The Spouses took the lead on Tuesday with a joint plenary with the bishops on the abuse of power. The session, called ‘Equal in God’s Sight: When power is abused’, was convened on behalf of the Spouses Conference by the Conference Bible Study team and led by Dr Jenny Te Paa, the Principal of St John’s Theological College, New Zealand.
The day began with worship and an introduction by Jane Williams who set out the shape of the session. The abuse of power, she said, was not simply a women’s issue. ‘Violence within the Body of Christ is violence to the Body of Christ,’ she said.
The day, she told the packed Big Top, was a vital part of the conference. ‘We beg you to engage, explore and help us to change.’
The Conference then watched a dramatic presentation by the Riding Lights Theatre Company which introduced the issues by weaving together a number of Bible stories illustrating Jesus’s attitude to women. The drama – which reduced many members of the audience to tears – was followed by prolonged applause.
The bishops and their spouses (who were seated on different sides of the tent) then divided into groups of around five people to consider the story of the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13. 1-22).
Professor Gerald West, who facilitated the study, asked the groups to study the account in depth and share their responses. Members were encouraged to think about the different characters within the story, how they behaved - and what practical action was required by the Church today. He then invited feedback from groups around the Big Top, giving the chance for people from right across the Anglican Communion to share stories and ideas from the particular perspectives of their home dioceses.
At the end of the session Dr Te Paa explained that the Bishops and their spouses could carry on exploring the issues in greater depth during the afternoon, making use of the chaplaincy team if they chose. There would also be the chance to pool resources for best practice in this area. Delegates were also encouraged to spend time with their spouses.
The plenary ended with a song by the Bishops and spouses from Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.
Have you heard this text read aloud before and if so where and when?
Who are the characters in this Bible Study and what do we know about each of them?
What is the role of each of the male characters in the rape of Tamar?
How does Tamar respond in this story? Consider both what she does and what she says.
Are there women like Tamar in your community? Share their stories with your group.
In what ways does the Church abuse its power?
In what way can we as leaders in the Church respond to abuses of power like these?
What resources do we have in the Church to deal with abuse and what resources do we need?
"We women are our own worst enemies"
Dr Maria Akrofi, who is married to the Archbishop of West Africa, said at the daily press conference yesterday that for Africa, the biggest issue is rape.
“In war torn areas, when enemy forces come to your area, they like to violate women in front of the men as part of the fight,” she said. “Then of course, the UN will send soldiers to come and help you, and the soldiers are pounding on the children… Where are we?” she asked with not a little exasperation. “Where are we?”
Nevertheless, women could strongly influence those who might later seek to control and abuse them, she said.
“We women are our own worst enemies,” she said. “When there’s trouble with a man involved, there’s a woman not too far off, be it his girlfriend or his mother or his sister, trying to disturb you. It’s very important women come together [and] educate themselves. We are the hands that rock the cradle… The girls are kept under lock and key, and the boys are allowed to play football - who has taught these children to do that, that this is how girls and boys will be brought up?”
African women need to be taught their rights, Dr Akrofi said, and to be empowered to speak up about abuse.
In Ghana for instance, she said, a women’s desk was being set up where women could receive legal advice.
Still, “You love this man who is pounding you,” she said. “You feel guilty to tell the world he is. You may end up being beaten a bit more.”
The church had a significant role to play in addressing this culture of gender violence, she said. In Africa it was difficult to engage in the taboo subject of sex, she said, “But if we are going to get on top of HIV/AIDS we have to call a spade a spade and educate people… It should have been done in the past, [but] now our eyes are opening.”
She said that she hoped that the day’s sessions on gender violence would make the bishops think deeply about the issues.
“I don’t think our husbands are going to forget easily,” she said. “These conversations will continue at the dining table and networking will come out of it,” she said.
“Power for me is like fire or water or the wind. It can be used constructively or destructively. When you put a pan with hot oil on the fire, and you take your eyes off it, your whole house will burn. We have been given power to do the Lord’s work... Moment by moment as we walk this journey, we have to check this power entrusted to us is not being abused.”