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SYDNEY: Anglican church must rethink doctrine that has left a trail of devastated lives

SYDNEY: Anglican church must rethink doctrine that has left a trail of devastated lives


By Jane
June 14, 2021

At the clergy wives' conferences I used to attend as the wife of an Anglican minister, the high-profile Sydney Anglican leader, the Reverend Phillip Jensen, preached to us repeatedly about the cornerstone doctrine of male headship and female submission to male authority.

The topic recurred year after year, with excruciating detail -- about submitting sexually, about prioritising our minister husband's "needs" in every way, about taking on all the household and family load, without expecting it to be shared -- because that would be taking our husbands away from the important work of gospel ministry.

At Moorewomen, the group for the wives of clergy in training at Moore Theological College, the same themes also recurred regularly -- never say no to his demands for sex, never expect him to miss a ministry opportunity to help care for a sick child, never complain, always be ready to give and give and give, as that was our contribution to the work of God's kingdom.

So I listened in disbelief last week when a panelist on ABC's The Drum, the Reverend Michael Jensen, Phillip's nephew, responded to presenter Julia Baird's suggestion that the Sydney Anglican Church could perhaps consider a five-year "pause" or moratorium on teaching male headship and spend that time getting a grip on the church's problem with domestic violence, a problem highlighted in the newly released National Anglican Family Violence Project report.

Michael's answer was "you'd be surprised how little we teach on that, to be honest" -- followed by "I think in a way the problem has been that we haven't lived out in its full richness the teaching that we have" and "the evidence is about twisting [the doctrine]" rather than the doctrine itself.

And yet in the resources listed on the website of the Priscilla and Aquila Centre (a specialist centre at Moore College dedicated to promoting "complementarian' or headship/submission doctrine), at least 40 of the 125 listed talks and seminars are explicitly focused on the subject of women's submission and men's headship.

At Matthias Media, founded out of the ministry of Phillip Jensen, the top two bestselling books in the Christian Thought category are God's Good Design, dedicated to articulating and promoting headship/submission doctrine, and Captivated by Christ, which features a chapter on headship/submission and a (painful to read) apologia by the author's wife, describing and defending her submissive attitude in her marriage.

I could go on. But you get the picture. As Baird said on The Drum, "you can't dismiss this [doctrine] as a small thing" in Sydney Anglicanism. It is everywhere in our training institutions and in our published literature. Our clergy are formed by it. It is a frequent focus of legislation in our Synods. We are known for our insistence on it as a marker of orthodoxy.

So, while I believe that Michael himself does not focus on this topic in his own preaching and teaching ministry and while I am grateful to him for raising awareness of domestic violence in the diocese and advocating for survivors, trying to downplay the pervasive impact this teaching has had on our church culture is not credible and is profoundly unhelpful. Do the harms we have suffered as a result of this doctrine really not matter enough to trigger any response of openness to stop and reconsider?

If we can't hit "pause" and listen to this latest round of research, telling us again and with more data the same thing we have been hearing from victims and experts for five years or more; if we can't even get a basic admission from those clergy who have listened most carefully to victims that this teaching has been powerfully harmful and has left a trail of devastated lives; if we are doomed to constantly having our suffering re-interpreted by the gatekeepers as due to unfortunate "twistings" of the doctrine, or "failures to live it out in its full richness", then no wonder so many of us give up on expecting our churches to do any better.

We have a long way to go before our churches have any hope of being safe places for victims and survivors of family violence. A willingness to listen to survivors and to take seriously our pleas to the church to reconsider the headship/submission doctrine is a necessary beginning, but by no means the end. Until we see meaningful progress on this basic level, there is little hope we will see the structural, cultural and systemic changes that are so desperately needed.

The author is a domestic violence survivor and former wife of an Anglican minister.


National Anglican Family Violence Project (NAFVP)

Commissioned by the Anglican Church of Australia

Warning: This report addresses intimate partner violence (domestic abuse) and contains examples of the types of violence that people have experienced. National Anglican Family Violence


Australia has an intimate partner violence (IPV) problem. Many of us would be familiar with the widely reported findings that on average in Australia, one woman each week is murdered by a current or former intimate partner. Research tells us that 1 in 3 Australian women report having experienced
physical or sexual violence from the age of 15.1 Tragically, violence is often at the hands of a current or former partner and it is gendered, with significantly more women experiencing violence and its impacts than men.

We also know that IPV (a subset of family violence) is experienced in different ways by different communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities report different levels of prevalence and different drivers of violence. Disabled people, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse
communities report different rates and experiences of violence.

The Royal Commission into Family Violence reported in 2016 that faith communities were vital settings for influencing attitudes and providing leadership in relation to family violence.

2 However, the role that our churches are able to play was limited until now by a lack of current Australian data on how women and men in church communities experience violence. In order to understand the nature and prevalence of IPV in our church communities so that we can contribute to overcoming this scourge,
our 2017 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia resolved to investigate its prevalence and nature in our own church population.

3 Following the Synod motion, our Standing Committee established the Family Violence Working Group, with one of its objectives being to investigate, and if possible to commission, a research study into the nature and prevalence of family violence within the Australian Anglican Church population.

This top line report of the National Anglican Family Violence Project highlights the results of that objective and subsequent research. It provides valuable information about the nature and prevalence of IPV in Anglican church communities. The key findings of this research tell us that there is a
significant IPV problem within the Australian Anglican Church population. This is tragic, it is confronting and it is lamentable. But knowing about it, including gaining insight into the nature of the problem as it occurs in communities of faith, we can now respond appropriately to prevent and address it.

You can read the full report here: https://anglican.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/NAFVP-Top-Line-Results-Report-NCLS-Research.pdf

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