In April, the Anglican Church of Australia released a report summarizing research that it had commissioned into the prevalence of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) among its congregants. I was saddened, though not surprised, to learn that Anglican survey respondents reported having experienced IPV at a rate equal or higher to that of the general population. The data—based on responses from over 2,000 adult males and females who were contacted online—also showed that the prevalence of intimate partner violence among church-attending Anglicans is the same or higher than that of other Anglicans; and that most Anglican victims of domestic violence have not sought help from their churches.
As someone who has worked in the Anglican ministry for 14 years, I’m grateful that the church commissioned this research. I know some of the stories behind the statistics, including when, as a newly ordained minister, I was called by a woman who asked me to accompany her and her child to a lawyer’s office. At the time, her ex-partner (not himself a churchgoer) was following her in his car. On another occasion, the man accused of assault was not only a churchgoer, but had led our Bible study group. I still grieve to remember these people and their suffering—people I’ve walked with in the darkest time of their lives, and often failed. We cannot change what we won’t confront. In regard to IPV, this report will help make that act of confrontation possible.
Unfortunately, this process of change will be made more difficult by the ideologically torqued response that the report received. Left-leaning newspapers and social-media pundits took its publication as an opportunity to score culture-war points at the expense of the Anglican church in general, and its conservative Sydney diocese in particular. A panel show aired by Australia’s public broadcaster, for example, presented a nearly unanimous chorus of attacks on the church’s “patriarchal” character and allegedly antiquated approach to gender equity. “You do need to be brought along a journey,” a gender-equality campaigner advised the church. “And we have the expertise to do that.”
No doubt, the church will continue to reform its structures in response to the report. But broad rhetorical attacks aren’t going to motivate Anglican officials to act. In my experience, rather, working with—not against—the core beliefs of faith-based communities will lead to greater safety for those experiencing violence.
Of those surveyed for the IPV report, 17 percent of self-described Anglicans said they’d experienced IPV in the last 12 months, as compared to 18 percent for the general population. But when the time frame was expanded indefinitely, and respondents were instead asked whether they’d ever experienced IPV, the corresponding figures were 44 percent for Anglicans, as compared to 38 percent for the general population. Assault is not just a crime and a cruelty, but also a betrayal of everything Jesus teaches. And so it was natural that some Anglicans responded to the report with incredulity, and even denial.
To my knowledge, this is the first rigorous study of its kind—which is to say, a systematic sampling of a nationwide Australian faith community as a means to find out the extent of IPV among its members, followed by interviews with selected respondents in order to dive deeper into the experiences of victim-survivors. Nobody made the Anglicans initiate or pay for this research, much less release it publicly. In an age when companies budget generous sums for brand managers and crisis consultants, the church deserves credit for putting a commitment to community welfare over its own reputation.
And to repeat, the survey was nationwide, though you wouldn’t know this from the way that media figures identified the Sydney Anglican diocese’s conservative theology as the main culprit. I am sad to report that IPV is still very much a live problem here in Melbourne, where I live, and where the more liberally minded diocese has ordained female priests since 1992.
Moreover, interviews with some of the respondents who have suffered IPV show that, as the report concludes, “faith and church both assist and hinder those who are experiencing domestic violence.” On one hand, “Christian teachings sometimes [unintentionally] contribute to and potentially amplify situations of domestic violence,” and some “perpetrators misuse Christian teachings and positional power.” But at the same time, “Christian teaching that addresses IPV can also empower victim-survivors to begin a process of change,” and “when churches acknowledge that domestic violence happens, it can help victim-survivors.” At their best, churches play a role in allowing survivors “to be safe, to have material provision, to be in relationships of care, empathy and acceptance, to have an identity, to make a contribution, to have a spiritual life and relationship with God.” Indeed, the study identified particular teachings that can empower victim-survivors, teachings that, since the report’s release in April, have made their way into Sunday sermons.
One principle that those inside and outside the Anglican community might be expected to agree on is that responsibility for committing acts of IPV rests with individuals who commit such acts. Our justice system is based on the idea that the primary cause of criminal violence against another person is the mens rea of the criminal (even as policymakers and community leaders will seek to identify and address risk factors that make anti-social behaviour more likely). This is why progressives are traditionally suspicious of generalized explanations for crime that lay blame on godlessness, moral laxity, or leftist attitudes more broadly. Yet in Australia, progressive critics see no fault in grand theories that ascribe the root cause of IPV (among other evils) to “traditional gender roles.”
By way of example: Change the Story: A Shared Framework for the Prevention of Violence Against Women and their Children in Australia, a widely cited 2015 resource developed by a pair of advocacy groups in conjunction with Victoria’s health department, asserts that the key to preventing violence against women and children is to promote gender equality—a broad project that includes opposing “social norms such as the belief that women are best suited to care for children, practices such as differences in childrearing practices for boys and girls, and structures such as pay differences between men and women,” since “such norms, practices and structures encourage women and men, girls and boys to adopt distinct gender identities and stereotyped gender roles, within a gender hierarchy that historically positions men as superior to women.” Similarly, we are told that fighting IPV means “form[ing] partnerships and coalitions that build collective challenges to gender inequality, racism, ableism, ageism, classism, homophobia and transphobia; address the legacies of colonisation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; challenge other forms of social and structural discrimination and disadvantage; and promote social and economic justice.”
Now I happen to be quite sympathetic to much of where that ideology points—especially when it comes to the idea that not having any significant leadership roles for women within a community makes it harder for victim-survivors to speak up and be listened to. My wife and I run our marriage in a fairly non-traditional way, and you’ll often spot me in the local park as that lone dad among moms, pushing the pram on a weekday afternoon. My wife happens to be an ordained Anglican minister. But had we decided to embrace a more traditional gender-role setup in our professional lives, would that have put her at greater risk? While it’s true that, as Change the Story asserts, societies that promote “disrespect for women” and demand “adherence to rigid or stereotypical gender roles” tend to be more unsafe for women, that hardly means that traditional communities that exist within liberal, egalitarian societies will exhibit the same pattern.
Some studies do support a linkage between traditional gender views and violence—such as a US study from 2006 indicating that “masculine gender role ideologies are linked with young men’s … IPV perpetration in relationships,” though it’s not clear whether this is a case of correlation or causation (and, if the latter, which way the causation goes). Yet when speaking to church leaders about IPV, I’m inclined to tread carefully in this area, as much depends on which traditional gender roles and stereotypes one is talking about. The men sampled in the most commonly cited studies tend to express views that reflect the extreme (and, thankfully, marginal) idea that men and women are locked in an inherently hostile conflict of rights; that men have a right to sexual access to women’s bodies; and even that it’s sometimes necessary to physically discipline women. It doesn’t take a critical theorist to see how this kind of toxic mindset might lead to tragic outcomes.
Some women, moreover, feel bound by strict cultural codes that limit their ability to speak to anyone outside the home about their problems. That’s a dangerous situation for anyone to be in, and one we should address. But it’s more useful to talk of specific solutions to this kind of problem, rather than indict whole swathes of religious or cultural belief. Even if we could change everyone’s beliefs wholesale, in fact, it’s not even clear that this would help alleviate the problem of IPV. The Nordic region of Europe is generally recognized to be the most gender-egalitarian corner of the planet. Yet these same nations exhibit disproportionately high IPV rates compared to other European countries. Whatever the explanation for this so-called “Nordic Paradox,” it should at least highlight the need for humility in asserting an ideological approach to the problem of IPV.
It’s also important that we not ignore the bits of good news from the Anglican report, including the fact that victim-survivors who went to their churches for help generally reported receiving constructive assistance. Ministers were reported as showing a good understanding of IPV, with many offering spiritual support, referrals, and assistance with safety plans. Some victim-survivors also found that the church community provided the practical and emotional resources they needed to start a new life. This is testament to some of the nascent programs that have been started up within the church. The Sydney diocese’s task force on IPV, for example, was established in 2015. Melbourne diocese’s Preventing Violence Against Women Program recently was evaluated positively by University of Melbourne researchers, who found a promising shift in attitudes and practices within the diocese. All of this is consistent with the 2016 report of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, which found that “faith-based communities and organisations … offer a vital opportunity to reach people who are affected by family violence, many of whom might not use formal family violence service pathways to seek help.”
For years, many Anglicans have had private knowledge of the scope of the IPV problem in their community, and now this information is a matter of public record. And I hope other faith communities around the world will take a similarly forthright approach. Addressing this problem will not come from ideological attacks launched by outsiders, but by trusted community leaders making changes from within, and by mobilizing their flocks against a scourge that ruins lives and violates our Christian beliefs.
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