman looks like the person that is falling apart – which she is – but not in the way that they are describing it. They’re describing it that you are a lunatic, hysterical!
Q: How different would it have been if you had found that the church knew about this; that they were mindful of this issue in their preaching, affirmed how wrong it is, demonstrated some understanding, even wrote about it in their newsletter articles; that they practiced and modelled respect for women; and even made a public stand, perhaps even organised bell-ringing as a show of solidarity and encouragement to break the silence on this? How would that have felt to you?
A: It would have been a little taste of heaven on earth. It would have been lovely to have known that you had that support, that understanding, and also that teaching coming from your church to help you understand – because the victim so doesn’t understand. She blames everything on herself, the same way as the abuser blames her – and you do, you blame yourself for years, saying, “Could I have done something different? What did I do wrong?” And it would be lovely to have that kind of support in the church and be able to reach out and help so many that are really wounded and hurt.
Q: Those things I mentioned are not hard to do, and we are working towards making that normal in the churches in our diocese. What would you say to our churches, as a final word?
A: Get involved. Find out about this. Read the church guide that Restored has produced. Get involved with ringing bells or adopting charters or whatever. Please do it! There are so many people out there that need that kind of support before it’s too late.
Last year 112 women in UK were murdered by partners or ex-partners and 4 of those were in Norfolk. Globally, roughly 1 in 3 women are victims of domestic abuse. This is happening in our parishes. It is happening among our congregations. It is wrong. In fact, it is a complete violation and betrayal of the marriage vows, making what should be a place of refuge and safety and nurture into a place of terror. God cares about this, and so should we.
As churches, we have a unique contribution to make. We have unique pastoral connections with victims and perpetrators. We are those who talk about marriage, forgiveness, submission, power, gender and so on, and we must do so responsibly. We have a role to support, to challenge and to educate. Let’s break the silence on this together.