Today’s post is by Dr Elizabeth Ludlow, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and the Director of the Nineteenth Century Studies Unit at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Find her on Twitter @ludlow_e 

In an article in the Church Times last year, Linda Woodhead reflected on the urgent need to scope out a “new theology” in the wake of the problems exposed by the hearings of the IICSA (The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse). The damning IICSA report that details the hearings that Woodhead refers to – surrounding the Diocese of Chichester and Peter Ball (abishop in Chichester before becoming Bishop of Gloucester)– was released earlier this month. Its conclusion highlights the tragic consequences of shielding a perpetrator of child sexual abuse at the cost of victims. Through a series of case studies, the report gives “examples of perpetrators who were able to hide in plain sight for many years” and details the occasions “when the Church put its own reputation above the needs of victims and survivors.” In highlighting how compassion was extended to Ball but not to his victims it explains how, at the time of Ball’s caution and resignation, the only reference that Church officials made to Neil Todd (the original complainant against Ball who took his own life in 2012), came when adiocesan bishop “said he hoped that Mr Todd ‘will be able to forgive Bishop Peter’.” I’m sure that many abuse victims can identify with the frustration of having their anguish overlooked, the damage that has been done minimised, and of being told by those in authority that they are expected to forgive the perpetrator.

Woodhead explains how, in Chichester, a “faulty doctrine of forgiveness” was used by abusers, church officials, and parishioners. In contrast, the theology she calls for refutes any notion that the doctrine of easy forgiveness is “a possession of the church” and looks instead to the wider implications of a belief in “a God who is present in, with, and through creation, and affected by it.”Over the past few months, I’ve been  researching the work of Victorian social reformer Josephine Butler.  I would suggest that the theological strategies she uses to interpret the Bible from the perspective of the oppressed offers useful tools to grapple with what it means to break institutional silences around abuse and reach beyond the platitudes of easy forgiveness.

In their book, In a Glass Darkly, The Bible, Reflection and Everyday Life, Zoë Bennett and Christopher Rowland comment on how “[p]art of any intellectual engagement that is critical is finding appropriate alternative perspectives that bring fresh understanding of a situation.” They then explain how William Blake and John Ruskin have become for them “companions on the road” who open up these perspectives and provide “a critical space for understanding the Bible, life, and crucially also the modes in which we might explore the connections between life and the Bible” (2016, 108). Following on from theologian Ann Loades who has noted the longevity of Butler’s work in addressing sexual abuse, I want to suggest how Butler might act as a “companion on the road” for us today and how, through an engagement with her work, some of the suggestions that Woodhead offers in terms of repudiating the doctrine of easy forgiveness might be worked out.

Josephine Butler (nee Grey) was born in 1828 into a large and well-connected family in Northumbria. In 1852, she married George Butler, an academic who had just been appointed to the role of Chief Examiner in Oxford. It wasn’t long after they returned from their honeymoon that she became dismayed at the prejudices of the male academics and clergy she found herself among. Having parents who encouraged a strong social conscience and a hatred of all forms of injustice, she was struck by the “great wall of prejudice” among the university community (192, 98). In her biography of her husband, she recalled several instances of being rebuffed after bringing to light cases of injustice and abuse. On one occasion, she approached an esteemed university fellow, hoping he could “suggest some means” of holding the abuser of a young girl to account; the fellow “sternly advocated silence and inaction” (1892, 96). She then commented that, for a long time:

there echoed in my heart the terrible prophetic words of the painter-poet Blake – rude and indelicate as he may have been judged then – whose prophecy has only been averted by a great and painful awakening –

                 “The harlots’ curse, from street to street,

                  Shall weave old England’s winding sheet.” (ibid)

Butler’s recollection of William Blake’s words from his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” and her identification with him as one who was judged “rude and indelicate,” signals a willingness to take an unpopular stand against the systematic institutional reluctance to address sexual abuse. Butler’s faith was, like Blake’s, revolutionary and practical and she recognised Jesus’s actions as those of a “dangerous leveller” (1869, lviii). Her engagement with “Auguries of Innocence” is indicative of her commitment to Blake’s perception that “God Appears & God is Light / To those poor Souls who dwell in Night” (lines 129-30) and to his understanding that God is present in “Human Form” (line 131). The inaccuracy in her memory of the lines she cites – changing the word “cry” (115) to “curse” (thus recalling the reference to the “harlot’s curse” in Blake’s poem “London”) – signals her concern with attending to the anguish of the outcast woman: an anguish that has such force it could destroy “old England.”

Along with her husband, Butler read the Bible eschatologically, reflecting on the person of Christ and praying “that a holy revolution might come about, and that the Kingdom of God might be established on the earth” (1892, 102). The account of prayer that she gives can be helpfully understood in terms of what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes as an act of “breaking the silence” (2018, 3) Such an act is, he explains, always a “counterdiscourse,” because it “tends to arise from the margins of society, a counter to present power arrangements and to dominant modes of social imagination” (ibid.). Following a series of vignettes concerning oppressive silence, Brueggemann reflects on how “silence breaking is evoked by attention to the body in pain” (6-7). Butler’s attention to marginalised, hurting bodies, along with her prayers for a “holy revolution,” indicates her own refusal to accept oppressive silencing and signals her protest against the status quo of what Blake terms “old England.”

Courtesy of Granpic (Flickr), Josephine Butler on staircase window in Liverpool Anglican cathedral.

In the introduction to the volume of essays that she edited on Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture, Butler speaks out against a society content to stand by and watch “sinister social forces” drive “whole armies of little girls to madness and early graves” (1869, xix). Butler’s social activism in leading the repeal against the Contagious Diseases Acts, in rescuing girls and women from lives of prostitution, and in pushing for parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16, was propelled by both her recognition of the worth of each individual and by a concern for partnering with Christ in breaking oppressive silences.

During the years in which she was involved in repealing the Contagious Diseases Acts, Butler wrote a biography of Catherine of Siena, in which she stressed Catherine’s Christ-likeness in both radical action and in prayer (1894 [1878]). Catherine’s ongoing and “passionate intercession” (182), which enabled her to see and respond to the corruption around her, stood in stark contrast to the “prominent representatives” of the Church who were concerned with “worldly, greedy, grasping power” (7).

Such juxtapositions between worldly power and the power of prayer among the marginalized can be seen through Butler’s own life. In her account of the 1883 parliamentary debates regarding the suspension of the Contagious Diseases Acts, Butler writes of a prayer meeting that exemplifies the “counterdiscourse” defined by Brueggemann, where “ragged and miserable women from the slums of Westminster” prayed side by side with “ladies of high rank” (Johnson, 181).

In the conclusion to her biography of Catherine of Siena, Butler describes how prayer opens up the “social and sympathetic” aspect of each individual as they stand in relationship with God, their community, and creation (338). She stresses that the act of interceding for the Other involves envisioning them as distinct and as loved by God. This loving attention is the very opposite of abuse and stands in stark opposition to a culture that promotes a doctrine of easy forgiveness and prioritises the perpetrator over their victims for the sake of convenience and reputation.


Bennett, Zoë and Rowland, Christopher. 2016. In a Glass Darkly: The Bible, Reflection and

         Everyday Life.London: SCM Press.

Brueggemann,Walter. 2018. Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out. London:

Hodder & Stoughton.

Butler, Josephine (ed). 1869. Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture. London: Macmillan.

— 1892. Recollections of George Butler. Bristol: Arrowsmith

— 1894 [1878] Catherine of Siena: A Biography. London: Horace & Son.

Johnson, George W, Johnson, Lucy A, and Stuart, James (ed.). 1909. Josephine E. Butler: An

Autobiographical Memoir Bristol: Arrowsmith.

Loades, Ann. 2001. Feminist Theology: Voices from the Past. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Woodhead, Linda. 2018. “Forget culture. It’s a new theology we need” Church Times, 06


Tags : #ChurchTooAbuseContagious Diseases ActJosephine ButlerOxford UniversitySexual Abusetheology


  1. I had no idea about the admiration Fry had for Catherine of Siena. Thanks so much for this illuminating piece!

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