Michele Guinness shares her own story of sexual abuse in church, and urges Christian men to help make the Church a place that is safe for everyone

In my short lifetime I have witnessed one of the greatest revolutions in the history of the West – the immense change in the status of women.

We thought the issue was passé. No more need to campaign, explain, burn our bras, or take to the streets. How wrong we were.

My story

From the #Me Too movement to the ‘Reclaim the Streets’, it has become apparent that little has changed since I worked in religious TV some 30 years ago. One of the directors, a pushy evangelical, was as fervent in pawing his female colleagues as he was in praying with us. I was reduced, on a film shoot, to pushing a chest of drawers across my keyless bedroom door.

Not a single male colleague came to our support, but ITV gave us alarms to carry, and we joined the army of women who walk home alone at night with keys and pepper spray at the ready in our coat pockets. We rationalise that few men are predatory, and that an attack by a stranger is unlikely, but fear it could all the same.

Recent revelations about certain well-known church leaders have demonstrated that not every congregation is always safe. Reluctantly, I have to say that I was once subjected to prolonged stares, personal comments, and explicit innuendos. I blamed myself for it, felt I must have caused, or even encouraged the attention. But when other female members of the church publicly shared their discomfort, it emerged that a previous minister had used flirtation to reduce women to second-class citizens.

There is still an astonishing lack of respect for women. In our small church in France, we are denied any influential leadership. We are relegated to the cleaning, cooking for shared meals, and the washing up. Few have the confidence to contribute to Bible studies. I do, and am excused as, “that gobby Jewish woman!” When Christian women have no voice, they become more vulnerable. Their unique take on life, gifting and potential are lost.

When Christian women have no voice, they become more vulnerable. 

In lockdown women have been left with the lion’s share of the domestic chores, childcare and home schooling, while desperately trying to pay the mortgage and provide for the household. It appears we haven’t fully broken free of Saint Chrysostom’s assertion in the 4th century, that, “God maintained the order of each sex by dividing the business of life into two parts, and assigned the more necessary and beneficial aspects to the man and the less important, inferior matter to the woman.”

My plea to Christian men

Sir Keir Starmer said that for the abuse of women to end, “Inequality needs to be tackled at the root”. The dynamic of male-female relationships is rooted in the creation story. Two genders are made with equal value. So this is a plea to the men, to recognise our God-given equality.

I noticed sadly, as I walked alone today, that men backed off and looked down as I passed. Neither we nor you should have to be nervous or neurotic. We like you to say a friendly “hi”, to escort us home when we are alone, to open doors for us, and reach stuff off the top shelf of supermarkets when we’re vertically challenged. And we need you to intervene if you see us being harassed or abused in any way. My best bosses have all been considerate, thoughtful, collaborative men.

A church that is safe for all

I am blessed with five grandsons, and want them to grow up in a world where you are our allies, not our enemy. So you have a responsibility to show our boys, at home, in church services, in our children and youth work, what respect looks like. They need to hear the stories of the great women - historical and biblical - who have changed the world. They need to see women standing side by side with you in leadership. They need to see you with your hands in the sink after a church supper. They will thrive in an environment where there are no personal comments about our appearance, no invading our space, no adding to our pressures with additional demands, no putting us down, no patronising us, or dismissing us when we are deemed, “past our sell-by date”. A church that is safe for everyone.

“While women have an unhealthy need to please men”, says psychiatrist, Angus Bell, former Head of Mental Health for the North of England, “men can be addicted to power and use sexual desire to achieve it. They have a tendency to see woman as a passive but desired object, there to service their needs. But they must surrender their power, as Christ surrendered his at the cross, so woman can be the strong and powerful partner in work and play that she was made to be.”

It is this unique relationship, based on mutual fear-free love and appreciation that the church is called to model to the world.