Church and abuse

Sexual abuse in the context of Christian purity culture in Britain

Today’s post is by Chrissie Thwaites, a PhD student in sociology of religion at the University of Leeds (UK). Chrissie’s research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC/UKRI). You can follow her on twitter or keep up to date with her work on LinkedIn.

Researching purity culture in Britain

I’m currently in the final stages of my PhD at the University of Leeds, where since 2020 I’ve been researching the impact of evangelical Christian purity culture on women in Britain. Earlier in my PhD, I wrote for the Shiloh Project about the need to investigate purity culture in the UK. Since then, I have conducted research and begun to share my findings. 

Thus far, most research on evangelical Christian purity culture has focused on the US (e.g. by Sara Moslener and Linda Kay Klein), given that the movement was especially prominent there. There have been a few studies looking at purity culture in some way with both American and British participants (as in Katie Cross’s chapter in Feminist Trauma Theologies, or a chapter on purity culture in Katie Gaddini’s book The Struggle to Stay). But as mine is the first more substantial piece of work specifically and exclusively on purity culture in Britain, I needed to build up a picture of this context, to provide background.

Consequently, my PhD has involved mixed methods research, consisting of an online survey and some one-to-one interviews. The survey gave sufficient breadth and garnered quite a wide reach – the link was opened by 1300 people, 863 then clicked through to somewhere in the survey itself, and over 600 filled it out all the way to the end and submitted a response, of which 580 were considered eligible and included in my study.[1]

Meanwhile, I also conducted five interviews to provide more depth and to ground my research in select personal stories. These were also helpful as I wanted to explore British evangelical youth subculture in the 2000s and 2010s in a bit more detail than the survey allowed, and to hear more about the role of this subculture in people’s lives. Having said that, I also ended up with quite a lot of qualitative data in the survey too – I was very privileged to have a lot of people share their experiences with me in the open-ended questions. I also had a much higher response rate than I’d anticipated, which suggests that I’d tapped into something people wanted to talk about, and that a good number of people were looking for an outlet to share their stories.

Findings: abuse in the context of purity culture

Most of the respondents did not recount personal experiences of abuse, and there were no survey questions to prompt such a disclosure. But some people, of their own accord, did disclose such experiences – including one of my five interviewees. Similarly, the majority of participants didn’t mention any knowledge or awareness of experiences of abuse by their peers or those around them. But again, some did. I felt that the seriousness of this topic meant it required attention, even if the number of people discussing it was in the minority. This was especially the case given that anyone who shared these experiences did so without prompting, as it wasn’t a part of the survey structure. Those who did discuss abuse tended to focus on sexual assault specifically, usually in one of two ways: either in responses to sexual assault (and how purity culture can shape these), or, in some cases, on how purity culture creates an environment which actually facilitates sexual assault. 

With regard to the first, some participants talked about the role of purity culture in the aftermath of sexual assault. One participant described “in response to reporting a rape being told God would forgive me for having sex before marriage (as the first response)”. Not only does this fail to provide trauma-informed support to someone who has experienced sexual assault, the notion that this person is in need of forgiveness implies some sort of transgression and fault on her part. Another survey respondent describes a similar experience: “when I told the pastor’s wife that I had been sexually assaulted in my 20s, she led me through a prayer of repentance, as the assumption was I had done something to cause the assault”. These are different people, but their experience is dreadfully similar, and the implications of both responses are the same: guilt and culpability. 

Multiple survey respondents discussed how the idea that pre-marital sex makes a person tainted had shaped (and worsened) the aftermath of sexual assault. One person, for example, discussed an assault at university: “I was sexually assaulted in uni when I was still a virgin. Purity culture caused me to view myself as ‘used’ and unlovable”. Immediately after this assault, she attended a relationships session at an evangelical church, “which basically boiled down to if you have sex before marriage you’re dirty and unlovable …  The message also made me feel extremely upset and angry as I already believed in Jesus and I still got assaulted, so where was I supposed to go?”. In a place where she expected comfort she was instead told that she was now (in her words) dirty and unlovable. She also reports leaving the church for a period of time because of this, and experiencing guilt and shame. 

Others too described feelings of shame and self-blame. “I 100% blamed myself for my own perceived failings,” one woman said. “Nobody ever told me I had a voice … When I lost my virginity it wasn’t exactly by choice,” which she says led her to a very dark place: “I truly felt like now I was no longer a virgin, I couldn’t do any of the things I had wanted to do – missions work, marry a lovely Christian guy, even play in the worship team at church. It felt like my world had ended and I didn’t know what to do with it”. This idea of the loss of community and the possibility of living a fulfilling Christian life also appeared in others’ stories: “when I was raped in my adolescence I didn’t share my story because I was afraid I had lost my purity and was no longer worthy of love or welcome in the Church or in general,” another participant shared with me. In other words, she remained silent out of an internalised fear of what would happen, and an anxiety that she was no longer lovable or welcome in her church community. For another woman, this fear was realised, and she describes being “thrown out of my church” when she was raped “outside of marriage”. 

With regard to the second, some participants in my research felt that the environment of Christian purity culture did not safeguard them from, but rather enabled, sexual abuse. One woman talked about a boyfriend from a particular church, who raped her during their relationship. “I believe the church contributed to his decision to do so,” she says harrowingly. Another discussed how purity teaching came predominantly from youth events growing up and how in this context, “because sex was wrong, it fetished [sic] force and non-consent. (As that could be the only other way to experience sexual contact!?!?) I had friends as young as 12 or 13 who would talk about rape as a positive thing”. When describing her experience of purity culture, another participant attributed her experience of sexual assault in her late teens to it: “I hold it largely responsible for my rapes in my abusive relationship,” she says. 

Evangelical Christianity has had a number of high-profile abuse scandals in recent years, which have documented serious and devastating abuses of power from those in leadership positions.[2] I was reminded of these news stories when I read one survey submission, in which the respondent disclosed being sexually abused in her mid-teens by the leader of her evangelical youth group, who was over 10 years her senior. As she describes it: “He said that God had been leading him to me, and said ‘God says it’s all right’ when he touched me. In retrospect, I was groomed and sexually abused by him.” This man’s position of power and appropriation of spiritual authority seems to have facilitated his behaviour flying under the radar – and all the while, he outwardly maintained the unacceptability of pre-marital sex. There isn’t much for me to say here; the idea that vulnerable adolescents exist within these environments – ones purporting to keep them safe – is not one easy to make peace with. 

Additionally, many of the examples given by these participants constitute secondary victimisation. The European Institute for Gender Equality defines this as follows: “secondary victimisation occurs when the victim suffers further harm not as a direct result of the criminal act but due to the manner in which institutions and other individuals deal with the victim” (2016). It can be caused, for example, by “repeated exposure” to the perpetrator, or “the use or inappropriate language or insensitive comments” by “those who come into contact with victims” (ibid.). So, take, for instance, the women who shared with someone that they had been sexually assaulted and were immediately told they needed forgiveness. This would be an example of secondary victimisation due to the victim-blaming undertones of these responses, and thus the further harm that comments like these can inflict.

Charting the path forward?

A short article like this one only begins to scratch the surface – there is more to discuss about sexual assault in the context of purity culture. But I find it helpful to categorise my main findings and recommendations based on these into two broad categories: first, how purity culture can shape the aftermath of sexual assault; second, in some cases, how purity culture can even facilitate and conceal abuse.

As I’m approaching the end of my PhD, I’ve spent a significant amount of time poring over my data and re-reading people’s answers, and I am cognizant of the lived experience within them. I am strongly aware that behind every survey ID number is a person – someone who has lived a whole life with nuance and emotion and who at some point, took the time to fill out a survey for the research of someone they don’t know. I get the impression that some of these people also felt silenced because they are seen by some Christians, first and foremost, as a threat with the capacity to tarnish Christianity. What I see first is their need to be listened to.

In my research, I take a sociological approach to studying purity culture; mine is not a theological study, and I don’t attempt to offer a confessional response for people to use going forward. I will leave that up to others, as I am not the right person for it. What I do want to do, however, is shine a light on the experiences that have been shared with me. To do my respondents justice by telling their stories. What comes after this, I am not sure – but it is my hope that in doing this work, all of these people know that someone has heard them. And realise that they are not alone. 

[1] In my research I focus specifically on people who were “raised as girls” within this Christian context, following the language of Klein (2019). This means that my participants are either cis women (the vast majority), or assigned female at birth non-binary (a very small percentage).

[2] In the UK, this includes the lengthy and ongoing investigation of John Smyth, former leader of Iwerne Trust which ran evangelical Christian camps; former leader of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon and prominent evangelical leader Jonathan Fletcher; more recently, Mike Pilavachi, former leader of the charismatic evangelical Soul Survivor festivals and ordained vicar of its church in Watford. The latter prompted the Evangelical Alliance to call for evangelicals to “do better”. 

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Spotlight! David Tombs

Routledge Focus Series: Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible

David Tombs’ book The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross is available open access and was first published in 2023. As the title makes clear, this book is as difficult to read as it is important.

Open access DOI:

How do you reflect back on writing your book? 

I was lucky to have a semester of research leave to focus on writing the book.  Victoria University Wellington (Aotearoa New Zealand) generously offered to host me as Visiting Scholar and gave me a quiet place to write. Victoria University library has one of the best University library views in the world, looking out from the hill side over the city and the water of Wellington harbour. New Zealand has lots of beautiful scenery and this was a really inspiring place to focus on writing.

What has been the response to your book?

The book draws on work that I have researched for over twenty years and puts the main arguments together in a single place. People have told me they appreciate how this shows the connections between different parts. People have said that although it is challenging to read it is worthwhile because it has changed their understanding of the cross. For some readers, the book can transform how they feel about themselves. One reader wrote: 

“I wanted to let you know how deeply this has helped me…. I can’t adequately express my gratitude to you here for your work. I’m going to reflect on it a lot more and read it again.”

I had the chance to record a podcast on the main arguments in the book for OnScript with Erin Heim,

[Editor: Check out also the interview episode with David on The Shiloh Podcast.]

How and where are you now and what are you doing or working on at present?

I work at the University of Otago in New Zealand and the country is now getting ready for the release of the final report of the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care (2018-2024). The final report is likely to be difficult reading for everyone, especially the churches. I am hoping to contribute to church conversations around what can be learnt from this. As far as possible I try to make my writing easily available through my web-site

Do you have any advice for authors of future publications in this series?

A number of colleagues have said what a good idea a ‘short-format’ book is and I completely agree. The format is long enough to develop a significant argument and set out the evidence, whilst being very much more manageable as a writing project than a full-length book. For me it was a perfect format!

What topics in the area of rape culture, religion and/or the Bible would you like to see a book on?

The rape culture, religion and the Bible series has been important for including volumes on sexual violence against male victims as well sexual violence against women and girls. Further work on male victims would be welcome because it is has previously been a neglected topic, and as more research is done more areas of research are likely to open up.

Do you have a shout-out to anyone working in this general area? Please shout about them!

I really appreciated Barbara Thiede’s volume on Rape Culture in the House of David. I believe Barbara is now doing further work on male-on-male violence in the books Samuel, which I am keen to read when it is published. A particular shout out also needs to go to Johanna Stiebert, for her leadership on this project, and especially her work on this book series.

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Spotlight! Miryam Clough

Routledge Focus Series: Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible

Miryam’s Clough’s courageous book has the title Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo. It was first published in 2022 and includes, alongside accounts of Miryam’s own experiences, data from interviews with both survivors and church leaders. The book explores the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s careers and vocational aspirations in the church.

What follows are Miryam’s reflections on writing and publishing her book.

The focus of my book was a surprise to me. I was doing some quite broad research on women in the Anglican Church in New Zealand when someone referred me to Rev’d Louise Deans’ book Whistleblower, about a serial abuser and the struggle a group of women had to call him, and the church, to account. This story had come to light when a group of women met to discuss sexual harassment in the church at a conference of ordained Anglican women in 1989, the year after I left New Zealand having had a similar experience as a young ordinand. As I researched, the theme of clergy abuse kept coming up, and my book evolved from there. Revisiting that time in my life in the context of what the church was like for other women was actually a very positive experience for me, and it was helpful to assess my own experiences from a more structural perspective. It was fun delving into the archives of the John Kinder Theological Library in Auckland and especially revisiting Vashti’s Voice, a home-grown Christian feminist journal from the 1980s. The copy, produced on typewriters or by hand, hand illustrated, and duplicated on a Gestetner, brought the experiences of those women to life. It was also really useful to immerse myself in the literature on clergy abuse, which I’d not read before then. Some really seminal work in this area was done decades ago by women like Marie Fortune. The church is still catching up.

Vocation and Violence was very much a collaborative project and I’m grateful to all those who contributed to it. It is important to recognise that much of the work towards addressing sexual violence in the church is driven by survivors and takes a particular kind of courage. Bringing stories of abuse into the public arena is both potentially freeing and increases vulnerability. The stories have a way of becoming public property. They may be examined in intrusively forensic detail by church lawyers seeking to evade culpability for their client, or graphically reported by a media intent on selling their product to a prurient and scandal-hungry public. In the frenzy, the wellbeing of those involved and the structural mechanisms that facilitate abuse are often overlooked. 

Misogyny and toxic masculinity persistently exploit biblical violence to justify purity culture, complementarianism, and clericalism, promoting entitlement in some and cultivating the conditions for abuse to flourish. The fundamental problem of a male God – man made God in his own image – remains one of the central delusions of the church’s history, and the language of the church continues to support this. Here in New Zealand currently, I’ve noticed that the phrase “Father God” is repeated in some extempore prayer so often that it becomes almost the sole content of the prayer, interspersed with the odd petition. Meanwhile in wider society women are once more being subtly written out of the language and I think this will prove to be really damaging if it persists. 

I’m using a similar methodology in my third Routledge monograph on the way churches in New Zealand responded to the Ardern government’s Covid-19 Protection Framework in 2021–2022, which saw many unvaccinated Christians excluded from their church congregations and mandated out of their jobs. I’m interviewing clergy and lay people about their experiences – whether those were of working within the Framework to implement its guidelines or of being excluded by it – and aiming to give voice to a range of perspectives in the hope that, should a similar situation arise, the churches are better equipped to respond. 

The interviews worked well in Vocation and Violence. Some contributors have said they found it helpful to tell their stories and feel heard and several readers have contacted me to say they found it helpful to read stories that echoed their own experiences, and that they appreciated both the authenticity of accounts and the assessment of the theological and structural dynamics that enable and allow abuse – including theirs – to occur. Another aspect that was appreciated was that I didn’t focus on the details of abuse, which, as I’ve noted, so many public accounts do. So often, reporting of sexual violence is gratuitous and amounts to secondary abuse. One reviewer commented that the book “should be required  reading for  bishops and others in church leadership and positions of decision-making as well as for both teachers and learners in theological education and ministry training.”[1]

One area where I think a lot more work is needed is on the way the churches prevent and respond to misconduct and abuse by clergy and others in positions of power. I think we, in the church, struggle to deal with the complexities involved, and with how to disentangle subjective judgements about morality from coercive or abusive behaviour. Far too much energy goes into judging and controlling people’s intimate lives rather than into preventing abuse and discerning and dealing with it well when it does occur. I’m not sure that our Ministry Standards processes are yet really fit for purpose. 

The Routledge Focus Series on “Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible” was a great series to write for. The editors are really hands-on, interested, encouraging, and prompt to respond to queries. If you are thinking of submitting a proposal for a volume in this series – do it! Even if you’re just at the ideas stage, you’ll get some great feedback and support. There is some fantastic work being done now on religion and rape culture, Bible and violence and I cannot recommend this series too highly!

[1] Janet Crawford, “Book Review: Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo,” Anglican Journal of Theology in Aotearoa and Oceania, Vol. 1, issue 1, Spring 2022,

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Abuse, engraved 

Today’s post is by Bradley and Maya. Both are second-year undergraduate students at the University of Leeds and enrolled in a module where they take an active part in a research project. Johanna has got them involved in the ‘Abuse in Religious Contexts’ project and the group (which also includes Joey and Annelise) has taken the initiative to explore rape culture manifestations on campus (the topic of this post), to interview churches about safeguarding practices, and run a Bible study on a text with potential to cause harm at the University’s Chaplaincy Centre.

Bradley (she/her) is a second-year Liberal Arts student majoring in English with career aspirations in the film industry. She’s always been driven by matters concerning social justice, with particular passions for queer and women’s issues.

Maya is also a second-year student at the University of Leeds studying Liberal Arts with a major in English Lit. Home for her is the Isle of Wight in the south of England, where she lives right on the coastline. Although she is not sure where her degree will take her, she has close family friends who run a non-profit that provides housing/has initiated controlled drug use in Vancouver, Canada. She hopes to gain some work experience in harm reduction alongside them after University. 

Pedophile’s sculpture on display at the University of Leeds – and nobody bats an eyelid?!

Every day hundreds of students on Leeds University campus cross paths with Eric Gill’s stone frieze, Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple. To the average university goer, this sculpture – situated centrally in the entrance of the Michael Sadler building – depicts a well-known Bible story. Yet very few are aware of the artist’s sexual abuse of his wife and daughters, exposed 50 years after his death in his personal diaries. This artwork represents a biblical story but also the deeply ubiquitous nature of rape culture and its intersection with the world of religion and spirituality.   

Rape culture is embedded in our everyday lives, manifested in microaggressions and cultural products which vary across communities, countries and social and spiritual groups. Any normalisation of harmful sexual behaviour contributes to rape culture, ranging from the abstract (such as sexist attitudes or jokes) to the concrete (such as sexual violence and rape). Common perpetrators include (particularly violent) pornography, any unsolicited sexual attention, and even our own language. Art is a less common but equally impactful facilitator.  

Although rape culture is everywhere, often the willingness to talk about it is nowhere. This very contradiction is what fuels all different sorts of abuse, in which abuse goes unsaid, abusers go unseen, and survivors go unheard. Despite nationwide vandalism of Gill’s statues there is no disclaimer next to the frieze that warns of its harmful effect in a public education setting. Of course, pointing out Gill’s abuse could be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse. But can ignorance be the optimal alternative? What good can come from acting like it never happened, and stigmatising and silencing survivors even more? 

In our project Addressing Sexual Abuse Scandals in Church Settings, we first approached rape culture, as guided by our mentor Johanna Stiebert, and its intersection with spirituality in so-called spiritual abuse. Springboarding from research into Gill, we delved into other forms of spiritual abuse, and realised it manifests itself in so many different variations – from excusing violence to manipulating spiritual teachings (Spiritual abuse | 1800RESPECT).  

Thus, spiritual abuse is best understood as an umbrella term for the many ways in which people manipulate the power and authority of the church as well as the vulnerability and openness of its followers; perhaps it is best seen as ‘any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith or beliefs’ (Spiritual Abuse: How to Identify It and Find Help (  

With this in mind, we continued to look at the context of biblical stories and their place in contemporary society. The focus of this blog is a reminder of the strong influence historical texts can have, and their ongoing effects today. Needless to say, the extent of social change that has occurred between the then of certain religious texts and the now of today highlights the importance of context; various injustices found in biblical stories can never justify structures of abuse seen today.  

Being critical of the past does not negate the importance of religion and spirituality today, and we hope to direct this energy towards aspects of spirituality which facilitate rape culture without undermining the positive impact of faith and the Church.  

Moving forward, our project aims to increase awareness and decrease stigma surrounding spiritual abuse. This begins with collecting first-hand research in the form of interviews in Christian churches in Leeds: All-Hallows church, is our first. Here we met with Revd. Heston Groenewald and Safeguarding Lead Penny Brown. We aim to explore how churches seek to understand, and prevent spiritual abuse among their congregations.  

In opening this conversation on spiritual abuse in this blog, we hope to encourage difficult and necessary conversations on how religious institutions and contexts can permit but also resist rape culture. By having these conversations openly we aim to change the discourse for survivors of religious abuse and give them a platform to express themselves, hopefully taking small steps towards a bigger and brighter picture of change. After all, the subtle microaggressions that foster rape culture are best attacked through small and subtle acts, like simply talking about it. Boosting awareness is the beginning to a road of empowerment and change.  

[The image shows: Penny, Heston, Joey, Maya, Annelise and Bradley, at All Hallows’ Rainbow Junktion in Leeds].

So when you next look at art – religious or otherwise – we hope you feel inclined to investigate its context, and consider its place in society today.   

To read more on the controversy of Gill, click the following links:  

The Michael Sadler sculpture was designed by a known paedophile (  

Eric Gill: can we separate the artist from the abuser? | Eric Gill | The Guardian  

Can Art Created by a Sexual Abuser Ever Be Meaningfully Reframed? – ArtReview  

Written in stone | Art | The Guardian  

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Support to Survive

Support to Survive is a space which acts as a survival kit for those doing feminist, queer, decolonial, and trauma informed church work. In this post, Rosie Clare Shorter reflects with Tracy McEwan, Steff Fenton, and Erin Martine Hutton on why they started the Support to Survive community.  

When you begin a research degree, people throw all sorts of ideas and tips in your direction. ‘Keep your notes in a systematic manner,’ they say, at a university induction, as though no-one has ever recommended this before. And you nod diligently, and then go home to a hundred multicoloured Post-it notes scattered over your desk. ‘Write drunk, edit sober,’ suggests a parishioner during an online church service in the middle of Covid-19 lockdowns. ‘Research is lonely; find your people,’ was a common piece of advice at academic conferences.

Research certainly can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be.

As we each worked on our respective research and wrote about gendered, racist, and sexist exclusion and harm in Christianity, we realised that our work was sometimes isolating. At times, it even felt alienating and risky. You can feel incredibly small when you stand up and call out heterosexist ideology. When you name sexism and racism within long-standing and well-resourced institutions. When you name it as harmful and violent. When you say that church teaching and culture can be a contributing factor in disaffiliation, intimate partner violence, homophobic, and transphobic harm and violence. Even when you know that there is a growing body of research behind you.

It can feel lonely, too, because this work can be not only theoretical and academic for us. It can be personal, and lived, too. For some of us doing this work, we have direct experiences of gendered, sexist, and racist harm within Christianity. We carry our own experiences with us as we research. As we hear the stories of others. It is also almost impossible to research and write about gendered, racist, and sexist exclusion and harm in Christianity without being impacted by what we read, hear, and learn.

Yet, our research also brought us together.  The more we did this work, and discussed it with each other we realised we weren’t alone, and we weren’t the only ones saying these things. We quickly realised that similar projects were happening across different faith traditions, from different angles, and in different disciplines; sociology, studies of religion, theology and biblical studies.

That’s part of why we started Support to Survive.

We started Support to Survive because we didn’t want to stand on our own, and we wanted a way to stay connected. We wanted to know we had someone to hold our hand when we didn’t feel brave. Someone to read our drafts when we felt unsure. We wanted peers to stand with, collaborate with and celebrate with. We wanted to cultivate health and healing together.  We wanted to slowly build a network, so that together we could have support to survive.

On our blog you’ll see the claim, ‘survival is a team sport.’ When you engage in feminist, queer, and decolonial work, having the support of others can be what keeps you afloat. Community keeps you going.  Sara Ahmed (2017, 235) contends that: survival ‘refers not only to living on, but to keeping going in the more profound sense of keeping going with one’s commitments. … Survival can be about keeping one’s hope’s alive; holding on to the projects that are projects insofar as they have yet to be realized. … Survival can thus be what we do for others, with others. We need each other to survive; we need to be part of each other’s survival’.

We’re not 100% sure what this space will look like as it grows. When we first discussed setting up some sort of network we had Ahmed’s depiction of a feminist killjoy survival kit in mind, and thought about how we could become part of each other’s survival kits. How we could help assemble a survival kit for others doing similar work. We firmly believe that if we are to keep on being committed to finding ways for religious institutions, organisations and communities to be safer and more inclusive, we need each other to survive. We might even find a way to thrive in this work as well.

In Complaint! Ahmed talks about how we chip away at institutional sexism, racism and violence. This work is slow, especially if you are chipping away on your own. We started Support to Survive because we wanted company while we chipped. We wanted to know we were chipping in the right places. We wanted support to keep on chipping away. We wanted to know someone else would carry on chipping when we were tired and needed a break. We wanted others to reassure us its ok to stop chipping when we need a break. We needed friends to encourage us to let go of the work when we were too close to it to realise. Working collectively matters. On our own, our voices are small, our chipping is minimal, but as Ahmed (2021, 277) reminds us, ‘we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder’.

Doing this work in community is central to surviving.

We first imagined Support to Survive as a survival kit for people doing feminist, queer, decolonial and trauma-informed work and research within Christian organisations and communities. However, it is our hope that in time, Support to Survive will be an interdisciplinary and multi-religious space where many people share ideas and resources, and find a community of hope and healing. We want to create space for ‘coalitional thinking’ (Butler 2004, 11) – one of us might be particularly focused on how the religious institutions can contribute to primary prevention in Domestic and Family violence, while another is focused on how Christian churches can read the Bible to promote more expansive understandings of gender. Together, we can see how our specific projects contribute to broader conversations. Together, we can chip away at the walls of cisheterosexism and racism that are maintained by the harmful (mis)use of theologies and doctrines. Together, we can feel less alone. Together we are part of a movement of change.

We can support one another, even if the particular focus of our work is different. We want to collectively build a toolkit that contains a range of resources –  ideas, conversations, events, resources, friendships – that help us to do what we do. We’re hoping that our website can be a place where we can platform each other’s work, share new ideas on our blog and recommend existing resources. To get going, we’re hosting an online gathering on July 26 which will be a chance to think about what care and compassion looks like in our work and research practices.

Come join us as we slowly build a network and continue to chip away at sexism, queer exclusion, racism and violence in religious and faith-based settings.

Rosie Clare Shorter (She/her) is a feminist researcher interested in religion, gender and sexuality. She works in research and teaching roles at Deakin University, the University of Melbourne and Western Sydney University.

Tracy McEwan (PhD) (she/her)  is a theologian and sociologist of religion and gender at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include women in Catholicism; domestic and family violence; and sexual and spiritual abuse

Steff Fenton (they/them) completed their Master of Divinity at the University of Divinity in 2021. They are a trans Christian speaker, writer, educator, and advocate who publicly shares the intersections of being queer and Christian. 

Erin Marine Hutton (She/her) is an award-winning scholar and poet whose interdisciplinary research is aimed at preventing violence.

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The Bible and Violence Project: Meet Sébastien Doane 

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Sébastien Doane is a tenured professor at Université Laval in Québec, Canada. His thesis (Analyse de la réponse du lecteur aux origines de Jésus en Mt 1-2, Peeters 2019) was on the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel applying a reader-response methodology. His research focuses on the relation between biblical texts and real readers with regards to gender, affect, and trauma. To find out more, see his recent articles: « Affective Resistance to Sirach’s Androcentric Presentation of a Daughter’s Body » (Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies)« Echoes of Rachel’s Weeping: Intertextuality and Trauma in Jer. 31:15 » (Biblical Interpretation), « Masculinities of the Husbands in the Genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:2–16)» (Biblical Interpretation), and « An Ass in a Lion’s Skin: The Subversion of Judah’s Hegemonic Masculinity in Gen 38 » (Postscripts). He is a member of the SBL Hermeneutics of Trauma unit.

Sébastien Doane

I became a feminist in my mid thirties and was invited to speak at a National Women Studies Association Annual Meeting. I met great people and realised that as a man, I have a role to play to strive for gender equality. And as a biblical scholar, I must work towards meaningful work, such as this Bible and Violence project. It was only a year ago, in my mid forties, that I truly became aware that I am a descendant of French and English colonisers. My ancestors have lived in North America for the last 300 years. The first American Doane was a deacon in the first New England colony.  He came to America Bible in hand and the good book was used to legitimise a violent enterprise. In my chapter, I will focus on Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy. This biblical text does not seem to be violent. However, its interpretations have engendered violence against women and members of first nations. It is important for religious and academic biblical commentators to become aware of the ethical implications of our work. 

If you are involved in the Bible and Violence Project and want to be featured on this blog, please contact Johanna ([email protected])

If you have questions about the project, or suggestions for our next workshop, please be in touch.

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There are a few updates from The Shiloh Project. (We’ve been so busy we haven’t got around to writing a post recently.)

The Shiloh Project AHRC grant is drawing to an end. It has been a really productive collaboration and some of the outputs will be coming out for a while yet. Our recent public engagement event in Otley, West Yorkshire (on 30 January 2023), ‘What You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible But Were Afraid To Ask’ was a big success and was covered by the local press (see here). It is also the subject of a mini audio-documentary (Episode 12 of The Shiloh Podcast), which gives a vivid snapshot of the event. 

We also hosted an international day conference on Bible and Activism (University of Leeds, 31 January 2023), with presentations by Richard Newton (University of Alabama), Katherine Southwood (University of Oxford), Yannis Ng (University of Leeds), Robert Kuloba Wabyanga (Kyambogo University), David Tombs (University of Otago) and Jayme Reaves (Sarum College), and Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana). Richard Newton, interviewed by Rosie Dawson, features in Episode 13 of the Shiloh Podcast. Please see the slideshow of images of events in Leeds. 

Look out for more episodes (in production!) of The Bloody Bible podcast, with Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth.

The ongoing Abuse in Religious Contexts AHRC grant, led by Gordon Lynch is in full swing. Co-director Johanna Stiebert has begun to host a series of workshops. The first (led by Ellie Thwaites and Laura Wallace, University of Leeds, see here) brought together postgraduates and early career researchers exploring topics at the intersection of religion and trauma or abuse. The second (led by Ann Gleig and Amy Langenberg, see here) explored abuse in Buddhist settings and is the focus of Episode 15 of the Shiloh Podcast. The third was held with postgraduates of Trinity College (Bristol) and Bristol Baptist College, exploring secondary violations in biblical texts. More workshops are in the planning stages. 

Episode 14 of the Shiloh Podcast features highlights of a project webinar with Linda Woodhead and Gordon Lynch. 

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Introducing Contributors to The Bible & Violence: Rosie Clare Shorter and Kirsi Cobb

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Rosie Clare Shorter is a feminist researcher interested in sociology of religion and genders and sexualities studies. She completed her PhD at Western Sydney University in Australia. Her doctoral thesis explores Sydney Anglicanism as a lived religion, focusing on the social consequences of complementarianism. She is currently a sessional academic and you might catch her teaching or doing research assistant work at The University of Melbourne, Deakin University, or Western Sydney University (the latter online only, the commute is too far!). She is the executive officer for the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. Rosie is writing on the violent consequence of complementarian language.

To read more about Rosie and her work, see:  and

Shorter, R. 2021. ‘Rethinking Complementarianism: Sydney Anglicans, Orthodoxy and Gendered Inequality’, Religion and Gender 11/2 (doi: 10.1163/18785417-bja10005).

Shorter, R., E. Sessions & E. Hamence. 2021. ‘Taking Women At Their Word: How to Respond Well’, Eternity New (see here). 

Rosie Clare Shorter

My chapter will look at how the language of complementarianism, which is derived from the Bible, maintains gendered hierarchies and inequalities that scaffold gendered violence in evangelical Anglican communities. My focus is on the Anglican church in Sydney, Australia.  We know that Anglicans experience gendered violence at rates which are at least equal to, if not higher than, their non-Anglican counterparts (Powell and Pepper, 2021). Aspects of church teaching, particularly complementarian ideas to do with headship and submission, as well as misuse of Scripture, contribute to this. It is important to look closely at the language of complementarianism. Changing our language is key to changing cultures of gendered inequality and violence. My chapter will emphasise this.

Kirsi Cobb is a lecturer in biblical studies at Cliff College in Derbyshire, UK. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the biblical figure of Miriam and the multiple ways her story can be read when using different methods of hermeneutics. Her current research focuses on women in the Hebrew Bible with a special interest in biblical interpretation, including feminist, deconstructive and trauma studies. Her recent projects include two papers (one open access with De Gruyter and one with JSOT) which focus on the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19 in the light of trauma theory. Her forthcoming publications include a book chapter on Woman Wisdom and Dame Folly in Proverbs (for The Oxford Handbook of the Hebrew Bible, Gender, and Sexuality) and a study on gender and sexual violence in Hosea (for The Oxford Handbook of the Book of Hosea). Kirsi is co-founder of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre, with Dr Holly Morse (University of Manchester). Together they work on an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research network around the topic Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo AgeTo date they have hosted one colloquium focused on coercive control, with another on hypermasculinity due to take place in April 2023. Kirsi is writing the chapter on Spiritual Abuse.  

Dr Kirsi Cobb, Cliff College (UK)

Several years ago, I was visiting friends on holiday with my then-boyfriend. We were supposed to stay for a few weeks but after about five days my boyfriend wanted to leave. I wanted to stay but he informed me that complying with his wish would be good practice for marriage where he would be my head and I would need to submit to his wishes. As an obedient Christian (and to the great upset of my friends) I left with him. A couple of decades later I was marking a student essay. She was evaluating her recent experience in a church, where the pastor had used the Bible to brow-beat his congregants into submission. Not touching the ‘Lord’s anointed’ was held up as an ideal that shut down any questioning over decisions made. Both this student and I had experienced something for which at the time we had no name: spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is a relatively new and a contested term, and some see research into the topic as threatening religious freedom. As Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys  (2019: 18-20) have noted, however, these qualms should not prevent us from acknowledging people’s experiences of spiritual abuse or listening to survivors’ voices. In their monograph, they use the term ‘spiritual abuse’ to describe a range of experiences. Darby Strickland (2020: 346) has defined spiritual abuse as ‘[a]buse that occurs when an oppressor establishes control and domination by using Scripture, doctrine, or their “leadership role” as weapons. Spiritual abuse may mask itself as religious practice and may be used to shame or punish. For example, 

  • using Bible verses to shame or control 
  • demanding unconditional obedience 
  • using biblical texts or beliefs to minimize or rationalize abusive behaviors.’ 

In the experiences mentioned, some of these behaviours can be clearly seen. In my case, my boyfriend took a passage about male headship and wifely submission in Ephesians 5:22-23 and with some creative interpreting turned it into a manifesto about girlfriends, boyfriends, and unquestioned female obedience to male dominance. In the experience of the student, the pastor used his position of power and a misreading of Scripture (Psalm 105:15; 1 Samuel 24:6, see Helen Paynter 2020:90-92) to enforce his authority. Scripture, doctrine, and leadership roles can all be forces for the good in the world, but they can also be used to harm fellow believers. This demands our attention and requires a response. In my chapter I will explore the different forms of spiritual abuse and what the Church can do to become a safe space for survivors.  

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Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

The Shiloh Project is pleased to announce the launch of a new toolkit called Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm. The toolkit has been developed as an educational resource for church leaders, inviting them to reflect on ways that churches can become spaces where sexual harm survivors feel safe and supported. This resource can be downloaded by following the link to the “Accompanying Survivors Toolkit” page on this website.

Below, Emily Colgan (one of the creators and editors of the toolkit) explains more about the toolkit’s development and its goals.

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm is a trauma-informed resource that offers education and support of Christian clergy and lay leaders as they respond to sexual harm in their communities.  The resource is the collaborate effort of seven academics, all of whom work broadly at the intersection of sexual harm and Christian faith traditions in Aotearoa New Zealand. Through our work in this area, we have long been aware of the distressingly high rates of sexual harm in our communities, and we believe it is important for churches to recognise that the trends we see in society more generally are reflected in church communities as well. Moreover, churches need to acknowledge that sexual harm is perpetrated within these communities—at times by those in positions of authority—and the primary response of church leaders has far too often been one of self-preservation and concealment. For the most part, churches in Aotearoa have not yet found a voice to adequately address the issue of sexual harm, which is endemic in faith communities and in society at large. We (as a country, generally) have a problem with sexual harm and, for the most part, churches keep silent on this issue. 

This situation has come into sharper focus since February 2018, when the New Zealand government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care. In November of the same year, the inquiry expanded its scope to include abuse of those in the care of religious institutions. The harrowing testimonies of victims and survivors who experienced horrific sexual harm while in the care of religious institutions reveal that, for many people, churches have not been places of welcome and safety; they have not been places of good news. Churches have failed in their duty of care for the most vulnerable in their midst. The Commission’s work is still ongoing. But it has highlighted the urgent need for churches to be proactive in their support of victims and survivors, as well as in their efforts to ensure that church communities are no longer spaces where sexual harm can flourish. This resource is our – the contributor’s – response to this need. 

Over a number of years, we have canvassed stakeholders from within the Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions, seeking feedback about the educative needs of these churches for confronting the issue of sexual harm. We have also piloted this resource material with various church groups, seeking comment on the relevance and usefulness of its content for those in ministry. It reflects scholarship by experts in their respective fields, consultation with church leaders and those in frontline ministry positions, and insights and input from victims and survivors of sexual harm. It is by no means exhaustive, nor does it claim to be the full and final word on an appropriate Christian response to the issue of sexual harm. Instead, it enables workshop-based sessions which aim to educate clergy and lay leaders about

  • Understanding the nature of sexual harm and its prevalence in New Zealand society. 
  • Being alert to and responding in a pastorally sensitive manner to people within their community who have experienced/are experiencing sexual harm.  
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to justify/legitimise/enable sexual harm while silencing the voices of victims/survivors. 
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to challenge and resist sexual harm. 
  • Exploring how their church might work to create a safe space for victims/survivors of sexual harm. 

The toolkit will be of value to anyone in a church leadership position, including those training for Christian ministry and  those who have extensive ministry/leadership experience. It is intentionally ecumenical in nature and does not require knowledge of any one denominational tradition. While the format of the resource requires reflection and discussion in an “intellectual” sense, the aim of this work is to enable tangible, practical action in our communities that will support victims and survivors, and to make our churches spaces that are welcoming and safe. 

While some of the content relates specifically to the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, most of the material can be adapted and used further afield. There is space offered throughout the sessions for participants to discuss how issues pertaining to sexual harm relate to their own communities. Participants also have opportunities to consider how their own cultures, contexts, traditions, and languages will help shape their role of accompanying victims and survivors. 

The toolkit is free for anyone to download and use. It can be accessed here on the Shiloh Project website. If you have any queries about the use of the toolkit, please contact us at [email protected]

We hope this resource is a useful and meaningful tool for all those who accompany victims and survivors on their journey.

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Introducing the Contributors to “The Bible and Violence” – Susannah Cornwall and Victor Moulder

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Today, let’s meet two more of our many fabulous contributors. We are delighted to introduce Susannah Cornwall and Victor Moulder. (For our earlier post about the Bible and Violence Project, see here.)

Susannah Cornwall is Professor of Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter, and Director of EXCEPT, the Exeter Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology. Her latest monograph is Constructive Theology and Gender Variance: Transformative Creatures (Cambridge University Press, 2022), which focuses on gender transition and gender diversity in relation to Christian doctrines of creation, Christology, theological anthropology, and eschatology. Her current research focuses on structural sin and institutions. Susannah is writing the chapter on Bible, Intersex Being and Biomedical Violence.

In some of my earlier work, including my first book, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Condition and Christian Theology (Routledge, 2010) and my 2011–2013 research project ‘Intersex, Identity, Disability: Public Policy, Healthcare and the Church’ at the University of Manchester, I problematized the early corrective surgery paradigm for people born with intersex characteristics. In the last decade there has come to be increased legal protection for intersex people in various countries in Europe and beyond.

It’s also less common now than it used to be for conservative Christian theologians to hold that early corrective surgery is an appropriate social response to the birth of people with intersex characteristics, not least because of the crucial work done in these communities by evangelical scholars and activists such as Megan DeFranza and Lianne Simon in the Intersex and Faith Education Project. 

My chapter for this volume, however, focuses on the Bible, intersex being, and biomedical violence. I will show that the continuing invocation by many conservative theologians of the Genesis ‘creation mandates’ that uphold the idea that intersex is a particularly and peculiarly fallen state, which should prompt compassion and will be erased in the world to come, is damaging and undermines the good of intersex people’s bodies and experiences today. 

I’ll also show that such accounts continue to inform the biomedical logics within which non-consensual ‘corrective’ surgery on people with intersex characteristics remain thinkable in some medical contexts. Furthermore, I’ll suggest that the conservative move away from calling for such surgeries stems in part from increased conservative theological desire to cast suspicion on trans identity and so-called ‘gender ideology,’ and is therefore not unproblematic. 

You can find out more about Susannah and her research here


Victor Moulder is an emerging scholar based in Wales. Victor graduated recently from Cardiff University with a BA (2021) and MA (2022) in Religion and Theology. His research has focused on eschatology, apocalyptic literature, and violence, and his 2021 dissertation explored violent and non-violent intertextualities between apocalyptic texts. Alongside such topics he also has passion for queer theology, gender-based hermeneutics, and angelology. Victor’s aim as a fledgling academic is to explore the harmful narratives and imagery of Scripture without resorting to apologia or excision. Victor is contributing the chapter on Violence in Daniel.

It is my aim with this chapter to explore the multifaceted nature and role of violence in the Book of Daniel. This will include contextualising the book as both (post)exilic and apocalyptic literature, born of war, mourning, displacement, and imperialism. But I will also spotlight the bodily violence faced by some characters in the narrative portions, and the symbolic violence of Daniel’s frightening dreams. I will explore the violent potential of accepting this book as a text where violence is divinely ordained or justified, and explore God’s role as violator, redeemer, liberator, and comforter, harming but also suffering, and ending systems of oppression. 

In a world where peril, the notion of end-times, and imperial domination – all prevalent in Daniel – still hold sway, navigating this text and its violence remains a challenge.

You can find out more about Victor and his work on Twitter: @VictorMoulder.

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