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Half of Anglican women suffer domestic violence: national study

New research showing domestic violence, is more prevalent among Anglicans than in the wider community

By Stephen Cauchi and Mark Brolly

 

The Anglican Primate of Australia, Archbishop Geoffrey Smith, has expressed “deep sadness” over new research showing domestic violence, including violence against women, is more prevalent among Anglicans than in the wider community.

 

More than half of Anglican women, and a third of Anglican men, reported being victims of violence from their partner at some point during their life.

 

The Anglican Family Violence Research Report, commissioned by the Church and conducted by NCLS Research, produced 28 major findings. It found most Anglican victims of domestic violence did not seek help from Anglican churches; perpetrators misused Christian teachings and positional power; and clergy’s confidence in their ability to respond to domestic violence was low to moderate.

 

The research, which attracted national media attention, was released on 9 June.

 

In response to the research, the Standing Committee of the Anglican General Synod made 10 commitments to prevent domestic violence including lamenting the violence, committing to prevent it and training ministers and leaders appropriately.

 

The Diocese of Melbourne has been running a Preventing Violence Against Women program since 2018 and has just concluded a pilot project in five Melbourne Anglican churches (see adjacent story).

 

Archbishop Smith stated that “all Anglicans will feel deep sadness over these results”. “But armed with this data we can develop a better response to protect those within our church communities from domestic violence,” he said.

 

“There is a strong resolve among the Church leadership to address the problem and to provide an appropriate response and adequate support for victims.”

 

Domestic violence was characterised by 15 behaviours, including physical violence, sexual violence, harassment, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.

 

The convenor of the Anglican Church of Australia’s Family Violence Working Group, the Revd Tracy Lauersen, said the Church had “taken the lead” on domestic violence by initiating the study.

 

Ms Lauersen, the Rector at St Paul’s Warragul, said the Church began its study in 2016 following “considerable public discussion” about domestic violence.

 

“We felt duty-bound to better understand its nature and prevalence in our community and develop and implement more effective responses,” she said.

 

Consequently, the Church initiated a project consisting of three in-depth research reports into the prevalence of domestic violence; a study of clergy and lay leaders; and one-on-one interviews.

 

Ms Lauersen said the research “lifted the veil and highlighted how big the problem is not just in Australia but within our Anglican community also”.

 

Domestic violence is also known as intimate partner violence.

 

Melbourne Assistant Bishop Genieve Blackwell, a member of the national church’s Family Violence Working Group and chair of Melbourne’s Preventing Violence Against Women program Committee of Management, wrote in The Age on 14 June that the findings were “challenging and confronting for the church – but not surprising”.

 

“The church, drawn as it is from the wider community, is certainly part of the problem,” Bishop Blackwell wrote. “It has long under-recognised the extent and seriousness of family violence, for example sometimes encouraging wives simply to endure abuse for the sake of the family or their faith. 

 

“It is tragic that noble and beautiful Christian teachings – for example, to forgive others as God has forgiven us – are perverted by abusers to demand that their spouses, overwhelmingly women of course, put up with it.”

 

Bishop Blackwell wrote that in Melbourne, there were still just over half of the over 200 parishes to reach with the diocesan Prevention of Violence Against Women program. 

 

“Some long-standing barriers are still entrenched. These include denial and fear of stigmatisation, engaging culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and theological tensions between differing interpretations of the Bible – though all Christians agree that the Bible cannot be used to justify abuse.

 

“The Anglican Church has the opportunity to help lead the way in changing Australia’s culture, not simply continuing as a significant part of the problem … Critics may dismiss us as in denial, defensive, or speaking empty slogans, but I believe the church is finally and purposefully moving away from our failings and insensitivities on intimate partner violence.”

 

The study was an online survey of more than 2000 males and females, aged over 18, conducted in December 2019. Results for a sample of the general public (1146 people) were compared with Australians who identified as Anglican (825 people). A larger sample of Anglicans (1382 people) was used to compare those who attended church regularly with those who didn’t.

 

There were 28 key findings. The main ones were:

 

  • The prevalence of intimate partner violence among Anglicans was the same or higher than in the wider Australian community. When asked the direct question “Have you ever been in a violent relationship with any partner?”, some 22 per cent of Anglicans who had ever been in an adult intimate relationship said “Yes”. This compares to 15 per cent for the equivalent group of the general Australian public.

 

But when presented with specific instances of violence, more respondents agreed they had been victims. Among those who identified as Anglican it was 44 per cent, among the general Australian public it was 38 per cent.

 

Over 2019, the prevalence of intimate partner violence was 18 per cent in the general public sample and 17 per cent in the Anglican sample.

 

 

  • The prevalence of intimate partner violence was higher among women than men. In the survey, women were much more likely than men to have experienced intimate partner violence, both in the Australian public and among Anglicans.

 

Among Anglicans, 52 per cent of women stated they had been victims of intimate partner violence, compared to 33 per cent of men.

 

Among the general public, 44 per cent of women and 31 per cent of men stated they had been victims of intimate partner violence,

 

 

  • Eighty-eight per cent of Anglican victims of domestic violence did not seek help from Anglican churches. The small group who did seek help most commonly approached clergy and most reported that it either positively changed their situation, or helped them to feel supported.

 

All Anglican parishes were sent invitations for their leaders to take part in the clergy and lay leader survey, and responses were received from approximately a quarter of Anglican parishes. The final number of survey respondents was 827, from 358 parishes, consisting of 383 clergy respondents and 444 lay respondents.

 

“Clergy views on gender roles within marriage and the family varied strongly by church tradition … with key differences between Anglo-Catholic clergy and clergy from Evangelical and Reformed traditions.”

  • Clergy and lay leaders were aware of the widespread nature of the problem of domestic violence in Australia, but less aware of its prevalence in church communities. Nine out of 10 clergy and lay leaders agreed that domestic violence is common in Australia, and about six out of 10 agreed that domestic violence is just as common in churches.

 

Clergy and lay leaders were well informed about breadth of domestic violence. Almost all survey participants understood that domestic violence was more than physical and sexual violence but also included psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.

Clergy and lay leaders understood that it is more often men than women who commit domestic violence.

 

Clergy and lay leaders understood the wide array of factors that may contribute to domestic violence. These included one partner wanting to dominate or control the other, having an alcohol problem and having a narcissistic personality.

 

  • Most clergy believed that scripture is misused by the abuser in Christian families. Misuse of scripture by the abuser was considered to be implicated at least some of the time by nine in 10 clergy, while the theology of male headship was a factor at least some of the time for eight in 10 clergy (seven in 10 evangelicals, nine in 10 Anglo-Catholics).

 

  • Although unintended, Christian teachings sometimes contribute to and potentially amplify situations of domestic violence. According to the research, “teachings related to marriage, gender and forgiveness can be a contributing factor in the extension of the cycle of intimate partner violence and can create a situation of harm for people in abusive relationships.

 

“Absolutist discourses related to marriage as a lifelong commitment, the submission of the wife to the husband, unconditional forgiveness, and suffering for Christ – whether they are taught by church leaders, internalised by victim-survivors, or co-opted by abusers in this way – are harmful for those who experience abuse.

 

“Conversely, discourses such as marriage as a covenant, the equality of partners in a marriage, and God’s mercy and love can help to empower victim-survivors to extricate themselves from abusive relationships.”

 

  • Perpetrators misused Christian teachings and positional power. Victims said that their abusive partners used obligations around the sanctity of marriage, the headship of the husband, and the imperative to forgive, to control them.

 

  • Clergy confidence in their capacity to respond to domestic violence was low to moderate. On the whole, clergy reported being knowledgeable, experienced and trained in domestic violence situations. However, confidence in their personal capacity to respond to domestic violence was low to moderate. Confidence was only a little higher among clergy who had been trained.

 

  • The prevalence of intimate partner violence among church-attending Anglicans was the same or higher than among other Anglicans. “Church-attending Anglicans”  were defined as those who attended at least several times a year.

 

When asked the direct question, “Have you ever been in a violent relationship with any partner?”, some 27 per cent of church-attending Anglicans who had ever been in an adult intimate relationship said “Yes”. This compared to 21 per cent of other Anglicans.

 

“This was not a statistically significant difference,” the report noted.

 

But when presented with specific instances of violence, more respondents agreed they had been victims. The figure for church-attending Anglicans was 47 per cent and for other Anglicans 44 per cent.

 

This was, again, not a significant difference, the report stated.

 

Intimate partner violence in 2019 was higher for church-attending Anglicans than for other Anglicans – 28 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.

 

“Possible reasons for this significant difference when considering a 12-month time frame are not obvious,” the report said.

 

To view the research, visit https://anglican.org.au/our-work/family-violence/