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.