A small piece of history was made in March when Julia Baird stood in front of 300 graduands and received the highest academic honour the University of Divinity bestows, the Doctor of Divinity.
Julia Baird is a journalist, historian and broadcaster. She is known for her work as an ABC presenter of The Drum, and as the author of a recent biography of Queen Victoria.
Julia with her colleague Hayley Gleeson has addressed an issue largely ignored and unstudied in Australia – domestic violence in faith communities.
University of Divinity Vice Chancellor, Dr Peter Sherlock, described Dr Baird’s journalism in the area of religion as courageous.
“Her commitment to truth, justice and the eradication of violence is evident in community and media panels alongside survivors and church leaders.”
Julia and Ms Gleeson interviewed hundreds of survivors, social workers, counsellors, clergy, theologians and social workers.
Despite hearing numerous stories of suffering, fear and shame and of leaders who failed to understand, Julia told Crosslight that churches remained an important place for healing.
“The best thing churches can do now is listen to the survivors, educate their leaders and preach against violence with unequivocal force,” she said.
“Being prepared to examine any behaviour that might lead to women being unheard, ignored or disbelieved is vital because women need a voice!”
Having a voice was not something Julia fully understood when she sat in the pews of her Sydney Anglican church as a child, because she was repeatedly told that she was and would always be subordinate to men.
“I did not know enough about the world and about violence to understand that men who beat their wives – or abuse, control and sexually assault them, would draw on and twist these scriptures,” Julia said.
Though the research consistently produced results that were disturbing, Julia said there were also incredible stories of love and support from local communities.
“You know, sometimes change happens one box, one bag of groceries, one phone call, one heart at a time,” she said.
“I heard stories of clergy who accompanied women to the Archbishop to ask for a hearing, who helped move house, shifting boxes and cooking meals, and who just listened and believed what they were told,” she said.
“Reorienting a community to be vigilant for signs of danger or abuse, or even just isolation post separation, can make an enormous difference to many lives.”
A remarkable feature of the interviews that Julia and Ms Gleeson conducted was that women continued to talk of faith giving them enormous strength.
Many women have found new churches, new friendship and places where they can “unspool, unravel and breathe before beginning again.”
“Women have spoken of being sustained privately, of knowing abuse is hateful to God, of a constant yearning for peace and community along with safety,” Julia said.
“It can take a long time, but study after study, and my own research, has repeatedly shown that faith sustains survivors. This gives the church an even greater responsibility to provide shelter and rest for them.”
So how does Julia Baird deal with her own public profile as a Christian?
“To be honest I rarely talk about my own faith as I get attacked from all sides on a personal level,” she said.
“But the irony of walking out of a beautiful service in a little church on the South Coast on Easter Sunday to a torrent of messages from trolls accusing me of attacking Christianity has not escaped me!”