Ethics, Women in the Church

Domestic Violence and Accountable Actions in the Orthodox Church

Published on: September 6, 2019
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My last essay spoke about breaking the silence around the invisible women in the Orthodox Church experiencing spousal violence and how we need accountable theology to stop the promotion of the notion that domestic violence is a cross to bear—but that both are essential but insufficient measures of redress. Here I probe further: How do we change the institutional norms that allow clergy to use their spiritual powers to propagate ideas condoning domestic violence? How do we make our churches accountable for upholding dignity and compassion for all? How do we create internal mechanisms with authoritative impact so that, with time, there is zero tolerance among believers for any justification of domestic violence?

Accountability here means enacting spiritual, moral, socio-cultural, and legal means of answerability for individuals and institutions within the church to rein in any misuse of power. This sense of answerability cannot be mere lip service: the proclamation of lofty ideals about the sanctity of personhood and dignity and marriage. Answerability must be authoritative (not authoritarian), meaning measures are enforced consistently, coherently, and comprehensively across the dioceses and hierarchy—from the most senior bishop to the lowest-ranking lay person. However, in many church contexts the mechanisms to do so are opaque, non-existent or without teeth—especially when it comes to matters such as domestic violence.

Below I highlight three entry points for action, none of them alone sufficient, none of them easy to implement, and all of them needing their own context specific action plan.

Individual leadership accountability

The Coptic Orthodox Church has suffered from many incidents of ignoring the impact of domestic violence against priests’ wives on the whole church’s well-being. Perhaps the most long-lasting in impact has been the case of (the late?) Wafaa Costantine. In 2004, it is alleged that Costantine, the wife of a priest in the Egyptian Delta had repeatedly complained to the metropolitan bishop of her psychological abuse by her unwell and diabetic husband. Allegedly, Costantine escaped her unhappy marriage by seeking conversion to Islam. Because she had been held in a secret location by the security apparatus, the church had no way of verifying whether she had willingly converted, and so rumors spread, and protests erupted among Coptic youth demanding to know her whereabouts. The situation between the church and the Egyptian government escalated to alarming levels of open confrontation. To this day, the question of how the state engages with cases of women wishing to convert from Christianity remains one of the Copts’ deepest grievances since they cannot convert back to Christianity if they change their minds. (More on this incident here.)

The incident is important for understanding the impact of the mismanagement of domestic violence. First, for those tempted to say, “This is a private matter between husband and wife,” the Wafaa saga shows that the personal is very political. What happens behind closed doors has an impact on the national level and beyond. Second, the magnitude of the impact cannot be overlooked: 15 years later, the effects are felt on dozens—perhaps hundreds—of families who want to know the predicament of their daughters/wives/mothers who allegedly converted but where no one knows whether their decisions were by free choice.

Another important inference is the role of the bishops and priests as the go-to leaders in such situations. While holding priests accountable for domestic violence is critical, such reactive measures are not enough. We need to seek proactively to instate teachings against domestic violence from the moment aspiring priests enter seminary. Domestic violence cannot be an optional or marginal theme at the tail-end of studies on the family but must be core to theological studies. We need to undertake a comparative study of how domestic violence features in the seminary training of various Orthodox churches.

Awareness-raising must be followed by institutional mechanisms to monitor how awareness translates into action. How do we make clergy accountable for how they manage domestic violence incidents? Because Orthodox churches are fairly decentralized, how accountability gets institutionalized will look differently from one context to another.

It is equally important to celebrate clergy who have spoken out about—and acted on—positive ways of engaging with domestic violence. We should celebrate them as positive role models, champions who preach from the pulpit in sensitive, compassionate, and informed ways about the nature and implications of domestic violence.

Collective accountability

There are institutions within the Coptic Orthodox Church through which issues of domestic violence can be mainstreamed, including the family affairs committee working under the umbrella of the Holy Synod, the various counseling training centers, and the diocese-level committees. It needs to be mainstreamed because, while there are efforts in engaging with domestic violence in these spaces, they are piecemeal, of varying quality and capacity, and by no means consistently applied or monitored in implementation.

Moreover, if we want the issue not to be sidelined as a “woman’s problem,” but treated as a community-wide issue, it should feature in the heart of the teachings of the doctrinal and theological committees. These committees tend to yield the most power in the church.

Simultaneously, we need lay persons to organize from within the church. Movements from outside the Coptic church will not get much traction in challenging deeply patriarchal social norms and values. Culture and spirituality have always been intertwined, making the churches highly suspicious of movements not rooted within the church seeking to impose change from outside. The most enduring transformation starts from within the church: processes are owned, claimed, and held by community members themselves. This does not guarantee no resistance, hostility, or even open opposition. In one diasporic community, one lay preacher was asked in a family and worship meeting what women should do when they are subjected to domestic violence. He pressed them to seek counselling but also to contact the police. The men complained to the priests that the lay preacher was emboldening the women to take action against them. The priests agreed: women should not call the police even if they were harshly beaten and should instead be encouraged to bear their cross in patience, pray for their husbands, and not provoke them. When the preacher refused to retract on his statement about calling the police, he was severely reprimanded by the Coptic priests, who eventually asked him to leave the church. Perhaps if there were strong movements in the church, the power of the collective would have at least enabled a better balance of power so that individual whistle-blowers are not maligned.

Legal accountability

One leading US-based Orthodox scholar and pastoral leader shared that until change from within leads to better mitigation and response to domestic violence, his position has been clear: priests and lay people must respect the law of the land. Where people twist scripture to justify domestic violence, they need to know they will be held accountable for their actions as citizens.

The Orthodox churches in their countries of origin and in diaspora have often used the pulpits to make parishioners aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Whether and to whatever extent this role is desirable, it is happening. The question then is whether churches have a moral responsibility to alert the faithful to the laws on domestic violence?

Virtually all diasporic Orthodox communities are in countries with zero-tolerance policies on domestic violence. In some countries, citizens have a duty to report acts of domestic violence they witness, and in most contexts, they can call the police on behalf of victims as they would any other crime. When the lay preacher resisted pressures to revoke his advice for abused women to call the police, he was able to draw on another kind of accountability the priests could not question: the requirement to abide by the law. This strategy is more difficult to implement for Orthodox living in their countries of origin, where the law does not have teeth, because it is not consistently and effectively enforced. Moreover, legal recourse is never going to be without its own moral quandaries and conundrums. Like all other measures, it has its potential and its risks. What will happen if the community shuns the person who reports her exposure to violence? What if she has nowhere to go and is of modest finances and social capital? What will happen to the children?

There are no easy answers, no quick fixes, which is why we need to pursue every avenue possible to stop domestic violence in our midst: accountable theology, accountable leadership and collective accountability, as well as the enforcement of favorable laws. While there are many accountable theologians, bishops, priests, and lay leaders who have quietly and with perseverance condemned domestic violence and sought to stop it in our Orthodox communities, this is the time to consolidate, co-ordinate, and coalesce so that their words and actions are institutionalized across churches.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Mariz Tadros

    Mariz Tadros

    Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex)

    Mariz Tadros is is professor of Politics and Development at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, United Kingdom. She was director of the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID)and is currently the Director of the Middle East People’s Culture Conserva...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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