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.
But the Church of England’s guidance has now passed the buck to individual churches, who have been told to make their own decisions about coronavirus restrictions after 19th July. In so doing, the institutional Church has abandoned many of us who are at higher risk from Covid, who will be too afraid to attend unsafe church buildings from next week onwards. The guidance clarifies that singing and gathering in unlimited numbers without masks is now allowed, even as it also advises church leaders to be cautious. The guidance argues that “Church leaders are best placed to know their own communities and environments… to listen to the voices of vulnerable in their communities and where their fears and concerns lie.”
And yet we already see signs that churches are not listening to our voices. Already, those of us who have spoken out on this issue are facing criticism from other Christians and church leaders, simply for asking churches to consider safety and inclusion as they make decisions about Covid measures.
We’ve even heard that, as ‘vulnerable’ people, we should not be coming to worship in church buildings.
We want to make it clear that such attitudes are ableist, and counter to the values that Jesus embodied in his ministry. And these attitudes are at the heart of the injustice faced by disabled people during this pandemic. It would be much easier for abled people if disabled people were shut away and did not cause them any inconvenience. At least, that seems to be the prevailing social attitude, as July 19th approaches. And that’s what makes ‘freedom day’ so terrifying for those of us who are at higher risk of Covid. Disabled and clinically vulnerable people will be shut away, paying the price for other people’s ‘freedom’.
Disabled people have a long history of being shut out of society – and church buildings. We have been particularly marginalised during this pandemic, as Naomi Lawson Jacobs has written about here. And we know that disabled people were marginalised in church communities long before coronavirus. Our concerns and requests about accessibility and inclusion are too often dismissed. And non-disabled church members too often speak over us, silencing our voices.
In the light of these ongoing injustices towards disabled people, we are left without any reassurance that individual churches will listen to their “vulnerable” members. It is far more likely that they will succumb to pressure from the majority, who are keen to sing and gather in large numbers, without restrictions.
For all these reasons, we are disappointed that the Church of England has not given its churches firmer guidelines on worshipping safely and inclusively. We call for firm guidance that truly prioritises justice for all. And we stand against the attitude that people are being divisive by speaking out against injustice. As Bishop Sarah says in her address, Christians should love all our neighbours, especially our marginalised neighbours. Now more than ever, we should be striving to create places of worship where those who have been made vulnerable to Covid are the most honoured guests at God’s banquet. That means the elderly faithful attender in the front row. That means the immunocompromised lay reader. That means the person with learning disabilities who collects the offering. And it means the priest with chronic fatigue syndrome. Many of these people will be shut out of society from 19th July. The day before, 18th July, will be the last Sunday that some of these people will feel safe to come into a church building, for who knows how long. We need the Church of England to be firm in its conviction that all should be welcome in church buildings, and offer clear, practical guidance to make that welcome a reality.
We believe that all churches should be prioritising justice, hospitality and inclusion for all, especially when the rest of society is not doing the same. As Emma Major and Laura Neale recently wrote, in their advice on Worshipping Together Safely: “God tells us to live hospitably, treating everyone as if they could be God. If, as a church, we make decisions that exclude people, we are separating ourselves from God.”
Inclusion values and honours all members of the Church, who are all needed. As Paul writes about the Church, as the body of Christ: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour” (1 Corinthians 12:21-32, NIV). But when church leaders remove all Covid safety measures in their church buildings, these temporarily non-disabled leaders are saying to clinically vulnerable people, “We do not need you.”
And in an era when the church is wondering how it will grow in the future, what message are we sending to those who are not yet attending a church? Do they look to their parish church and see a safe place that welcomes them? As Rev. Andrew Lightbown said this week, “The parish church is not limited to the worshipping community. It is there for everyone.” Everyone: the young and old, the clinically vulnerable and the temporarily healthy, the abled and disabled; everyone. If we are failing to model in our existing membership true inclusion of all parts of the body of Christ, how can we possibly be an attractive proposition to anybody else? We will find it difficult to attract a diverse new membership if we have told some of those groups to stay at home, due to their own clinical vulnerability or that of others in their household. We are not a closed club; we are a community of Christians, open to everyone. Let’s ensure church buildings really are safe places where all are welcome to worship.
Until the Church can make it clear that church buildings are safe for disabled and clinically vulnerable people to worship in, together with the rest of the body of Christ, we will be missing from the pews.
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.
From many church leaders, I’ve also seen caution and concern for ‘the vulnerable’, which is a good start.
Vulnerability or Injustice?
But I wanted to hear so much more about justice. About how the church needs to take a stand for the lives that have been devalued during this pandemic. Devalued through media and government comments about how the virus ‘only’ affects those with pre-existing conditions; through clear expectations that the rich will work safely from home while poor people can continue to risk their lives serving the privileged as delivery drivers and shop assistants; through the disproportionate impact of Covid on marginalised groups. Yes, many disabled people have conditions that put us at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. But if the government was making decisions that valued all lives, none of us would need be vulnerable. As a UNHCR statement on disability and COVID-19 recently put it, disabled people “are often wrongly perceived to be inherently vulnerable, when it is attitudinal, environmental and institutional barriers that result in situations of vulnerability.”1 As our lives have been devalued by social policy and rhetoric, we have been madevulnerable by society. I long to hear churches talking about this – and all the other ways that, during the pandemic, the gap between the privileged and the oppressed has widened into a gaping chasm of deepening inequalities.
During the pandemic, Fiona MacMillan began hosting the ground-breaking video series Shut In, Shut Out, Shut Up. That title is intentional. Since March 2020, disabled people have been shut in our homes, shut out of churches and communities, and shut up – silenced. We have always experienced all of these things, but Covid has deepened all the old fault lines into chasms of inequality.
In the latest series, Fiona and her guests have been exploring ableism in church and society, showing how injustice in society is too often mirrored in the churches – and enabled by their silence.
In 2020 and 2021, the church has said little about justice for disabled people. Its silence on everything that’s been happening to our community during this pandemic has, in Fiona’s words, spoken volumes. That may not be true of all churches, but so many have stayed silent, devaluing lives as they fail to speak out.
In institutions, structural sin enables social injustice.3 But it is human decisions that create environments where justice or injustice flourishes. Churches are places of power, where our choices create justice or injustice, as we resist or collude with society’s injustice.
The One Sheep
Remember those verses from Micah at the top of this post? Disabled biblical scholar Sarah Melcher talks about these verses together with other prophetic Old Testament passages, all showing how God will one day restore disabled people to a situation of justice. Melcher says that the language in Micah compares disabled people to “injured sheep.” She says, “God, like a kindly and conscientious shepherd will gather in even the wounded members of the community, to return them to their land” (p.4).
Melcher’s reflections make me think of the one lost sheep out of a hundred, in Jesus’s story (Matthew 18:12-14). As Stephanie Tait says, sheep don’t just leave a secure fold – they flee from danger. But the Shepherd is not content to see them lost and exiled. Just like in Micah, the Shepherd goes out to find the forgotten ones, who have been driven away through fear, and brings us home. That’s a vision of justice – for every single sheep.
Disabled people are often driven away from, and forgotten by, churches. But during the pandemic, access to churches has vastly improved for many disabled people. Many have told stories about how they were excluded from church for years, until lockdowns, when live streamed services gave them a way to come home. But this is accidental access, not a thoughtful bringing back of the excluded. And now disabled people fear that even this accidental inclusion will go away.
Now as restrictions ease there is a fear within me that churches will go back to “business as usual” and the eagerness to return to “proper church” will leave many of us – who for the last four months have been more engaged than ever – back where we started.”
And it’s not just a fear. Disabled Christians have been seeing live streaming scaled back in many churches, removing new ways of accessing church. On Monday there was talk in the disabled Christian community about how 19th July could mean our exclusion from church, since many of us won’t feel safe in crowded buildings with no Covid measures. And this situation is reflected across society. We will be shut out of so many places again, thanks to decisions that don’t consider our needs and don’t value our lives.
It’s good that some churches are saying that they will continue to stream services. But this provision is patchy. And live streamed church hasn’t been made accessible to everyone. In just two examples, there are no subtitles on many churches’ streams, and informal Zoom coffee can throw up barriers for some neurodivergent people. It can be lonely if you can’t follow streamed services or can’t join online social events. I know many churches have been struggling to keep services online on a shoestring budget and to keep church buildings safe during a pandemic, and I value the people whose hard work has been making it possible for us to go safely back to church.4
But I don’t want to be a lost sheep wandering outside the fold forever.
A Cry for Justice
Rather than closing the doors around our comfortable buildings, shutting out everyone who is not safe there, a vision for justice could move the church out into the dangerous places. Into the world beyond the church gates, where the Reign of God is already at hand. Where, instead of closing ranks, we step outside our comfort zone. And see that we, too, are complicit in social injustice.
What new visions for justice might arise from that kind of engagement with real lived experience of oppression? Could it transform the whole way we do church? Might a forgotten sheep or two finally feel safe to come back then? (Every single person’s inclusion matters, says the parable.)
So my plea to churches now is: Think about how you can value the lives that society has devalued. Love your immunocompromised neighbour, your disabled neighbour, your unvaccinated child neighbour. Think about how, in your institutional policies, you choose whether to harm people, or to create safe, accessible environments. Consider whether this is really a safe a time to drop all restrictions, and who will be shut out if you do. And keep your live streaming and remote access going, in ways that all can access. As you include those who have been shut out, perhaps your whole vision of church will be transformed.
Waiting Outside the Gates
Till then, too many of us could be waiting outside the church gates. Same as it ever was.
I believe that God values lives that have been exiled to the rubbish dump or forced outside the Temple gates. Together with my scattered, gathered disabled Christian community, I’ll be focusing on that awesome eschatological vision of justice that includes disabled people, which brings back all those against whom the church doors have been closed. We’ll wait for the churches to call for that same vision of justice.
“At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honour in every land where they have suffered shame. At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.”
– Zephaniah 3:19-20 (NIV)
With thanks to Al Barrett for a conversation that inspired these thoughts, and to Fiona MacMillan for looking over this post.
1 The UNHCR statement goes on to explain how ‘vulnerability’ is created by social policy. “While many persons with disabilities have health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, pre-existing discrimination and inequality means that persons with disabilities are one of the most excluded groups in terms of health prevention and response actions and economic and social support measures, and among the hardest hit in terms of transmission risk and actual fatalities.”
2 I could link to so many more studies and reports about the oppression of disabled people during the pandemic. Have one of the most telling: disabled people’s organisations have identified 24 major breaches of disability rights by the government during the pandemic, to which the government has not yet responded.
3 As Liberation theologian Gutierrez puts it, “An unjust situation does not happen by chance… there is human responsibility behind it.” Gustavo Gutierrez, ‘A Theology of Liberation.’ Monthly Review 36 (1984): 93-107.
4 Inclusion requires institutional cultural change, supported by resources at the highest levels of church denominations. The Church of England has work to do here at the highest levels. Inclusion and accessibility can also be cheap and easy to achieve, if churches listen to disabled people and confront their own ableism… but that’s another story for another time.
Edited 9/7/21 to clarify that the complete removal of Covid restrictions I’m referring to is in England.
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.
Thomas, who believed differently
It was a different story last Sunday. In Anglican churches, we read about Thomas – remembered as the disciple who doubted the resurrection. At first, his story left me cold and condemned. It feels so far from that moment a week before, when Jesus gave the disciples that generous gift of experience.
And then it hit me. Thomas wasn’t there, when Jesus showed his body to his friends. Unless I experience, I will not believe, Thomas says. And Jesus says…
“Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
John 20:27-28 (NRSV)
What if Thomas boldly asked for an embodied experience of the risen Lord, so he could believe? Holy doubting. Show me.
And what if that was okay with Jesus? What if he looked at Thomas with grace and compassion, and understood his human need to experience God in the flesh? I’m here. You can believe.
I wonder if Thomas longed to experience a God with a body like his.
I know the feeling.
It takes courage to be a (disabled) Holy Doubter
Nancy Eiesland’s encounter with a disabled God changes how I feel about myself, and it changes how I feel about God. This disabled writer gives me permission to be Thomas, boldly asking Jesus to show me his body. I’m here. You can believe.
But it takes courage to say, Show me. For two reasons. First, God might take you seriously. And second, you might meet with a lot of criticism for your Holy Doubting. (Nancy Eiesland did.)
I don’t know about you, but I’m very careful how much of myself I share in Bible studies. I’m used to feeling silenced, if I speak from lived experience.
I broke my rule of silence recently, while reading a psalm of lament in a group. I was captivated by the experience of a psalmist who felt like they were broken pottery after injustice and pain. In the silence of meditation, I could ‘read between the lines’2 as a disabled person. The psalmist’s experience sang in tune with mine. It gave me permission to pray the un-prayable prayer: SometimesI feel like a broken pot too. Made by the Potter. Broken by the world.
I couldn’t not speak about this homecoming. I wanted to know if anyone else felt this way, so we could share experiences together. And I don’t blame the group for not understanding, when I spoke. My spoken words can be rambling and inaccurate, and my experience would have seemed strange to them. But I did my best to tell the others how the psalms of lament open up a space for Holy Doubt, where I can be real with God about injustice and pain.
Awkward page-shuffle of discomfort. Confusion. Why would anyone enjoy a psalm like this? Should the psalmist even be saying this? Should they not just know that God loved them?
I didn’t speak again.
Marginalised people speaking about lived experience
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
Psalm 32:3 (NIV)
Disabled and neurodivergent people often struggle to tell our own stories about God, faith, church. We carry our knowledge of God in our bodies, and in our experience of difference and diversity and injustice. That can be hard to claim as a source of authority to speak. Other voices drown ours out. Why can’t we just listen to the experts, they ask, and accept a God who is like them? Why do we need a God who is like us? Why do you doubt, Thomas?
Nothing about us, without us.
Slogan used by disabled people’s campaigns since the 1980s (beginning with South African activists)
But when it comes to thinking about God, we all start where we are. All theology is contextual. And it is only disability theology when disabled people’s voices are heard.
When the church doors are closed to you, sometimes you start to think outside the gates.3
A place to think outside the gates together
On the margins of the church, I meet other disabled Christians who help me to see the power of lived experience. They give me permission to think about life, faith and God from my perspective as a disabled person.
I’m part of a disabled-led Christian group that meets on Zoom. We ‘come as we are’ (to borrow Fiona MacMillan‘s phrase). Some of us come from bed. Others come in pyjamas. Some knit or crochet or make art while we talk; I scribble in a colouring book when it’s hard to make eye contact. We make no apologies for our diverse ways of being. We tic, we stim, we rock gently in our chairs, we choose to participate in social rituals or not to, we use different ways of communicating, we forget words and remember love, we are gloriously awkward and divergently articulate. We bring our stories, our diversity, our marginalisation, our joys, our pain, our art, our whole selves. We are church together, on the edge.
As we come as we are, we recognise each other and God. When I talked about my experience of reading the lament psalm, a friend recognised it, and shared her experience of repeating the same psalm when she was enduring bodily spasms. Another friend talked about chanting psalms of lament when she was in pain and despair. For a moment, I was among my people. Like the psalmist, they opened up space for Holy Doubt. A space in community, where I could feel like a broken pot, rejected and scorned and forgotten – and still the work of the Potter, fearfully and wonderfully made. Come and have your own encounter, Thomas.
This is a community shaping an understanding of God together. Starting with what we experience.
Lived experience matters. Scars and all.
So, for the past two Sundays, when I’ve read the stories of the disciples encountering Jesus, I’ve read them as a disabled person. Together with my disabled community, who help me experience a God whose body sings in tune with ours.
I’m with Believing-Differently Thomas. Show me the marks in your hands and side. Show me how Christ took the whole of our human experience into heaven – injustice, oppression, pain, bodily difference, diverse ways of being. Show me how my disability cannot be abhorrent. Not when a Disabled God meets us where we are, shows us his scars, and says, “Don’t you recognise me?”
I’m starting to.
One more thing…
I’ve been thinking about how we could work towards a Disabled People’s Lived Theology Project, to share our stories of faith and disability. Go here for more on this.
Writers referenced in this post
Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), p.99-100.
For feminist theologian Marjorie Procter-Smith, “praying between the lines” is a way of “reading ourselves into the text from which we have been excised, by reading behind the texts, reading the silences and the spaces, the absences and omissions,” and hearing unspoken things there. She is mainly talking about liturgy, but it’s an interesting way of thinking about marginalised readings of the Bible too. Marjorie Procter-Smith, Praying With Our Eyes Open: Engendering Feminist LIturgical Prayer (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995). I first discovered the concept of ‘praying between the lines’ in: Al Barrett and Ruth Harley, Being Interrupted (London: SCM Press, 2020).
Deborah Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). I use Creamer’s idea of disabled people ‘waiting outside the church gates’ for the title of this blog.
I am the utter contempt of my neighbours and an object of dread to my closest friends – those who see me on the street flee from me. I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery.
And we moved this year’s disability conference to an intentionally online format (a partnership between St Martin-in-the-Fields and Inclusive Church, this year hosted by HeartEdge). Impacts of lockdown and COVID-19 were a recurring theme this year. I’ll share recorded material soon.
These are the slides from a presentation I gave in July, at The Conference at the End of the World, organised by alt-ac.uk. This inclusive conference was the perfect venue to share some new research I’ve been doing on the topic, building on my PhD research with disabled Christians. Here’s a summary.
I started by asking why disabled people should matter to churches during the pandemic. COVID-19 lockdowns and policies have had an unequal impact on disabled people, with reports of increased health and social inequalities during the pandemic. Disabled people have experienced:
Food shortages and difficulty obtaining food under shielding and lockdown conditions.
Problems getting their medication and medical equipment.
Difficulty getting PPE, for those who need carers to come into their homes.
Problems accessing information – with a lack of Easy Read and British Sign Language information about COVID and lockdown regulations.
Concerns about rationing of treatment using frailty scales that might leave disabled people without care, together with reports of ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders placed on disabled people against their will, leaving disabled people feeling that our lives are less valued than those of others.
My next point was about disabled people and church. My PhD research showed that churches are places where disabled people are often excluded, because we cannot ‘fit’. This can be because of physical barriers, barriers to understanding, social barriers, structural issues like starting times of services, direct ableism, or church cultures that force us to the edges of church life. What’s worse, others speak for us and about us in churches – our own voices are rarely heard when disability is talked about.
This is one reason why, for many years, many disabled Christians have been part of a growing movement of disabled people’s online churches. Online churches are becoming places where we can meet together, speak from lived experience, and create church cultures where we can come as we are. If you can’t attend a 10am service because fatigue means you need to sleep in late, you can stream it later. If you can’t easily communicate verbally, there are twitter discussions and recorded video content to share in. If you can’t use inaccessible transport or leave your bed, church can come to you. If you need to rock and stim during the service, you might feel safer to do this in your own home.
“The online space is sacred. It’s just different.”
Katie Tupling, founder member, ‘Disability and Jesus’, and disabled priest
In response to the pandemic and lockdowns, many churches have moved online. This happened very quickly – disabled people pointed out that churches could have offered remote services a long time ago.1Online church is not new, but there have been arguments for many years about whether going to church online is as ‘real’ as going to church in person. I’ll leave debates about ecclesiology to the theologians, but the arguments about the legitimacy of church online continue.
Yet manydisabled people who have been excluded from churches couldfinally take part, when churches moved online. For some, it felt as if everyone was suddenly encountering the access difficulties that disabled Christians have always experienced. When a problem affects the majority, the majority finally notices it. The result was ‘accidental access’ to church, for many of us. Some have been able to participate after years of not being able to leave their homes, now that church comes to them. Others have found new, more accessible ways to engage with other Christians.
“I was taking part as much as anybody was at that point… I was actually part of them [the church] again.”
Siobhan, who cannot attend her church in person due to autism inaccessibility
Some of these disabled people have seen new ministriesopen up for them, through their technical skill, or because they now have real ways of taking part in church.
“I’m the most techie person in the church…. That means I’ve got us online. I’ve been facilitating and running services and helping other people be involved… People record Bible readings and… [we] get 92 year olds on Zoom. You name it, we’ve done it.”
Emma, who lost most of her sight and mobility while serving as a minister
But mainstream churches have not all been happy to move online, and this has impacted disabled Christians who meet and worship via the internet. As Katie Tupling, founder member of Disability and Jesus, points out, “Mainstream church was reluctantly dumped into the online space… There was a huge influx of hurt privilege” into online spaces that had previously been empowering for many disabled Christians. Offers of help by disabled online practitioners were often not taken up by churches moving online. Not all churches were interested in making online services accessible to disabled people.
And now many churches are very keen to move back to the building. This is worrying some disabled people, whose worlds have opened up as a result of churches moving online. They are asking what happens to them when online services disappear. Will churches learn from the new involvement and ministry of disabled people, or will they forget us again?
“Lockdown brought with it both opportunity and challenge to the church… Now as restrictions ease there is a fear within me that churches will go back to “business as usual” and the eagerness to return to “proper church” will leave many of us – who for the last four months have been more engaged than ever – back where we started.”
Emily Richardson, disabled Christian & church communication coordinator
The challenge for the church now is not to lose the new ‘accidental accessibility’ that has opened up to disabled people during this period, when churches have had to think differently about how to worship remotely. As Emma Major put it:
“Will the good intentions of accessibility still be in place in a years time when most of your congregation are back in their seats? Or will we be the invisible again? Most people who have been excluded from churches for years have little hope that inclusivity will improve.”
Emma Major, disabled minister, Church Times, May 2020
It’s also important to remember that not all disabled people can access church online. Digital exclusion is a real problem for disabled and older people, especially the many who live in poverty. Other people can’t engage with online church because it’s inaccessible to them in other ways. The fight for access to physical church services goes on – online church is only one part of the solution.
To end, let me direct you to some of the wonderful activities of a growing disabled Christian movement. We’re doing exciting things together. It’s now up to churches whether they want to share in this exciting movement, or if disabled people will stay pushed to the margins of church… and society.
The Shut In, Shut Out, Shut Up series. These discussions have been devised and hosted by Fiona MacMillan, in conversation with disabled and neurodivergent Christian advocates, activists, academics and church leaders.
The Living Edge conferences. Since 2012, this annual conference has been a space for disabled and neurodivergent people to gather, to resource each other and the church. It’s for us, rather than about us – we are a majority of the conference planners, speakers and delegates. Read more at the Inclusive Church website.
1Katie Tupling of Disability and Jesus argues that the current shift of church services onto the internet is “church online,” where churches move their services wholesale onto the internet. In contrast, “online church” is designed to be held on the internet.
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.
Inclusion: Who has the privilege of opening the gates?
I’m a disabled and autistic person. I’ve only recently returned to church, after about eight years when I only attended occasional lunchtime communion in churches that I chose at random. During that time, I was researching for a PhD on disability and churches. I spent all day, every day listening to distressing stories of disabled people’s exclusion from churches. There were positive stories of inclusion, too, but there were far too many of the other kind. These were stories of socialinjustice. Meanwhile, churches keep talking about inclusion and welcome – opening the gates to disabled people, letting ‘them’ into ‘our’ spaces. But few of them, in my experience, are talking about justice.
I went to ‘Zoom coffee’ after the service. Post-church coffee has never been very accessible to me – so much small talk with people I don’t know! – but Zoom-based coffee is even harder. While I love church being streamed into my home, ‘Zoom church’ often transfers neurotypical ways of communicating into a space where taking part is even more difficult than usual. Suddenly, I’m having to engage in intense eye contact with up to twenty people at once; I’ve been told that I need to sit still in Zoom meetings, so I repress the urge to move; I can’t read body language or social cues over screens; I don’t know when to talk, or how long to talk for… Still, I managed to have a lovely chat with a new friend who was advocating for justice, not just inclusion. Yes, I thought afterwards, having been exhausted to the point of tears by Zoom coffee (through no one’s malicious fault, I hasten to add). Churches need to extend justice to everyone who engages with them, and not just to talk in fluffy terms about inclusion without action. Church members and leaders need to think: Who are we excluding when we insist that they come into our spaces? That’s true whether we’re talking about our neurotypical Zoom coffee designed to be just like coffee in church, our church buildings with steps and poor lighting and no hearing aid loops, or our sermons that speak only to non-disabled people/white people/straight people/cis people. All aspects of church can create conditions of injustice, where we exclude people through buildings, cultures, attitudes and theologies.
In my PhD thesis, I argued that ideas of ‘welcome’ into churches, or ‘inclusion’ in them, don’t go far enough. Inclusion is often about powerful people charitably letting others into their spaces – spaces that they control. They decide who they’re going to open the gates to. The rest of us have to come meekly into spaces that have been designed to meet the needs of the majority – not the needs of the marginalised.
Justice: A Different Way of Thinking
Justice is a different concept. A justice framework would ask why and how we have excluded people, in designing churches only for people who look and act and live like us. It asks us to look at who we’ve barred the way to. Who we’ve kept the church doors closed to. And how we need to redesign church buildings, cultures, attitudes and even theologies, so that they really embrace everyone.
I’ve seen a lot of churches and theologians talk about the Parable of the Banquet as a model for inclusion. But I often wonder whose Banquet table it is. Is this an event where accessibility is considered and all voices are heard? Is there space for wheelchair users to get up to the table? Have autistic people been given a guide in advance to what will happen during the evening’s Banquet? Is there an Easy-Read menu for those with learning disabilities? Are families with disabled children included with the help of Makaton interpreters? What about BSL interpreters for Deaf Banqueters? Are there quiet spaces just outside the banquet hall, for neurodivergent people and those who experience mental distress to find a break from noise? (And that’s only to think about disabled people, not everyone else who could be marginalised during this Banquet…)
After all, the King in the parable did ask for his servants to bring in disabled people to his Banquet. I hope that’s not all he did. If the Banquet is about justice, and not just inclusion, then the King will have gone beyond a simple invitation.
When we talk about including people, are we really ready to open the gates? Or will the gates be torn down by prophetic voices who demand that we re-examine every aspect of the way we do church?
Diversity asks: Who’s in the room?
Equity responds: Who’s trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?
Inclusion asks: Is this environment safe for everyone to feel like they belong?
Justice challenges: Whose safety is being sacrificed and minimized to allow others to be comfortable maintaining dehumanizing views?
Dr D.L. Stewart
Some influences on my thinking about inclusion recently: