Listening to and supporting survivors of domestic and family violence
I remember clearly a young mum coming to see me to chat about “something”. She was so nervous and so brittle. The conversation began with general talk about some difficulties with her partner, but as we continued to talk the stories of her partner’s violence and abusive behaviour began to emerge. It had taken us months of surface conversations to get to this point. Her stories were shocking. And, it was only when I said directly to her “I am not going to tell you to stay in this relationship” that she began to relax and disclose her desperation. For despite our growing familiarity and her own need to leave a violent marriage, she was still expecting me to tell her she “had to stay faithful to her vows” – because that is what the Church has so often done.
In 2019, the Anglican Church Southern Queensland (ACSQ) Synod passed a motion recognising the social, emotional and spiritual cost of domestic and family violence among people connected with the Anglican Church, and welcoming the creation of a Working Group to oversee policy development, training and education on prevention, intervention and response.
Importantly, the motion also helps our parishes and faith communities to be places where domestic and family violence is spoken about. When an issue affects a significant part of the population, including Anglicans in our parishes and ministries, to remain silent is to endorse the status quo. There are plenty of reasons why many of us find domestic and family violence hard to talk about.
We want to believe that our Christian faith makes a difference to the way we live our lives and the way we conduct our relationships. When we acknowledge that some members of our faith communities abuse family or household members, or are victims of abuse, then we also acknowledge that our faith in the Triune God is not a magic bullet that protects us from all adversity. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” says Jesus (John 16.33).
However, when we own up to our troubles, it often does not feel as though they have been overcome. Sometimes our desire to feel as though they have been overcome means that we don’t want to hear evidence to the contrary. We would rather those members who are experiencing family violence and abuse would stay silent so that we don’t have to think about it – so we can pretend that all is well.
The difficulty with this approach is that it asks victims and survivors of domestic and family violence and abuse to pay the price for the rest of us to feel ok. They are expected, tacitly or otherwise, to continue to bear the shame and embarrassment of a less-than-Christian family life so that we can continue to believe that Christians don’t do that sort of thing.
In practice, this has looked like victims being asked to pray for their abusers. It has meant that victims are actively encouraged to remain with their abusers in order to uphold the Church’s ideal of Christian marriage, regardless of how dysfunctional that marriage is. It has also looked like survivors of abuse being exiled from their faith communities because they have failed to fulfill such asks and expectations.
What, then, is the alternative? How do we promote and develop Christian unity in ways that empower victims to speak up, confident that they will be heard and believed? How do we commit to being faith communities which are safe spaces for families, including children, experiencing domestic and family violence?
When Jesus prayed to the Father that his disciples might be one, “as you and I are one”, did he imagine a unity that could withstand conflict? Conflict is a normal, and formative part of shared lives, and our Christian faith has to be able to speak about how we can manage conflict safely and effectively. Our parishes and faith communities, in becoming safe spaces for families to name and unpack their experiences of violence, can move beyond denial and suppression of disunity into a more honest and productive acknowledgement of this reality. Our faith tradition and resources have plenty to offer us as we undertake this vital work.
The Queensland Government has declared each May to be Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month “to raise community awareness of domestic and family violence and to send a clear message that domestic and family violence in families and homes will not be tolerated.”
There are a number of things we can do during May to increase awareness and send this clear message, including:
- Ordering free brochures, booklets and help cards or downloading resources from the Queensland Government website.
- Organising or attending a Bible study and conversation group. The ACSQ Domestic and Family Violence Working Group has commissioned a set of Bible studies based around the lectionary readings for each Sunday in May. These are available on the faithful + effective website. For further information, please contact The Rev’d Gillian Moses at G.Moses@staidans.qld.edu.au.
- Gathering in prayer at St John’s Cathedral for Evensong on Sunday 30 May, as a concluding event for Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month. The Rev’d Sue Grimmett, one of the Bible study writers, will be the guest preacher, with a conversation in the Cathedral following the service.
Editor’s note 30/04/2021: This page was updated with a link to the Bible studies on the faithful + effective website (see #2 above).
Editor’s note: If you are in immediate danger, call 000 for police or ambulance help. For a list of helplines and websites available to women, children and men, please visit this page on the Queensland Government website.