My reflections on the national Anglican report into IPV

Two Wednesdays ago, the national Anglican church released a report it had commissioned on the prevalence of intimate partner violence (a subset of domestic and family violence) in the experience of Australians who identify as Anglican. 

I am enormously thankful that Anglicans not only commissioned this first-of-its-kind study, but also that it was released to the public on the same day as to leaders in the church. It has come late, like many of our initiatives. But it has come with transparency, and a shared conviction that we still have much to do. 

A key finding of the report was that intimate partner violence is experienced by Anglicans who are regular churchgoers (according to the inclusion criteria of the study) at a similar or higher level to broader society. In addition, while the report is generally very positive about the awareness of and attitudes to abuse amongst clergy and church workers, it noted that most clergy and church workers are not confident in dealing with domestic violence or referring to support services. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, 88% of Anglicans surveyed did not seek assistance within the church.

There were few surprises in this report for those involved in supporting survivors of domestic and family violence. We know that there are both victims and perpetrators within the church. We know that there are clergy who lack the theology, attitudes or skills to be anything other than harmful to survivors, and who can even be instrumental in creating and maintaining the systems and cultures within which abuse flourishes.

What this report does is add some local statistical weight to local personal experience and anecdote, as well as to a growing body of global research. It also flags, to those with less experience in this space, that the problem may be far more prevalent within Anglican churches than we have been aware or, in some cases, willing to acknowledge.

And as a minister in a local Anglican Church, this research sharpens a number of key questions. 

  1. Right now, who are the victims in my church who need assistance, the survivors who need healing or justice, and the perpetrators who need to be called to repentance?

The research indicates that some 88% of survivors of intimate partner violence do not seek support within the church. This aligns with broader social data about the extremely low rate of reporting by victims of abuse. However, there can also be ways in which the cultures and systems of our churches contribute in their own particular way to silence people who have experienced violence. But it leaves us without a specific picture of where intimate partner violence is in our churches, and who is particularly at risk.

Pastorally, clergy and church workers come face to face with both survivors and perpetrators on a disturbingly regular basis. One case of abuse in the church is too many; but the rate at which we encounter domestic and family violence is shockingly high. We need to target our limited resources where they will do the most good to bring the most change.

Unfortunately, this report doesn’t fill in those statistical blanks as much as we might like. 

74% of respondents are Anglican in name only, and do not attend church. I feel a profound and disquieting responsibility to care for such nominal Anglicans, but am in quandary about how to do so. Only 26% of respondents attend Anglican churches, and even then the inclusion criteria for ‘regular attendance’ has had to be dramatically expanded, to ‘several times a year or more’, to provide a statistically significant sample. Given that self-reported attendance is always vastly over-estimated, it means that this sample could stretch from weekly core members, to Christmas and Easter visitors. 

Similarly, the report doesn’t clarify whether the perpetrators, as well as victims, identify as Anglicans, or are regular attenders. Obviously, wildly different strategies are required, and resources available, to address weekly attenders versus occasional or non-attenders. Anecdotally, many of the accounts we hear are of abuse by leaders within the church. However, given the vast level of under-reporting, there is still much that we don’t yet know about those who use violence.

Finally, the use of an online panel to conduct this research means that, as the report itself says, ‘These were non-probability samples from online panels so representativeness to the wider population [of the Anglican Church] cannot be claimed.’

What this means is that we still don’t have all of the resources to make wholesale judgements about the distribution of intimate partner violence. But that must not be an excuse for the reforms already begun within the Sydney Anglican Church (the establishment of a DFV Taskforce, adoption of key policies, establishment of a Ministry Spouse Support Fund, the training of all clergy and church workers through a new online course, and so on) to stop there, as if we are somehow done. Because we have enough data to know what we need to be doing right now.

2. What systems and cultures, in particular, do we need to dismantle?

Researchers who specialise in the study of abuse are clear that intimate partner violence can’t just be treated as individual and isolated cases of sin. Systemic change is required. Whole cultures of rigid stereotyping, disrespect and toxic masculinity must be carefully dismantled – amongst other systems. 

This report acknowledges the widespread awareness among clergy and church workers that biblical truths are also often misused to justify or prolong abuse. Christianity is, after all, based on the claim that God offers undeserved forgiveness through the death of his Son, and Jesus calls the forgiven to forgive in turn. And yet this core belief is among other Christian teachings used to enable ongoing intimate partner violence (some other examples are addressed here: https://www.sds.asn.au/2018-doctrine-commission-report-use-and-misuse-scripture-regard-domestic-abuse).

Some of the reporting of this latest research, however, has claimed that the problem with Anglicanism is much more foundational. The issue isn’t beliefs that are twisted, but beliefs that are clearly taught. In particular, reporting has focussed on that collection of conservative beliefs known as complementarianism. Complementarianism is a very broad school of thought, but it is unified by the conviction that there are particular and distinct, though overlapping, callings for men and women in marriage and in the church. This includes that the office of elder in the church is the responsibility of a subset of men, only. The claim is that this fundamentally sets up the system to amplify the risk to vulnerable persons and to fail to respond adequately to victims.

There is no doubt that there are contexts where complementarian interpretations of the Scriptures are promulgated not only clumsily, but foolishly and even recklessly. Frankly, I am of the view that some clergy and church workers should not even attempt to teach them, and that there should be performance management implications for those who do so poorly. 

But in the face of so many reports of harm, we must be open to the possibility that it isn’t the mishandling of complementarianism, but the theological framework itself, which is at issue. If it can be demonstrated that complementarianism stands out as a risk factor for intimate partner violence, then – in line with our reformed tradition – we need to be willing to return to the Scriptures once again to test our beliefs against God’s revealed will. We would need to ask: what is it in our practice, or even our doctrine, that has gone so wrong? Nothing that God calls us to is harmful to our souls. 

However, this report does not restrict itself to complementarian churches; it is a national study, and the Anglican Church itself is wildly diverse. This means that egalitarian and progressive churches also form part of this disturbing data set. Furthermore, it isn’t granular enough to allow us to drill down and compare churches by theology or demographics. I would gladly contribute to research that gave us that level of detail.

And this is significant given the broad picture painted by global research, which suggests that while high religiosity is not protective against domestic violence, it isn’t a risk factor either. Though individual experiences vary enormously, in general, even patriarchal ideas rooted in religious understanding do not lead to comparatively elevated levels of intimate partner violence. And women in highly religious, traditionalist marriages consistently report the highest relationship quality.

  1. How do we prevent incompetent and just plain bad clergy and church workers from getting into the job? How do we kick them out if they won’t change? 

The top line results of the report are, in general, rather positive about the awareness and attitudes of clergy and church workers. They recognised the breadth, range of factors and gender bias of intimate partner violence, and the potential misuse of Christian teachings. By a slim margin, most already believed that abuse is no less common in churches than in the broader society. 

This may surprise the many survivors who have had appalling experiences of church leadership. Certainly, at Barneys – a ‘refuge church’ with a national leader on domestic and family violence in churches on the staff team – the accounts we have heard are rarely positive. But it could be that, increasingly, many cases – at least, amongst that tiny portion that are reported – are dealt with well, and so we don’t get to hear the good news stories.

That’s certainly the conclusion of the report, which states: “The small group who did seek help most commonly approached clergy and most reported that it either positively changed their situation, or helped them to feel supported.”

This means that, today, it is likely to be a minority (though possibly a significant minority) of clergy and church workers who are causing the most harm – and they are causing dreadful harm indeed. Because, if the statistics are correct, then a great many church leaders are actually a safe harbour in the storm of intimate partner violence, and yet that truth has been altogether obscured by the behaviours of a few. It does not take many foolish or abusive clergy to damage the confidence of victims of violence. 

Given the already low rate of reporting, we cannot afford to further isolate survivors of intimate partner violence by allowing incompetent or poorly intentioned clergy and church workers to drive them away from potential sources of crucial support. We must find a way to identify and retrain or root out those who do not provide suitable care.

Conclusion

I am deeply thankful for the work that has gone into this research. The report makes for painful reading. I’m looking forward to the release of more detailed results in the weeks ahead, which will hopefully indicate with greater clarity where we can make the most significant changes. I also hope that the media coverage, which has included some poor analysis, doesn’t provide an umbrella for excuses or deflection; more importantly, I hope no one uses it that way. 

Most of all, my prayer is that, as church leaders engage with this report, we will do so humbly and repentantly, in the love of the vulnerable and in the fear of God. And that we will prioritise justice and safety over growth, over reputation and over our personal comfort. 

Resources and contact information for domestic and family violence can be found here: https://safeministry.org.au/domestic-family-abuse/

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