With statistics showing one in every six women are physically or sexually abused in Australia, there is growing recognition of the importance of the role churches can play in supporting victims and holding perpetrators accountable.

To that end, Common Grace – an Australia-wide Christian network of some 36,000 people concerned about issues of justice - late last year launched a new online resource aimed at helping church leaders navigate what can be a difficult issue to tackle.

Safer

Artwork from the Safer Resource: PICTURE: Supplied.

Known as SAFER, the free-to-access resource took about 18 months to pull together and covers everything from how to recognise when domestic or family violence is occurring in a congregational context and how Christian leaders should respond through to theological insights on the issue and how churches can set about changing the culture of their community.

Natalie Lammas Williams, project lead on SAFER and a social policy specialist and government advisor, says the resource aims to "educate churches about family violence, provide guidance about how to support [victims], and intervene…”

"For us, the reality is that all Australian church goers are likely to have victims and abusers sitting next to them in Sunday services. And we know that sometimes the churches [have] responded in wonderfully supportive ways to victims but very often churches have also responded in ways that have left victims unsafe.”

SAFER forms part of a wider campaign on domestic violence launched by Common Grace in late October, 2015. It comes amid an increased focus on the issue of domestic violence in Australia thanks to a number of factors including the media attention awarded to 2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, a domestic violence survivor, and the reporting of a Royal Commission in the state of Victoria in mid 2016.

“[O]ur campaign is about addressing the attitudes that underpin family violence and make it OK to do it and overlook it in the community."

- Natalie Lammas Williams, project lead on SAFER

“[O]ur campaign is about addressing the attitudes that underpin family violence and make it OK to do it and overlook it in the community,” explains Ms Williams.

“[It] has the really broad goal of seeing the numbers of people abused drastically drop, to see gender inequality challenged, and to promote healthy and equal relationships in church.”

Erica Hamence, a Sydney-based Anglican minister who is involved in Common Grace’s domestic violence team, was among those who contributed to the creation of the resource.

A lawyer by training, Ms Hamence says she found during her legal studies that while there were a range of secular resources available to help victims of domestic and family violence with legal issues, they “didn’t really cover the broad range of what many people experience as violence”.

“And then in the church world I found that there just wasn’t any information out there about what does a Christian do if they are trouble or if they suspect that their friend is; what does the Bible say about these sorts of things? No-one was really putting together the secular resources that were out there with the kind of Christian circumstances that people find themselves in.”

Ms Hamence says SAFER was about bringing together information from both worlds – the legal world and the church world – to address the sorts of issues Christians and church communities might face and to help bring about an acknowledgement that domestic violence does occur within church communities “far more than people recognise”.

Erica Hamence

Erica Hamence is among those who have worked on the SAFER Resource. She says that while there is a growing awareness of the issue, the engagement of churches could be hampered if resources aren't made available.

“I think there is a growing awareness that it’s actually a really big problem [within churches],” she says, but adds that growing recognition could plateau if there is a lack of resources to help people deal with the issue of domestic violence.

“[I]f we feel like there are no resources out there - and that if the Christian faith doesn’t provide any resources - then actually that’s going to undermine even us acknowledging the truth about the fact that there’s violence in our churches.”

While there are some denominational resources on the issue of domestic violence already available in Australia, SAFER – which was developed in consultation with survivors of domestic and family violence – is aimed broadly at the Christian church as a whole, and in particular at leaders of all levels - from senior ministry team members to youth and children’s group leaders. But it’s creators also hope that “everyday” Christians can also pick it up and find things that are helpful in it.

And while the focus of much of the resource is on violence against women given they are overwhelmingly its victims, Ms Lammas Williams points out that there is also some information in it aimed specifically at male victims.

“Certainly there is a need for resources for male victims as well,” she notes.

The resource also contains sections on how churches can support perpetrators but stresses that they must be held accountable and that the focus must always be on supporting victims.

Hannah Craven, assistant minister at St Michael’s Anglican Church in the Melbourne suburb of North Carlton and a Melbourne Anglican Prevention of Violence Against Women Committee member, says while it’s early days in terms of use of the resource, she had recommended it to the committee.

“I believe it is a comprehensive resource which combines industry standard knowledge and advice on responding to domestic violence, with discussion of theology, church life, and pastoral care,” she says. “It addresses the key issues or questions that Christians and pastors will ask, and it gives extremely clear guidance about what to do (and what not to do).”

“I think lots of churches recognise they have a responsibility to the vulnerable but [we would love to see churches] recognising that actually there many more who are vulnerable in our communities than we realise and working out what it looks like to care for them and also to empower them and also to safeguard our communities from being manipulated. We would love to see that being more commonplace.”

- Erica Hamence

Ms Craven says that based on her experience and that of her colleagues, “I do believe that many Christian ministers are uninformed, or even misinformed, and that their instincts and training in pastoral practice will not be sufficient for situations of domestic and family violence.”

“I do honestly believe that every person in pastoral or ministry leadership should make sure they are across this content," she says. “I don’t think you necessarily have to use it in your church (though there are some ways you could) [but] it would be a great first step for all leaders to have read it and have it inform their practice.”

Ms Hamence, meanwhile, says it is hoped that SAFER will help to contribute to a culture change in churches.

“That’s our hope – I think we still have a long way to go and I think SAFER is just one part of that - I don’t think it’s the whole and there’s definitely much more we in Common Grace would like to do and would like to see done…

“I think lots of churches recognise they have a responsibility to the vulnerable but [we would love to see churches] recognising that actually there many more who are vulnerable in our communities than we realise and working out what it looks like to care for them and...to empower them and also to safeguard our communities from being manipulated. We would love to see that being more commonplace.”