Miryam Clough’s book, Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo is part of the Routledge Focus series (Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible) and it hits the bookshelves this week! In her work, Miryam interviews survivors and church leaders to explore the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s careers and vocational aspirations.
Tell us about yourself, Miryam
I am a Postdoctoral Fellow at St John’s Theological College in Auckland (New Zealand) and a tutor at Ōrongonui, the regional training programme for Te Hui Amorangi ki te Tai Tokerau – a diocese of Te Hāhi Mihingare (the Māori Anglican Church). I have two adult daughters and recently was present at the birth of my first granddaughter in Australia via video call from lockdown here in Aotearoa. Prior to the pandemic I’d lived in the UK since 1990, where I was practicing as a homeopath and working in homeopathic education. I completed a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol University/Trinity College Bristol in 2014.
How did this book come about and how does it relate to your work as a whole?
I’d published my first book (Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality) in 2017 and was looking for another theology project. A couple of conversations got me thinking about my experience of the church as a young person with a sense of vocation and I decided to explore this further. I was offered a visiting scholarship at St John’s College in early 2019 and was subsequently invited to return in 2020. I didn’t anticipate writing about clergy misconduct – my project was about the experiences of women in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa more broadly – but this subject kept coming up as being pivotal for me and a factor in the lives of other women in the church. Once the book title ‘landed’, I felt compelled to run with it.
In terms of my work overall, my key academic interest is shame – the subject of my PhD – both in terms of how it affects the lives of those who are susceptible to it, and how it is utilised in groups, organisations, and even on an international scale as a means of control. The book is part of a wider research focus on shame in Aotearoa, with particular application to the church and gender violence in various forms.
I realised during my doctoral research, which focused on an Irish Catholic setting (the Magdalen laundries), that it was necessary to look at the national shame caused by colonisation to understand the shame that was inflicted on women in the socio-religious context. In Aotearoa, colonisation continues to be a huge source of shame and intergenerational trauma and some of this is expressed very clearly in gendered relationships and gender violence, including within the church.
Several things particularly captivate me about shame. One is that it is a primary cause of aggression and violence on micro and macro levels (James Gilligan (2003) and Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger (2001) write about this); another is that it signifies a breakdown in social relationships – which is why it is so debilitating; and a third is that it pulls us away from the things that really matter to us – it can set us on the wrong path. Silvan Tomkins (in Sedgwick and Frank 1995) describes this as an interruption of interest. Each of these aspects of shame is prevalent in the ongoing trauma of both colonisation and gender violence. On a positive note, shame is healed when we are brought back into relationship and this is where churches have a key role to play through restorative action and fostering right relationship.
What are the key arguments of your book?
Essentially, I see clergy abuse as a structural issue which affects the church’s credibility in an increasingly secular world, so I look at the contexts within the church that allow abuse to flourish and at the wider public perception of the church.The church sees itself as welcoming and inclusive, but it has often been adept at pushing people away, especially over issues related to gender or sexuality – whether that’s been women with vocations, members of the LGBTQ+ community, unmarried mothers, or victims of abuse. This is totally at odds with the Gospel and what Jesus was about. While churches will often deny that they are excluding people, the lived experience of those people who feel hurt and unvalued is very real. There’s a fear of contamination of all kinds that underpins much of the church’s thinking throughout history and this goes hand in hand with a kind of moral superiority or self-righteousness. Both fly in the face of the inclusiveness modelled by Jesus in the gospels.
I left the church after a period of clergy abuse because of my own sense of shame and failure, which was fuelled by the way some people in the church reacted to this abuse. Some years later, one of my daughters said to me, “Mum, the church didn’t just lose you – they lost our whole family”. I think this is often the case when people are hurt and leave – others leave with them. When we treat people badly or exclude them, we’re not just hurting those individuals, our actions also affect those who care about them. Certainly, that’s been the case for many victims of clergy abuse, and it’s been similar for women and for the LGBTQ+ community. People are disillusioned with churches because they see churches taking the moral high ground and they see people being hurt. If churches want to build up their membership and have more of a role in contemporary society – and I think it’s essential now, more than ever, that they do – they need to be transparent about who they are and demonstrate that they are working hard to put things right. They also need to be truly inclusive. There’s no room for discrimination. There’s a tendency to a kind of self-satisfaction when churches make tiny steps – look, we’ve done this (ordained a woman as bishop or agreed to bless the relationship of a gay couple), so we can rest on our laurels and go back to business as usual, forgetting that the gender balance in our leadership and governance groups is still heavily skewed in favour of men, that gay clergy are expected to be celibate, that gay couples can’t marry in church, that lay women are overworked and undervalued, and that we’re still, in some of the language of the church, sons of God and brothers in Christ irrespective of our gender. All these issues, which also include clericalism, complementarianism, and purity culture, feed into and support what is essentially a culture of toxic masculinity that enables sexual abuse to go undetected, and to not be adequately addressed when it is disclosed.
The book also speaks to the integrity of the Anglican Church here in Aotearoa in wanting to address the issue of clergy abuse and to change, not least in that two of its bishops, Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu and Archbishop Philip Richardson, have actively supported my research. I think this demonstrates an impressive openness, both personally and on behalf of the church, to move forward with this issue. Archbishop Richardson, for example, was willing to give me some concrete examples of situations he is aware of or has had to manage that really demonstrate how attitudes and responses can and have changed, and how our approaches need to be and can be considered and compassionate. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to keep the humanness and fragility of all parties to the fore and be open to exploring what’s really going on, while also holding abusers to account in clear and appropriate ways. In the past the approach has been to silence and ostracise victims, protect abusers, and try to keep the topic out of the public square, and this does no one any favours.
The book has felt timely as Aotearoa is in the middle of its Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, so churches are having to rethink their approaches and to be upfront about their history. It’s really common for survivors to take many years before speaking up about abuse, and this has been my experience, too. I think having that distance gives perspective and we can be kinder to our younger selves when we are able to be more objective and analytical about the factors that shaped the society we were part of back then. Hearing other people’s stories helps significantly.
Towards the end of the book, I talk about what I see as the way forward – that is, the importance of respectful relationships. Conversely, the absence of respect shows itself in prejudice of all kinds, in theologies that privilege men over others, in purity culture which defines women through a sexual lens, in clericalism which continues to privilege clergy over lay people and gives them a kind of moral immunity. Some of the book concentrates on describing how this plays out, including how I saw it play out in Aotearoa when I was a young ordinand in the 1980s. Paradoxically, in some respects, little has changed.
It was really helpful for me to explore the broader context of my own experience as a young woman in the church and to realise that this was very much a shared experience. So, I focus a lot on language – the language and discourse that shapes our theologies and our actions. Having left Aotearoa in the late 1980s when we were making inroads into the language of the church becoming more inclusive, it was a real surprise to return in 2019 and find a significant slippage in this area, particularly among younger people.
What do you hope your readers will take from this book?
One emphasis which is articulated very clearly by both Archbishop Richardson and Dr Emily Colgan, who I interviewed for the book, is the need for education and training across church communities. Policy changes alone won’t make a difference. In Aotearoa there is some excellent training available through the programme that Dr Colgan discusses in the final chapter, and I hope the book may prompt more churches to take it up.
One of my main hopes for the book is that it will promote more honest and open discussion about the nature of the church and its shortcomings, as well as about its aspirations and strengths. The exciting thing about this book for me is the interviews. They model this honesty and openness so well and I hope this will be encouraging for people. People’s stories illustrate the main concerns of the book so beautifully. The interviews are pretty much verbatim, and the stories and experiences are really evocative. You get the immediacy of the situation in the way that a more theoretical perspective can’t deliver. So really, this has been a collaborative project with some amazing people, and I’m so grateful to them for being willing to share their stories and perspectives. They’ve helped me to work through my own experiences and I think they will help others too. We’ve tended not to talk publicly about abuse in the church. I think it’s vitally important to be open about this issue, or nothing will change. We also need to be honest about our failings because people outside the church see what’s going on and don’t appreciate the hypocrisy.
Give us one quotation from the book that you think will make a reader go and read the rest.
It’s a bit harsh, but I quite like this one:
When we put real women into the frame and examine their experiences in the context of a theology and ecclesiology that continues to undermine them, and that makes women primarily responsible for sex, including sex that is coercive or non-consensual, we begin to gradually chip away at an edifice that has cloaked the liberating message of the gospel in a miserable shell of misogyny and dishonesty.
For me it sums up the systemic nature of clergy abuse and this is the crux of it. We need to acknowledge that clergy abuse is absolutely systemic and that it is the product of toxic masculinity. It’s supported by the language, theology, and structure of the church and until this changes, abuse will be with us. When people speak out about their experiences, as several – women and men – have generously and courageously done in this book, they help to create a better future.
Gilligan, J., 2003. ‘Shame, Guilt, and Violence’. Social Research 70:4, 1149–1180.
Scheff, T.J. and Retzinger, S.M., 2001. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Author’s Guild Backinprint.com ed. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com.
Sedgwick, E.K. and Frank, A. (eds), 1995. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.