Abused Clergy Wife's Message to the Church: I'm Still Struggling to Survive
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
October 22, 2018
|PHOTO: Domestic violence victims in the church can struggle to find our way spiritually as we adjust to thinking for ourselves, after years or decades of being told what to believe. (Flickr: Amanjeev)|
A year ago, several women walked into the annual Synod of the Sydney Anglican Diocese, shuffled through the rows of the public gallery in Pitt Street's Wesley Theatre, and sat down nervously.
All of them were victims of domestic abuse, there to listen as the Diocese's domestic violence taskforce presented its draft policy for responding to abuse in the church which, as ABC News would only weeks later reveal, was being perpetrated not just against parishioners, but against the wives of clergy — including me.
It's been quite a year.
Last week, several hundred Sydney Anglicans returned to the same spot for the taskforce's unveiling of the final version of the policy, having spent months consulting with experts and survivors.
I had been looking forward to seeing the finished product, and was hopeful it would reflect the voices of victims who'd shared their disturbing experiences of abuse by church workers, and desires to see leaders respond better.
In the intervening year, so much has changed for many of us. Thanks to the work of ABC journalists Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson, a light was shone on the insidious problem of domestic violence in religious communities.
For the first time our stories as clergy wives were heard by a wide audience, and we felt hopeful that by speaking up, we could contribute to better outcomes for other women who were still suffering.
And yet so much has not changed.
We're still struggling to survive. Many of us live in desperate poverty; housing insecurity and not knowing where our next meal will come from is our daily reality.
It can be difficult to access the specialised trauma counselling that we and our children need — few counsellors are trained to deal with domestic violence induced trauma, the cost can be prohibitive, and child minding can be almost impossible for those of us who have lost much of our support networks.
|PHOTO: Women are still reporting far too often being re-victimised by church workers and parish policies for leaving their abusive marriages. (Unsplash)|
We struggle to find our way spiritually as we adjust to thinking for ourselves, after years or decades of being told what to believe and how to behave in order to please the God we had had presented to us through our husbands' dictates.
And we still have no voice in the formal structures of the Sydney Anglican Church.
Last Wednesday night, speeches were not given by abused clergy wives, but by those who had spoken to us, one step removed.
As I thought about this, I wondered what I would say if, as a woman and a victim of domestic violence, I had been asked to stand before the Synod and address the delegates.
I realised there are three things I would like the Diocese to hear from women like me.
A needed shift
First, I want to make it clear how much I appreciate the taskforce and their work.
I am truly grateful for the time and thought they have invested in creating the domestic violence policy, and I want to acknowledge that there have been significant outcomes from the process of drafting and revising it.
There has been a willingness to listen to victims (even though it was the victims who had to bear the emotional labour of initiating contact and insisting on being heard). There has been a shift towards acknowledging that some interpretations of scripture have directly led to women being harmed.
There is growing willingness to support victims in pursuing separation and divorce, rather than ill-considered and dangerous attempts at marital reconciliation.
There is the provision of educational materials to be used in parishes, which will hopefully result in church workers responding to domestic violence more swiftly and sensitively.
There has also been a commitment by the Synod to providing substantial financial support for abused clergy wives, recognising the additional difficulties they face in leaving a marriage to a church worker, not least their extreme vulnerability to homelessness.
This is a fantastic step forward which will make a real difference to the women and children affected by clergy spousal abuse.
There's still resistance to change
Secondly, though, I want to highlight the significant resistance within the church to attitudinal and cultural change.
Over the past year there has been fierce pushback against the taskforce's emphasis on the need to support victims seeking to leave abusive marriages.
In its report this week the taskforce noted it had received feedback from some who felt its domestic abuse policy had "inadvertently gone too far in undermining the intended permanence of the marriage covenant".
The emphasis on the indissolubility of marriage in diocesan teaching has been a powerful factor in trapping women in violent marriages. Both victims and advocates have argued this must urgently be clarified, and the policy reflects as much.
But women are still reporting far too often being re-victimised by church workers and parish policies for leaving their abusive marriages.
We have been told in some cases that we can no longer be on music teams, or teach Sunday school classes, or lead in prayer — because as divorced women we are not appropriate role models.
|PHOTO: Financial support from the church is a fantastic step forward which will make a real difference to the women and children affected by clergy spousal abuse. (Unsplash)|
We shouldn't prioritise doctrine over humanity
There are other harmful, stubbornly-held attitudes, including the diocese's approach to doctrine, which I would summarise as privileging doctrine over humanity.
Not long after I left my marriage, I was invited to meet with a group of other ex-clergy wives who had also recently left or were preparing to leave abusive marriages.
A woman with an influential leadership role in the diocese thanked us for coming and then said: "Now, I want us to think about how we can preserve our beautiful doctrine of submission in the face of these terrible experiences you have had".
I listened in disbelief as she quite literally put the preservation of this doctrine, which is frequently interpreted as requiring wives to "submit" to their husbands, ahead of any acknowledgement of the horrific treatment we had endured, and were still suffering, at the hands of husbands who had used that very scripture to justify their violence.
At one point on Wednesday night, as the final domestic abuse policy was presented to Synod, and deliberations were underway, one speaker became quite emotional — not about the abuse and lasting trauma many in the room had suffered — but over the tragedy that "God's precious word" could be misused as a tool of violence.
Does the Bible really deserve more empathy than the human beings for whom it was written?
I know that those who have invested time and energy in crafting the policy care deeply about us. But often it feels as if they care about the purity of their doctrine more.
Blindness to coercive control
The final point I would have raised in Synod if I'd been given the opportunity is the glaring disjunct between the commendable level of understanding of coercive control in domestic relationships exhibited in the policy, and the diocese's apparent blindness to the coercive control that is habitually exercised within its systems and in its relationships with other, less wealthy dioceses.
The irony of this disjunct has not been lost on those of us who have been following the deliberations of this week.
For instance, one proposal that is to be considered this Synod would, if passed, prevent a range of activities being held on all church properties from smoking ceremonies, to traditional yoga classes, to events incorporating advocacy for same sex marriage or LGBTQI rights.
The wording of the proposal suggests that freedom to even discuss alternate perspectives could be severely curtailed.
I have shared little in this piece about my own experiences of domestic violence — surely enough of our stories have already been told at the ABC over the past year.
Many others remain untold as some are still finding their voices, but 12 months since a group of us first spoke out about our abuse, I am finding it just as difficult to sustain hope for the deep systemic change we so desperately need as I am for any justice to be done for us personally.
I have things to be thankful for
As I have read through the many domestic violence documents produced by the church this year, and reflected on the comments and writings of victims, pastoral care workers, clerics and theological leaders, the words of St Oscar Romero have echoed through my mind:
"There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried."
I don't think I will ever "thank God for my sufferings" — I no longer hold to a theology that imagines God as the sender of suffering or evil.
But in the midst of the ruins, I have found things to be thankful for.
One is the open-hearted and generous love between us victims: this love has developed as a result of devastating pain, but we're incredibly grateful for each other's support.
Another is the superb care we have experienced from those in the diocese who have listened and wept with us and for us. They have not been driven by their own agendas but have worked hard to ensure they are equipped to walk alongside and support us. I can honestly say that several of those people are the reason I have survived.
My prayer for the diocese is that those who have embarked on the journey of listening to victims of domestic violence will courageously continue to listen, and to interrogate the controlling behaviours that have infected church structures and processes.
I pray that those who are resistant to listening, and unwilling to give up power, will experience a deep repentance and be enabled to let go of their privilege, as Jesus did, for the sake of those who are less privileged.
And for those who have been harmed by these deeply ingrained attitudes, I can offer only my own tears and my commitment, with many others, to standing with you against all abuses of power perpetrated in the name of Jesus.