This year on the blog, I’m reviewing Christian books by disabled people and our allies who amplify our voices (find the first review here).
Kt Tupling is a disabled priest and Diocesan Disability Advisor, co-founder of Disability and Jesus, and advocate for disabled people in the Church of England. Anna de Lange is a Reader and former member of the Liturgical Commission. These two short books are fantastic additions to the Grove Books ‘Ethics’ and ‘Worship’ lineup, not least because the authors write from lived experience.
When it comes to disability, Christian ethics can sometimes feel like disconnected philosophy. This book is the opposite — it puts Christian thought into the context of our real lives as disabled people. In Being Disabled, Being Human: Challenging Society’s Perception of Disability and Personhood, Tupling reminds us that it matters how an ableist church and society think about disabled people.
Tupling starts by telling us about her own lived experience of disability, then moves quickly from the personal to the political. Disabled people are diverse, she reminds us, but we are all on the receiving end of political, social and theological oppression, because we live in a world that does not value us.
The disabled activist community live with the reality that politically, economically, socially and theologically, disabled people are somehow viewed as less by non-disabled structures.p. 3
Chapter 2 discusses what it means to live as a disabled person in our society – from the poverty that disabled people live in, to the negative attitudes we face daily. I was shocked by the reminder of how much the ‘disability price tag’ has increased in just one year. In 2023, Scope says disabled people face extra costs of £975 a month, on average – more after inflation. Just more one inequality we face, among many.
The rest of Chapter 2 outlines some of the models that have been used to describe disability. Tupling focuses on one way disability has been seen by Christians — as the result of sin, the Fall or a lack of faith. This kind of religiously-motivated prejudice can have real consequences in disabled people’s lives.
I have been on the receiving end of this theology in a variety of church and prayer-ministry settings. If I only had more faith… and claimed healing in Jesus’ name, then I would be free from cerebral palsy…. This may come with a message of worth: ‘If you tried harder, were more motivated, lived a more productive life, then you would succeed in a healthier body/mind.’p. 7
Chapter 3 is a discussion of the disabled people’s activist movement – a brief history of the social action that led to legislation and (some) change for disabled people. Disabled people would not even have the limited rights we have today without the activists who spoke out against injustice. It was a joy to hear their story told positively in a Christian book.
But the chapter ends on a somber note, looking at how the UK government made huge cuts to welfare and support for disabled people in the 1990s and 2000s — cynically representing us as ‘shirkers and scroungers’ — and how little today’s government seems to care about our equality.
…disabled people have long felt overlooked, under-prioritized and left out of any consideration.p. 11
Chapter 4 was painful but important to read, as the author shows how eugenics is alive and well in our society, where disabled people are still represented not just as a burden on everyone else, but even as less than human. It’s a short road from widely-accepted attitudes like this, to Covid 19 and the sharp rise in Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders placed on disabled people without our consent.
That takes us to Covid-19 itself — in Chapter 5 — and the inequalities faced by disabled people when emergency government policy took little account of our needs, while disabled people died needlessly, in disproportionate numbers. Tupling paints a depressing picture here of what social inequality can mean for disabled people. When crisis hits, our lives are valued least.
Chapter 6 puts the pandemic in the context of online church. Disabled Christians have meeting online for a long time, in safe, disabled-led spaces, Tupling reminds us. “We need to see online church as a real mission field rather than passing it off as a stopgap during a pandemic,” says Dr Pete Phillips (quoted on p.23). This brief exploration of online church shows why it matters to many disabled people.
In the final chapter, the author returns to her own story. And we need our stories to be heard, to show the church why disability (in)justice matters.
The messages of my childhood and teenage years… were not to think of myself as permanently disabled but only temporarily—and with the right medication, surgery, physio and prayer I would one day become the person I was meant to be…. I am no longer occupying that mindset and now I see the beauty, diversity—and challenges—of disability.p. 24
Tupling ends with her hope that this book might help churches to be a little more equipped “to pay attention to the needs and the gifts of disabled people in your communities” (p.24). This is such a helpful book, showing how justice for disabled people is both societal and theological, and how bad theology can lead to injustice. It would make a great ‘starting point’ for Christians looking for an introduction to disability issues in church and society.
Worship and Disability: A Kingdom for All is a practical guide to making your church’s worship and liturgy more accessible and inclusive for everyone.
In the introduction, the authors remind us that anyone can become disabled. With that thought-provoking start, they share a few unhelpful assumptions that churches make about access — like “we have no one with a disability” (unlikely, and a red flag if it’s true!) — and they offer tips for other ways to think about access.
Chapter 2 starts with some (wonderfully) diverse ways we might think about disability, and goes on to talk about disability access in churches. A range of access issues are discussed, from the sensory inaccessibility that autistic people might face in churches, to the many churches that still have no toilets — never mind accessible ones. The authors share stories about how negative attitudes can be a barrier to access, too. And they prompt church communities to start thinking about how they can offer better access, in practical but simple ways.
Is it time that your welcome team (or equivalent) reviewed the way in which disabled people are met at the church door? How and when will they receive training?p.7
Chapter 3 is about the values and mindset of church communities, and how these might need to change, if disabled people are ever going to be part of your community. Changing the attitudes of a whole community can be a slow process. But, as churches, our values reflect who we believe God is.
A church that values difference will welcome a crying child, a bored toddler, a texting teenager, an adult with a deep and personal faith as well as learning difficulties, and an old person with dementia who needs to know that they are still loved by God in spite of their confusion.p. 8
Chapter 4 shares some great tips for more inclusive worship, including a section on autism-friendly worship that draws on Ann Memmott‘s work. From sharing the peace to offering communion, there is so much that churches can do to include people with a wide range of access needs, if they can just think differently about how they do church. The story of an inclusive service at Greenbelt is a lovely illustration of how worship can be made more accessible in practice.
Chapter 5 looks at liturgy and how it can exclude or include. There is a long history of ableist liturgy that has reinforced common prejudices about disability, for example. There are more useful ideas here about making liturgy more inclusive.
Chapter 6 is a much-needed discussion of disability, prayer and healing. Disability is a complex experience, and disabled people may wrestle with our theologies of healing, the authors tell us. We read stories here of disabled people who are no longer seeking cure, but are seeking God’s healing — believing that the two are not the same thing. Avoid prayers that see disability as a “tragic affliction,” the authors advise (p. 23). They call churches to see prayer as a safe space where we can grieve and celebrate alike, across the whole of our lives. I love this!
Chapter 7 ends the book with some final, useful quick tips, which will help churches beginning to think about making their worship more disability-inclusive.
If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that it sometimes shares ideas without citing sources (this is an issue with some Grove Books, where so much has to be packed into a small booklet). But this is a really practical, useful book, that left me thinking about how access is at the heart of the gospel. I’ll be giving a copy to my church leaders.
Between the corresponding interests of these two books, they make for a great balance. I enjoyed them both. But in a world and church that ascribes little value to disabled people, I think church leaders need to start with Being Disabled, Being Human, to prompt them to reconsider their ethics and theology. It matters how we think about disabled people, and it matters how we think about disability.