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Why our churches need to tackle domestic abuse

A new report is encouraging churches to recognise that domestic abuse happens within their congregations and to be equipped to help those affected. Dr Rebecca Barnes reports

This month (25 November) marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – also known as White Ribbon Day – and the start of an annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence.

Across the world, events will take place to make visible – and work to combat – a sobering range of violations including domestic abuse, sexual harassment, rape, forced marriage, ‘honour’-based violence and female infanticide.

The scale of gender-based violence is vast: the World Health Organisation estimates that one in three women experience physical or sexual violence from a partner or spouse, or sexual violence from a non-intimate, in their lifetime. We might sometimes find these statistics, and the stories behind them, too painful and overwhelming to engage with, and this is understandable. However, as Christian women, we have a biblical mandate to challenge injustices and speak truth into attempts to conceal or minimise the suffering which occurs. As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

Churches are ideally positioned to speak out against violence against women and girls, support victims/survivors and hold abusers to account. Christian organisations such as Tearfund and Compassion have an impressive history of reaching out to women and girls globally, in some of the most volatile and deprived regions. Arguably though, we have been less aware of what happens much closer to home; namely, what is happening inside the homes of those with whom we worship and share fellowship.

It is this gap that Christian domestic abuse charity, Restored, has worked tirelessly to address. Through vital resources such as the Restored church pack, downloadable from their website (www.restoredrelationships.org ), and training for churches both in the UK and abroad, Restored has repeatedly reiterated the message that domestic abuse happens in churches too.

There is, however, a lack of hard evidence of UK churchgoers’ experiences of domestic abuse. To address this, Restored partnered with Dr Kristin Aune, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University and myself, a lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leicester. The result is the largest cross-denominational survey of domestic abuse in UK churches to date. Our study was based in Cumbria, a large rural county in North West England which is home to the Lake District.

We worked with Churches Together in Cumbria, a local ecumenical organisation that strengthens relationships between churches and, innovatively, runs domestic abuse awareness training for churches. The survey was open to all churchgoers to participate – female and male – and not just those who have experienced domestic abuse. We received responses from 438 people, and the findings provide compelling evidence that domestic abuse happens in churches too.

Importantly, definitions of domestic abuse can vary. Our survey focussed on couple relationships and included the following examples:

• Physical abuse: slapping; beating up; locking them in the house.
• Emotional abuse: repeated belittling; isolation from family and friends; monitoring their behaviour.
• Financial abuse: preventing them from accessing their own or joint funds; not consulting them over major financial decisions that affected them.
• Sexual abuse: making them do things sexually that they did not want to do, with or without physical force.
• Spiritual abuse: mocking their beliefs; stopping them from going to church or practising their faith at home; making them take part in religious practices that they did not feel comfortable with.

One in four of our participants had experienced at least one of the abusive behaviours that we asked about in their current relationship. Similar rates of men and women reported experiencing abusive behaviours at least once. However, more detailed analysis shows that when women are abused, the abuse typically takes a multitude of forms, happens more frequently, and has greater impacts. This ongoing pattern of behaviour and control typifies domestic abuse.

Diminished self-esteem, feeling depressed and feeling trapped were the most common impacts. Six women reported being in relationships where they are currently in fear for their lives. This starkly brings home how critical it is that we take domestic abuse seriously. People in our churches need to hear that domestic abuse is unacceptable and not simply their ‘cross to bear’, and that help is available.

Yet whether or not churches are equipped to help is questionable. Only two in seven of our participants thought that their church was equipped to handle a disclosure of domestic abuse. Most reported that domestic abuse was rarely or never preached about and few were aware of their church doing anything to support domestic abuse organisations (eg collecting money, gifts). Encouragingly, many participants wanted to see churches doing more to address domestic abuse. The need to be open, non-judgemental and admit that domestic abuse affects Christian families and couples too was repeatedly stated.

Our research has only studied Cumbria so far, but the next step will be to carry out a larger national study. Nevertheless, its recommendations are relevant to churches across the UK and beyond. Whilst the complete findings and recommendations can be found in our full report (available at www.restoredrelationships.org/cumbriaresearch), things that you can do to make a difference are:

BUILD AWARENESS. Do you know what your local domestic violence and abuse service is? Find out (www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/), and see if you can obtain some leaflets or posters to display at your church. Download the Restored church pack and share it with others.

LISTEN. Listen without judgement – this is key to building trust. Listen to what isn’t being said; the truths that may feel too painful or risky to reveal. Respect confidentiality. It isn’t always possible to keep everything confidential if an adult or child is at risk, but sharing information unnecessarily or carelessly could place the victim/survivor at greater risk.

FACILITATE. Churchgoers who we surveyed told us again and again that the silence around domestic abuse in churches needs to be broken. Inviting an external speaker from a local domestic abuse organisation, Restored or our research team would help to build awareness, dispel myths and start vital conversations about how your church can respond. Providing more in-depth training for congregation members who can become domestic abuse ‘champions’ is also recommended.

PRAY. Even if you don’t feel able to get involved in any of the above activities, you can pray. Pray for women who are trapped in abusive situations; for children who are subjected to domestic abuse; and for abusers to realise the harm that they’re causing. If you are struggling to find the words to pray, this might be a helpful starting point:

Lord God, open our eyes and ears to witness the suffering and oppression of all who experience violence and abuse in our churches and in our communities. Fill our hearts with compassion, furnish our minds with wisdom, and empower us to speak out against those who perpetrate abuses, and those who condone them. May we be guided to keep victims and survivors of violence and abuse close to us in our prayers and our actions as we strive to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with you our God. Amen.

If you are personally in a situation where you are experiencing – or think you may be experiencing – domestic abuse, reach out for free and confidential help:

National DV helpline (24hr) 0808 2000 247 www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk
Support is also available for male victims from the Men’s Advice Line (Mon–Fri, 9am–5pm) 0808 801 0327 www.mensadviceline.org.uk

Dr Rebecca Barnes is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leicester

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