The following New Year reflection is supplied by the Revd. Dr. Elizabeth Koepping, Honorary Fellow at the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and semi-retired priest in the Diocese of Oxford. The text of her open letter to the Church Times in December 2018 is provided at the base of her blog. Dr Koepping is currently writing a book on husband-wife violence in the international church as a theological and pastoral scandal. Church hierarchies of every brand, seminaries and in-service training need to attend to this ‘violence and domestic abuse within the churches’ as a matter of urgency.
“Natalie Collins rightly notes that an abused clergy spouse has no pastor, but nor, from my own multi-country research among Christians, do abused female parishioners of an abusing pastor, such women being adept at ‘smelling out’ and avoiding such church-supported sinners.
From Kenya comes the comment: ‘You can’t go to a pastor who beats his wife to complain about your own: even if he seems nice, you know he is a liar because you’ve heard her scream’, and from Korea: ‘If a pastor hits his wife then gives a sermon to young people on proper behaviour between the sexes, he is a hypocrite, and they will not follow what he says’. Among England-based Church Times readers will be vicars who systematically abuse their wives with the knowledge of at least some in the parish; Bishops who are fully aware of abusing clergy in their charge yet chose to call it ‘an anger management problem’ or blame Common Tenure or Freehold for their colluding cowardice; and parishioners represented by a priest whose prayers (1 Peter 3:7) God does not hear. “
There may be female clergy who beat up their husbands but for the sake of argument, let’s say in my Church Times letter cited above, I was referring to abusive male clergy. Should a female vicar slap, bash, thump, punch or kick a husband, I suspect such ‘unfeminine’ behaviour would be quickly squashed by church authorities, in the same way that, to my current knowledge, adultery or an extra-marital affair undertaken by female clergy is treated more harshly by various bishops in the Anglican Communion, as in other churches. Nice vicar-ladies don’t do violence, but decent vicar-men apparently can. And there’s me thinking we worship God in Trinity and not our culture!
I’m currently writing a book on husband-wife violence in Christian contexts, drawing on my own research in fifteen countries supplemented by other material. I’m especially interested in clergy violence against their wives not because abused clergy wives are any more precious than any another wife, but on pastoral and theological grounds. The overall effect on the congregation led by an abuser can be catastrophic. And what about the Bishop or Superintendent under whom the abusing guy works: do they not feel ashamed at supporting the blasphemy of a man elevating the host at the Eucharist with hands last used to beat his wife?
Here are some quotes from my book to give you pause:
It’s all right if the priest hits his wife inside the hut, but he shouldn’t do it in the open (Ordinand, South Sudan, 2011- opposed by his peers)
‘Divorce isn’t allowed to Pentecostal pastors, but if they kill their wife and pretend it was suicide, they can marry again’ (comment from Pentecostal pastor in Bangalore, 2011)
‘The five Elders gave the pastor permission to hit his wife for shaming him by saying she had no food to serve when they all arrived unexpectedly (Kenya, 2013.)
‘If the pastor or elder is an abuser, even if what he offers people is good people will not hear it because it is tainted by their knowledge of his abusing (Trinidad male elder, 2011)
‘I stayed with my abusive pastor husband because the Bishop said it was shameful for the church if I left: but after 14 years I’d had enough! (West Indies, 2011)
‘A new curate rang her Bishop to say her Vicar hit his wife. The following Sunday, the Vicar announced, ‘It’s been good having X, but this is her last Sunday’. (England, 2009)
‘My husband constantly reminded me it was my wifely duty to obey his every command. As parish priest he was protected by the church: I was shunned’ (Australia 2018)
After hitting his wife, who retreated to the bathroom, he [an elder] would stand outside loudly reading passages from the Bible on wifely obedience (Germany, 1980s)
People usually assume such clerical violence is elsewhere- Sudan, Trinidad…in the next city or country. But it is present in your diocese, circuit or presbytery.
What do Bishops do about it? Maybe more do suspend an abusive vicar for a specific period including mandatory counselling/re-training than we imagine. However the internal ecclesial procedures are not transparent, and I suspect leaders are glad if the violence lands the abusive cleric in jail, a prison term making dismissal easier. But if the guy was divorced for abusive behaviour, cited in the divorce, but his supervisor decides it would be a pity to curtail his ‘flourishing’ ministry ‘just for that’ or merely keeps the offence on the priest’s/ minister’s/pastor’s CV for five years, what does that say about the gospel, or how does that speak to Genesis 1:27? Pretty badly, I’d say.
Do some church leaders not grasp the critical fact that an abuser (let lone the survivor) needs to go through a long term period of counselling, if abuse has been perpetrated? If the perpetrator opens his heart to the process of counselling, and confronts his actions, there is a chance of moving beyond violence towards some to respect for all. However at present there is too much evidence of upper-level clerics’ operating with cowardice, a touch of misogyny and a fatal wish to cover up the ‘misdemeanour’ and allow the perpetrator to carry on in ministry, leaving his family disgusted and indeed likely to abandon the church. Do church leaders not care that offences of domestic abuse are in fact not only violations against another human being but against God, against the Christ in that survivor? These are some of the wider theologically based considerations which we must also address as people ‘within churches’, as well as ensuring the protection which needs to be brought into play immediately and consistently for those whose body and soul have been violated. Without intervention to deal with the violence within the perpetrator, future congregation members may be at risk, for the attitude which supported the violence will be present in other aspects of the perpetrator’s ministry: any person, ordained or not, who feels entitled to abuse his spouse has an issue which may well come out in other areas.
As the recent Chichester debacle surely showed, ordained persons do dissemble and indeed lie. Some (about to be) unmasked clerical perpetrators of marital violence swiftly tell their Bishop/boss about their wife’s ‘instability/neuroticism/menopausal disturbance/’ whatever. Yet unless a perpetrator is legally insane, every act of violence against another person is an act of choice: if I may be so blunt, it is a sin. Such an abuser who does not see that may blatantly lie about the choice they have taken consistently to break their own marital vow to love and honour their wife and, it seems, they may gain sympathy and leniency. ‘Fathers in God’ and de facto employers are not forced to act on judgements of a divorce court regarding the marital violence of a man under them: given their apathy, or male bonding, or whatever, it is time our church safeguarding ensured they were.
The Church Times letter November 30th 2018
From the Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Sir, — Natalie Collins rightly notes that an abused clergy spouse has no pastor; nor, from my own multi-country research among Christians, have abused female parishioners of an abusing pastor, such women being adept at “smelling out” and avoiding such church-supported sinners.
From Kenya comes the comment: “You can’t go to a pastor who beats his wife to complain about your own: even if he seems nice, you know he is a liar because you’ve heard her scream”; and from Korea: “If a pastor hits his wife then gives a sermon to young people on proper behaviour between the sexes, he is a hypocrite, and they will not follow what he says.”
Among England-based Church Times readers will be vicars who systematically abuse their wives with the knowledge of at least some in the parish; bishops who are fully aware of abusing clergy in their charge and yet choose to call it “an anger-management problem”, or blame common tenure or freehold for their colluding cowardice; and parishioners whose priest’s prayers (1 Peter 3.7) God does not hear.
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