The Shadow Pandemic: domestic violence and the Church during Covid-19
The coronavirus crisis has led to a substantial global rise in violence against women. While the Church hasn’t always been a safe place for survivors of domestic abuse, it now has an opportunity to be a light in these dark times. Megan Cornwell investigates
Mother-of-two Kelly Fitzgibbons was following government guidelines and staying at home at the start of lockdown when the police were called to the £600,000 family home in West Sussex which she shared with her partner, Robert Needham. The officers discovered Kelly, four-year-old Ava and two-year- old Lexi shot dead. Needham also exhibited fatal wounds; he is believed to have turned the weapon on himself after killing his family.
Kelly and her daughters are three of at least 16 suspected domestic abuse-related homicides that occurred in the first three weeks of lockdown. Campaigners say these figures are far higher than the average rate of murders for this time of year which, according to the domestic violence charity Refuge, is usually two women a week in England and Wales. To put it in other terms, police were called every 30 seconds to respond to domestic abuse incidents at the beginning of the pandemic and, in the weeks following the easing of restrictions, calls to helplines increased by a massive 49 per cent. The situation is so concerning that the United Nations has labelled domestic violence “the shadow pandemic”, due to its pervasive and invisible nature. Lockdown, which for most of us has been a protective measure to guard against contracting Covid-19, has for others become a deadly threat. Those living with violent partners have effectively been shut in with their abusers.
The retired police chief and Christian John Sutherland describes domestic abuse as “terrorism on an epic scale, a disease of pandemic proportions and the single greatest cause of harm in society”. It’s a view informed by his 25 years in the Met, during which time he saw police attitudes to this type of crime change dramatically, from viewing it as “almost entirely insignificant to almost entirely significant”. For Sutherland, it’s not just a pernicious evil in its own right, impacting the lives of 2.4 million people in 2019 in England and Wales alone, it’s also the source of many of society’s seemingly intractable problems. “Almost regardless of the problem you look at in society, at least from a policing point of view, if you trace it back to its real roots, more often than not you find domestic violence there at the start of the story.
“So for example…take the problem of violence and youth violence…so many of those who, in adolescence and adulthood are perpetrators of violence, themselves grew up in homes where violence was an everyday reality.” He says the level of trauma among these young people is “off the scale” and that growing up in an abusive home can also lead to other problems, including substance misuse and addiction in later life. So strong is his conviction of its detrimental primary and secondary impacts that if the home secretary were to knock on his door and ask him where the government should be focusing its efforts, without equivocation he would say: domestic abuse.
We know from the official figures that domestic violence is a huge problem in our society, but what many Christians are unaware of is its presence in our churches. Bekah Legg, director of Restored, a Christian charity working to equip and educate the Church in this area, surveyed 438 churchgoers in Cumbria in 2018 and found that while 71 per cent were aware of domestic abuse happening in their wider communities, only 37.6 per cent thought it was a problem within their church. Restored’s research also revealed the extent of domestic violence in Christian households, with one in four churchgoers saying they had experienced at least one abusive act in a current relationship. “That’s men and women – one in four – but then when you drill down to what that actually looks like,” says Legg, “it is much higher for women than for men. Women are more than four times as likely to have been sexually abused in their lives, women are almost four times as likely as men to have experienced financial abuse and twice as likely to have experienced spiritual abuse. No men recorded being physically abused on a regular basis, but 3.2 per cent of women said they were being physically abused on a weekly basis. And that’s all within the Church, which is quite something.
“I think those statistics are really important to get your head around,” she continues, “because I think we so often want the Church to be a safe place; we want to believe that it’s our lovely little safe bubble where everyone is shiny and clean.
“The truth is: there are some really horrible things going on in our churches and sometimes they become even more hidden because we feel this extra need to appear good and godly and loving, and all the rest of it. Admitting our marriages don’t look like that, admitting our homes don’t look like that is doubly hard.” Christians experiencing abuse, she says, feel “extra shame added to it all: I’ve ended up here, I couldn’t pray my way out of it”. Also, abusers often present so charmingly that raising allegations of abuse can leave the victim appearing to others as “a troublemaker”, she explains.
When I ask Legg about the kinds of abuse she has witnessed within a church context, she describes “the full range of emotional, physical, psychological nastiness”, but at its core is always “power and control”. This varies from cases of financial abuse, where one husband prevented his wife from working, despite the fact it brought her great joy and fulfilment, to another husband (who was the sole earner) withholding money from his wife as a means of manipulation and control. Other examples include passages from the Bible being twisted by a husband to justify sexual abuse, and physical and psychological injury. “In all of those cases the man would have called himself a Christian,” says Legg “and in some of those cases he had positions of leadership within the church.”
Since the start of lockdown, visits to Restored’s website have doubled compared to the same period last year. Legg says the restrictions around Covid-19 have provided “another little weapon in the arsenal of abusers”: controlling men use government guidelines as another reason to stop their partners leaving the house, and those already prone to violent behaviour have more opportunities to abuse their spouses.
Similar to the Christmas phenomenon, where domestic abuse increases during the festive period, more time spent at home during lockdown exacerbates existing dangerous behaviour. “Under the cover of darkness evil reigns, doesn’t it? And I think that’s what has happened. Given half an opportunity there has been increased violence against women in all the different shapes and forms that it takes,” says Legg.
Is our theology to blame?
Natalie Collins is a gender justice specialist who has been working with the Church and wider society in the area of domestic abuse for more than a decade. She says the reason people commit this type of crime is due to a sense of ownership and entitlement over another human being. “When somebody kills their partner, or kills their children, that’s not because they’re so heartbroken they don’t want to lose them,” she explains, “it’s because they see them as an object that they can kill, because: ‘If I can’t have them, nobody can.’
“The reason why more men than women are abusive is not because men are worse people, but because we live in a society which enables men to much more easily develop beliefs of ownership and entitlement than for women to develop those beliefs. It’s not that women can’t develop those beliefs but, actually, from very small, girl children and boy children are learning very different things about their identity and their roles. For instance, in pornography, what somebody learns is that men own women; that men are entitled over women and that women enjoy it when men do own them...Those messages are everywhere…so when men do behave in those ways, often women think that’s desirable, or that’s what a relationship should be like.”
The Church has “specific codifiers”, she adds, of what it means to be a man or a woman that can lead to an abuser thinking it’s their “God- given right” to possess their partner. “And so, when we’re talking about how churches can respond to abuse, they fundamentally have to question: ‘What could there be in our theology and practice which is reinforcing ideas that men own or have entitlement over women?’”
For Collins, complementarian theology, which is popular in some evangelical settings, is part of the problem, with its emphasis on male leadership and female submission. Although Collins believes that a church which teaches complementarianism can provide “really robust, really excellent support for women who are being abused by a partner”, she says the theology cannot “prophetically challenge” harmful messages because it’s “a soft version” of the same patriarchal beliefs. “When you believe that men should be in power over women, in any sphere, you are creating a context which legitimises an abuser’s beliefs of ownership and entitlement,” she says.
The other big problem that Christian culture has, according to Collins, is wanting to believe everyone in the Church is safe. This becomes particularly dangerous when an abuser is promoted to a leadership position. “Loads of Paul’s writings and Jesus’ words were all around guarding ourselves against how sin can affect us, and yet we sort of have this idea…that once somebody becomes saved that somehow… they step from one life to another. That kind of redemptive narrative means that essentially [we classify them] as ‘safe’, rather than realising that actually we have to mitigate for sin…” A church culture of forgiveness, which emphasises the sinner who needs redeeming over the sinned-against, can lend empathy to the abuser in preference to the abused, she adds. These are just some of the reasons she has found that Christian survivors of abuse take years longer to access support than non-Christians.
Finally, our conversation turns to the Bible’s teaching on divorce, which has historically been a stumbling block for Christians who feel they can’t leave abusive marriages. In Collins’ experience the divorce question is “the tip of a very large iceberg”; the bigger challenge is helping the Church recognise abuse in the first place. “Somebody has to feel that divorce is an option for them because their relationship is so bad they should leave it, and actually, getting to that point is the bit that I would say the Church makes more difficult.” Collins explains how, even when abuse has been physical within a marriage, church leaders have been reluctant to label it “abuse”, so where the wrongdoing is less observable – emotional, spiritual, psychological or financial – pastors have struggled to identify it and respond appropriately.
Phil Moore, pastor of Everyday Church in London, tells me he has seen a shift in the Church’s awareness of domestic abuse over the last two decades. At the start of his own ministry, 20 years ago, he says he would have taken the approach of “preserve the marriage at all costs”, but his thinking rapidly changed. “It doesn’t take much pastoral experience to realise that there are actually some reasons why a wife or a husband could have scriptural grounds for leaving their partner,” he says. Whereas in the past church leaders might have considered adultery the main justification for separation or divorce, now there are “three biblical reasons” that most pastors, including Moore, accept: abandonment, abuse and adultery.
For Moore the problem of domestic violence cannot be laid squarely at the feet of complementarian theology. In fact, he thinks this interpretation is “sloppy” and that a true understanding of complementarity leads to “the honouring of women”.
“My concern is that, when people fight against what scripture teaches about men and women, although their motives are well-meaning, they are actually silencing the very gospel that brings hope into the situation.” He adds: “If we will read the Bible on our knees, allowing it to change the way we think, it’s an antidote to domestic violence.”
The hope of the world
Despite some of the problems with Church culture and practice, and the differing theological opinions, all of the Christians I speak to see faith as part of the solution when it comes to ending violence against women. The Anglican Communion has gone as far as employing a director of gender justice, Mandy Marshall, who tells me churches are “uniquely placed” to help survivors of abuse and hold perpetrators to account. One of the ways she is contributing to the national picture is by supporting the Domestic Abuse Bill currently making its way through parliament. The landmark bill, which started life under Theresa May’s government, will establish a new legal definition of domestic abuse, a move campaigners hope will increase conviction rates for a crime that has historically been difficult to prosecute. It will also make it a statutory duty for local governments to fund refuges, as well as ringfence central government budget for domestic abuse services. There is already tremendous pressure on these services, which the pandemic has exacerbated, and which campaigners fear will intensify under any impending economic recession. The domestic abuse commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, who also happens to be a Christian, tells me there is not only “a moral obligation” to end domestic violence, but also an “economic argument”; it costs the UK a shocking £66bn a year.
Marshall, who is advising the Lords, is advocating for the recognition of faith groups as part of the government’s response and for specific funding “to bring faith up to speed with what domestic abuse looks like”, mainly through training. She says some of the practical ways churches are already making a difference is through linking in with their local services and directing survivors who disclose abuse there, as well as providing care packages for women fleeing their homes. Putting up notices in church toilets signposting services is a simple but helpful approach, as well as having a “domestic abuse charter” on the wall that states a no-tolerance attitude towards violence against women. Showing what “proper healthy relationships look like” is also where the Church can have an impact, she says.
Marshall believes church leaders in particular have a role to play in speaking out from the pulpit and teaching a biblical view of relationships between men and women. Pastors should preach on Old Testament passages relating to violence against women instead of ignoring them because they feel they’re too difficult to tackle. And one of the most effective things Christians can do is to say “I believe you” when someone discloses abuse: “Don’t send them to marriage counselling courses; often that’s the worst thing you can do, because then you are aportioning blame to the victim and survivor of abuse, rather than actually holding the perpetrator to account.” Other good practice includes ensuring safeguarding officers are trained in domestic abuse and rape.
Marshall says churches still have a long way to go in recognising abuse, and Christians must start by acknowledging that we have perpetrators in our midst. In our current context, identifying some of the signs of abuse – such as dropping out of things at the last minute or never being left alone by a partner – might be harder while many of our churches remain closed and small groups are held virtually, but, she insists, there are still many ways the Church can be the eyes and ears of their communities. She wants to encourage Christians to keep in touch with friends who might be at risk and have agreed code words to indicate if they are unsafe. For online interactions, she tells me there are specific hand signals that communicate someone is in danger – Christians can learn these and look out for them on Zoom. “And don’t just pray about it,” she says emphatically. “Yes, pray, but you have to act if someone discloses abuse.
“We, as a Church, have a unique place of safety that we can provide, a place of refuge for survivors of abuse, where people will feel safe and are able to disclose it. It’s us standing up as a Church and saying: ‘No longer will we be complicit in enabling violence against women to go unchallenged. No longer will we justify it through our thoughts and our scriptures. We are the Church, this is our people, all violence against women is wrong and must stop.’ By making a strong statement about that and then acting on that statement we can make a massive difference across this nation and across this land… this is where the Church can be the hope of the world and the light of the nation, particularly in these dark times of Covid.”
I think that’s a call to action all Christians can get behind.
For more information on how to identify the different kinds of abuse, go to www.restored-uk.org
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is available from Restored’s website and from the National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247. For a listening ear and emotional and spiritual support and prayer, you can call Premier Lifeline on 0300 111 0101