Abuse in the church

In light of a report on partner violence in the Anglican Church, Barney Zwartz argues for the importance of programs to prevent abuse.

This week’s release of a national Anglican report on intimate partner violence showing that Anglicans are more likely than the broader Australian community to suffer violence is devastating news for the church.

The report suggests 22% of Anglicans have been in a violent relationship, compared with a national average of 15%. And when the definition is broadened to include other forms of partner abuse – threats, coercive control and the like – the Anglican figure is 44% compared with 38%.

It is sometimes suggested that the “headship” model of family life in which the husband leads and the wife submits is responsible. I’m not competent to pronounce on that, but it does seem plausible, at least in some cases.

But it is tragic when theology is used to justify bad behaviour – unfortunately hardly rare in the history of the church – and especially in family life. None of the Bible verses used by conservative Christians to advocate the headship model justify abusive behaviour, as most are swift to admit.

To the contrary, the demands are quite extreme. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructs husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church – a perhaps impossible demand.

Since 2011 the Anglican church has been working on programs to reduce and prevent domestic violence. A recent independent report on a program in Melbourne found it highly effective in reshaping ingrained cultures.

The preventing violence against women program reached more than 200 parishes in Melbourne, plus other community connections such as playgroups, youth groups, marriage preparation, and social action projects. The report found that the program built confidence, helped develop a culture of safety and strengthened the Melbourne diocese’s commitment to women’s leadership.

It’s a start. If the church is part of the problem it must and will be part of the solution.