Researching Religions and Abuse: A workshop report
By Johanna Stiebert
On 14–15 November 2022, at the University of Leeds, we hosted the first workshop for the AHRC-funded project Abuse in Religious Contexts (AIRC). The primary aim of this two-day ‘Researching Religions and Abuse’ workshop was to bring together postgraduates and early career researchers who explore religion at the intersection with violence, trauma, and abuse, as well as to share experiences, strategies, and methodologies for investigating such difficult topics. The event was organised and fronted by Elle Thwaites and Laura Wallace – both PhD candidates in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds – with support from Gordon Lynch and Johanna Stiebert – respectively, Principal and Co Investigator of AIRC.
How Did It Start?
The idea for the workshop grew out of conversations both within the AIRC project team and between Elle, Laura, Gordon, and Johanna. It struck us how there is a growing body of researchers conducting topical and significant work on religion, abuse, and trauma but also a dearth of support. The emergence of and publicity around abuse scandals in multiple religious settings across the world has generated visibility in the form of public enquiries and media reports but little in the way of help for researchers, many of whom are feeling isolated, vicariously traumatised, and mentally exhausted on account of the nature and content of their research. Helpful resources and services may exist, and some researchers have developed ways and strategies to manage secondary trauma and to protect themselves and their research participants but much more is still needed. This was amply confirmed both by the response to our call for participation and by the feedback from the workshop.
We determined to hold the workshop in person and over two consecutive days. Our sense was that this would work best given both the sensitivity of the topic and our aim to nurture personal bonds and networks of support. Online activities can certainly be a lifeline and allow for much wider participation but there is something very special about person-to-person interaction, as we all came to appreciate during the lockdowns.
Given the limited funds available and our wish to bring people together and to create opportunities for direct and sustained conversation and engagement, we set a limit of 20 participants (in addition to us four organisers). While other planned and forthcoming workshops will go differently about organisation (e.g. one will strategically invite participants, another will take place in a designated location with local participants), for this workshop we put an open call on Twitter, inviting expressions of interest. The first 20 persons who responded and provided a brief research interest statement, which had to be in an appropriate area, pertinent to the workshop and its aims, were invited. Travel within the UK, accommodation overnight in Leeds, and subsistence were covered by the grant.
Some Questions and Aims
Laura and Elle identified the following as a strategic aim for the workshop: to address challenges in our discipline, and bring us closer to rupturing the current methodological frameworks in favour of ones which protect not only the wellbeing of research subjects but also of researchers. They also proposed the following questions to bring focus to preparation for the workshop:
- Whose interests are served and protected through current methods around sensitive and/or traumatic research around religion?
- What are our attachments and relationships with current most-used methods for researching religious abuse?
- What level of harm to marginalized people and genders is produced by a reliance on our current methods?
- What strategies are there beyond our current methodological toolbox that can help protect the researcher?
- What challenges and negotiations are involved in creating a robust methodology for undertaking sensitive or traumatic research?
Have we found full answers to all of these questions? Hardly – but we’ve begun to think more consciously and carefully about these important matters.
Who Took Part?
In the interests of transparency and of ensuring the space where we gathered felt safe, we informed everyone in advance who was attending. To maintain privacy and confidentiality, I will only name presenters (previously named on Twitter) and refer only in generalising terms as to who took part and what was discussed.
Of the 24 participants (including the 4 organisers), 20 were white-passing and 21 identified as female. The majority, with two explicit exceptions, even if they did not identify as Christian, worked on Christian, or Christian-derived topics or texts; three declared that they were ordained or training for ordination. Two self-declared as disabled and two as queer. Attendees had come from all over England, as well as Scotland and Wales; two had travelled all the way from North America. At least five, while based in or near Leeds, are citizens of other countries. There was a mix of research stages – some participants were doing MA’s or had just completed their MA and the remainder were either at various stages of PhD research, or early in their academic career (except for Gordon and Johanna).
Well ahead of the workshop, Elle and Laura prepared and circulated the following list of expectations for attendees:
- Confidentiality - given the nature of the topics at the workshop, it is expected that you do not share other people's experiences, religious beliefs, or research outside of the workshop.
- Safe space - we intend the workshop to be a safe space for participants to share within the parameters of the discussion. There will be a zero tolerance approach to any conflict, aggressive criticism, or any unsolicited opinions that may cause harm to the wellbeing of others.
- We ask that, in the interest of the well-being of the group, you do not divulge any personal experiences of abuse. We understand that you may want to share these experiences, however, one of the purposes of this workshop is to minimise vicarious trauma for researchers.
The workshops consisted of presentations, group discussions, and informal gatherings (including over lunch, tea and coffee, and one big dinner). We finished up with a ‘what next?’ session. Presentations were by Laura Wallace and Elle Thwaites (both PhD candidates at the University of Leeds), Kirsi Cobb (Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Cliff College), Katie Cross (Lecturer in the School of Divinity, History, Philosophy & Art History at the University of Aberdeen), Heather Ransom (Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Bolton) and Lensa Woodcock and Claire Hams (both PhD candidates at the University of Chester).
The workshop was well received. Attendees overwhelmingly reported feeling motivated, heartened, and less alone. One said they had not realised how much they needed the opportunity to share and learn about and reflect on the nature of the kind of research we do. There was an appetite for keeping in touch, forming social media connected groups, organising and attending follow-on webinars, and compiling helpful resources and toolkits.
There were also some suggestions for improvement and for consideration going forward. One participant would have desired more diversity – of participants and research fields; another would have liked more time for discussions following presentations and more opportunity for informal engagement.
All up, however, the event felt affirming and was vocally praised for being a success and the beginning of something meaningful and important.
AIRC is organising several more workshops, each with a discrete focus. The topic of abuse in religious contexts is too vast and complex for the workshops to attempt any degree of comprehensiveness. Instead, the workshops will produce a series of ‘snapshots’. These will, in turn, feed into a publication (already in progress, due for publication in 2024 and open access soon following publication) and into podcast episodes. Recordings of podcast episodes will resume in early 2023.
The Shiloh Project blog will continue to feature a succession of posts on topics pertinent to content of the workshop. For anyone seeking resources on the topic of Bible-based religions (i.e. Judaism and Christianity) and abuse (in particular sexual/ised abuse), please see the annotated bibliography on the blog’s ‘Resources’ tab. A toolkit for church leaders will also soon be launched on the blog.
Eve Parker, research assistant for AIRC is compiling another list of resources of far broader scope, encompassing non-Christian religious traditions.
Both AIRC and another AHRC Project Abusing God, led by Kirsi Cobb and Holly Morse, will host more events and generate resources and publications and databases, which many students, researchers, practitioners and others interested in these themes will find useful.
We hope that this is just a beginning. For more information, please contact Johanna (email@example.com).