11 December 2023

‘Strong, negative’ response to violence against women programs

Strong initial resistance to PVAW strategies was encountered during pilot program involving five Melbourne Anglican churches

By Stephen Cauchi

30 June 2021

Strong initial resistance to Preventing Violence Against Women (PVAW) strategies was encountered during a pilot program involving five Melbourne Anglican churches, a forum has been told.

Safety officers, training courses, sermons, small group studies and articles in the parish paper were trialled in the program, known as the Whole-of-Church Pilot Project.

It involved four pilot churches – St Augustine’s Moreland, St Thomas’ Burwood, St Mark’s Forest Hill and Epiphany Anglican in Hoppers Crossing. Mullum Mullum Anglican was also involved.

The results of the program were discussed in a PVAW public online forum on 15 May.

“There was a very strong and quite negative response from the church community,” said the Revd Maria Brand-Starkey, Vicar of Mullum Mullum Anglican Ringwood.

“It was quite surprising, really.”

But Ms Brand-Starkey said that, eventually, the church community came on board.

“The people that were initially quite negative in our church community actually came on board and became people really strongly passionate about doing something. Change can definitely happen, be patient,” she said.

“Don’t be discouraged if there’s an initial negative response or a lack of people that seem to want to get involved because I think it’s such an emotional issue it’s something that often takes a bit of time.”

Ms Brand-Starkey said a turning point came when some female survivors of domestic violence in the church addressed the congregation.

“We had some amazing women survivors in our church community and what was incredibly powerful was being able to just listen and hear them.

“I think that’s just been the biggest turning point for our church community.”

Ms Brand-Starkey said that the term violence against women was offensive to many, so she used the term “family violence” instead.

“So I changed the way I spoke about it for nearly the first year. Even though it was a bit less accurate, I used the term family violence because I didn’t want people to close down and shut their ears.”

This change was “really simple” but worked “really well”. “People started listening and thinking more about it.”

Hannah Pullar, a women’s minister who led the project at Epiphany Anglican Church Hoppers Crossing, agreed that semantics were an issue.

A key problem was “trying to find language that wouldn’t put people off the program”, she told the forum.

“So we talked a lot about men and women flourishing as God’s people – that was the line that we used.

“We’re still searching for the right language to use for people.”

Ms Pullar said that being flexible with the training material was important. Epiphany changed the type of survey that it used to reduce offence. It also introduced training based on role-playing, “which hadn’t been previously been considered”.

She also stressed the importance of patience and persistence. “Sometimes the pace of change is slower than you might like. So I think being prayerful and having people that are praying alongside you … and helping you to keep going is really important.”

She said PVAW was “good work but it’s not always easy”.

Parishioners Frances Pratt and Kerryn Lewis, who led the project at St Mark’s Forest Hill, said that some members of the parish council had done the PVAW training through the diocese.

Unfortunately, “some people hadn’t had a good response to that”. “They felt upset and attacked,” Ms Pratt said.

A big lesson from the St Mark’s program was “to involve more men”. “We made that an explicit thing that we did.”

The Revd Angela Cook, the Priest-in-Charge at St Augustine’s Moreland, also led the pilot project at her church.

She said it was important to raise awareness “that family violence happens in every church, even in good churches, even in our church”.

To deal with the issue, St Augustine now has a family safety officer, as well as a weekly email that gives details of the parishioners who have done PVAW training.

Lynley Giles, a parishioner who led the project at St Thomas’ Burwood, said the church tried a number of approaches.

“We worked through the small groups, our parish council, we tried to make sure there was somebody in charge of each of the groups so that of anything was raised they had somewhere to go.

“We later had the sermon series and the bible studies.

“We used our parish paper. Every month we would have an article about something we were doing in the program.”

Robyn Boosey, the manager of the diocesan Preventing Violence against Women Program, told the forum that a “deep cultural shift is needed” if the Anglican Church was going to successfully “change the culture that is driving violence against women”.

“Churches can really play a big role in changing the culture,” she said. “If you’re a man listening, we really need you. We can’t do this without you, you have a really important role to play in helping to shift the culture.”

The PVAW program overall has run from April 2018 to the present, but the five-church pilot project ran from July 2019 to March 2021.

The program provides a wide range of activities and resources for faith leaders, parishes and colleges across the diocese.

Ms Boosey told TMA the future roll-out of the program to other churches had not yet been decided.

“Next steps are to be determined because we need to review the program in light of the University of Melbourne’s evaluation and then plan where to go from here.”

The University of Melbourne’s evaluation of the program found “a range of promising outcomes that contributed to shifts in culture, attitudes, and practices within the Diocese by supporting faith leaders to understand and take action to prevent and respond to violence against women and family violence”.

“After several years of laying the foundations with limited resources, followed by a more intensive period of expansion and piloting, the program is now on the precipice of generating even greater impact.”

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