Where are the stories of the disabled people of God?
There’s a silence in the churches. Disabled Christians do not get to tell our own stories. If our stories are told at all, it is by others, twisted and misremembered, till our names are forgotten. Powerful voices speak of realities that only we have lived. Their shouts drown us out. We are not silent; we are silenced. Among a great cloud of disabled witnesses, each of us is left thinking, “I’m the only one.”
Listen harder. Can you hear us? We have not been forgotten; our names are written on God’s heart. And we are beginning to tell our own stories.
It was a privilege to tell a story at the 2020 disability and church conference, at about this time last year. That year’s conference was all about stories, on the theme of ‘Telling Encounters.’ I spoke about my search for stories of people like me. As we get ready for this year’s conference, I thought you might like to hear it.
There are a few tickets still available for this year’s conference—why don’t you join us, on Saturday 16th October 2020? The Living Edge conferences on disability and church are a partnership between St Martin-in-the-Fields Church and Inclusive Church. Uniquely, these events are organised by disabled Christians, for disabled Christians. I’ve been involved since the first one, in 2012, and I can’t wait to join them this weekend for the tenth annual conference. A vibrant disabled community has grown up around these gatherings, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
The disabled Christian community is a growing, vibrant movement, challenging exclusion and showing how we can do – and be – Church in more diverse, inclusive ways. I’m always keen to help get the word out about the community’s own events and activities.
In no particular order, here are some of the things that disabled Christians and our groups have been up to, in the past six months or so, and some upcoming events.
We were pleased that the Bishop of London recognised the work of disabled Christians in her recent address about changes to coronavirus restrictions in churches. In the address, Bishop Sarah Mullally called for Church of England churches to think about justice and care for all, as they make decisions about Covid safety. We were glad to see the bishop’s focus on justice, and her acknowledgment that vulnerability is created by those in power.
This is not the blog post I wanted to be writing today. I had planned to write about some recent research and theology coming out of the disabled Christian movement. I’ll be back soon with some of that. There’s a more urgent issue today.
On Monday night, I cried when I realised that I may not be able to go back to church for the foreseeable future. I’ve been back twice so far, and it’s been such a joy. I finally returned to church in 2020, after about seven years away – and about a month later, I started shielding. For over a year, I only left my house for short walks (and occasional outdoor meet-ups). Online streaming kept me part of my church community, but it hasn’t always been fully accessible to me. So I’ve been beyond excited to be back in the building. That was just one of the reasons I was hoping against hope that the UK government would make sensible decisions and safety measures would stay in place – so I’d feel safe to keep going to church. In my anger at the opposite decision, on Monday night I went to Twitter – where many of my disabled Christian community were saying similar things. Once all Covid restrictions are lifted on 19th July, we won’t be safe to go back to church, unless the church makes a very different decision from the government. It was a mixed blessing to hear and share in the community’s grief. It made me feel less alone – and more angry.
Desperately hoping for some critique of the decision from churches, I went to see what church leaders were saying. Many were celebrating the return of singing… which spreads Covid. There was happiness about the return of religious “freedoms”… for those who feel safe. Senior church leaders spoke about how churches and their members have made sacrifices… but said less about the sacrificed lives of 128,000 people (to date), and how many more might follow now.
On Easter Sunday, Jesus appears to his friends. In fear, they’ve hidden themselves away in a locked room. In fear, they’ve ignored the women who told them to believe. And now here’s Jesus, in the flesh. And what’s the first thing he does?
He shows them his marked, impaired hands and side. The body that was wounded and died, broken by injustice and sin, transformed in resurrection. This is my body.
The disciples don’t just hear about his resurrection. They live it. In their physical encounter with Jesus’ body, his friends recognise him – as the God who is with them. The God who is like them. It’s hard to doubt an experience like that.
I sometimes have trouble with Easter. A triumphant resurrection can leave me waiting awkwardly outside the church gates, wondering if I fit. But this Easter Sunday, I was once again captivated by Nancy Eiesland’s idea of the disabled Christ, showing himself to his disciples, generously, vulnerably.
“Here is the resurrected Christ making good on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are… In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected Saviour, calls for his frightened companions to recognise in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their own salvation.”
Nancy Eiesland, disabled theologian1
As a disabled person who was never shown a God who is like me, this is a powerful picture of an experience with Christ’s impaired-and-perfected body. Society tells so many of us to be ashamed of our bodies, our different ways of being human. Jesus doesn’t. He shows us a body like ours. He takes it to heaven. And everything changes.
This week was Inclusion Sunday in churches that wished to mark it. My new church, a wonderful place with a growing focus on equality for all, held a service on this theme. But I’ll admit it now – even though I knew the people talking, I nearly didn’t stream the service. I almost went out for a walk instead. The concept of inclusion in churches is one that fills me with dread.
In the end, the people involved were all speaking from lived experience, and they were wonderful. But I’m interested in why the idea of ‘inclusion’ is such a difficult one for me – especially in churches.