In the last six months, I have heard about the most appalling cases of violence and abuse happening in UK churches. These cases are too often hidden under the fabric of our mainstream church and society, and it’s time for us to have public conversations within our churches.
I say this not just to point fingers, but to create a platform for us to think, talk and respond better. I think most people, who describe themselves as Christians, believe we are created in the image of God and, as such, affirm the basic dignity of all humankind. In our churches, our congregations seek to provide safe spaces of welcome and hospitality that encourage the full and equal participation of all. This means we need to be well informed about how we keep congregants (young and old) safe in all sorts of ways, in order to provide safe spaces free from intimidation for all.
Christians are called to be present for one another – especially for those who struggle for their safety, dignity and rights – so when violence, harassment, abuse or intimidation happens, we have a collective duty to deal with it, and there are a few things worth bearing in mind.
- Our cultural diversity adds to the strength of our community, and is something to be cherished and celebrated. As we encounter one another’s differences, we should be careful not to assume that our way of being and behaving is comfortable for everyone else. Sometimes our differences of age, gender, culture, spirituality, ability, language, ethnicity and class make it a challenge to understand and communicate effectively with one another. How can each person be encouraged to take seriously his or her own responsibility to act with care in the multidimensional, cross-cultural interactions of the Christian world? What may be considered normal friendliness and sociability to one person can be misinterpreted in a culturally mixed group – and even between individuals of the same culture or background. This is why we must take extra care and sensitivity with one another in a church environment.
- Let’s be clear: harassment is an intolerable manifestation of unequal power relations between people, and sexual harassment often also includes discrimination on the basis of gender, age, race or class, causing stress or humiliation to the person being harassed. This may happen in situations where dominance and abuse of power result in a lack of respect for and mistreatment of people as sexual objects. This ultimately demeans and destroys the dignity of a person. So, harassment by itself is not an isolated incident or individual problem; rather, it is a problem stemming from wider patterns and dynamics of power in our societies. This includes the Church and its structures too!
- In the last decade, to overcome violence, there is no doubt churches are playing important roles around addressing institutional and personal violence that women experience, but more could – and should – be done. Statistics tell us sexual harassment has been identified as the most common expression of such violence and, on a continuum of severity, harassment ranges from wolf whistles and obscene phone calls to sexual assault. Sexual assault includes rape, sexual intercourse without consent, and sexual contact without consent. Several kinds of behaviour with a sexual connotation, if unsolicited and unwanted and especially if repetitive, can be forms of sexual harassment. Examples are: suggestive looks or comments; teasing or telling of jokes with sexual content; letters, calls or materials of a sexual nature; imposed touching or closeness; pressure for dates or activities with a sexual overtone, or offers to use influence in return for sexual favours.
The sheer number of sexual harassment and assaults in church has caused some (not all) churches to seek responsible action and policy, leading to many churches, and church-based organisations to introducing institutional or legislative policies and processes to protect those who experience the dehumanising effects of violence and sexual harassment.
We need more sound guidelines and principles that set a positive foundation upon which to build Christian communities marked by love, responsibility and respect. If we don’t, we do nothing to reduce the risks and realities of harmful behaviours, meaning the very structure of church organisation becomes complicit with the behaviours of those who inflict harm.
Through Bible studies and guidelines, we can and should encourage men and women to reflect on their attitudes to one another, and to those who are privileged on the basis of race, class, gender, social status, position of leadership and age. Together we can reflect on the right relationships Christ’s teachings point us towards, as we seek to be a Church of one body, unified by our love of God and each other.