SINCE discrimination on grounds of disability was made illegal in Britain, churches have complied, as best they can, with legislation that requires equal access.
Ramps, handrails, and induction loops proliferate, often at great cost to hard-pressed congregations, and, occasionally, to the detriment of beautiful buildings. In my own church, paradoxically, it has been reasonably easy and affordable to make the congregational areas safely and sympathetically wheelchair-accessible; but the 1970s hall and meeting rooms are another matter, and await funding for a full-scale rebuild.
So far, so good. But what these changes have done is raise the bigger question how we include disabled people in our churches. Despite improved accessibility, there is still a pressing sense among many disabled people that they are not fully included in church life.
It is not so much that they cannot get into a church — although few congregations are as good as they might be at giving lifts to people with mobility problems. It is what happens when they are there. We would like to be welcomed into church life as we are.
AS THE “disability” label has become better recognised, and stigma has lessened, more people are realising that they themselves — we ourselves — are disabled. This realisation is, of course, a good thing. But if most people in a congregation are disabled in some way, or perhaps just “differently abled”, then it presents the church with an infinite variety of needs to be met. Perhaps there are as many disabilities as there are persons.
Thus, it becomes harder to organise inclusive activity with any confidence. People who seem otherwise healthy tell me that they have reluctantly withdrawn from worship and social events for any number of private embarrassments and invisible disabilities. I have heard of: deafness that defies induction loops; ME; eating disorders; alcohol issues; unpredictable bladder and/or bowels; sensitivity to noise; back pain; and attention-deficit disorder.
People feel vulnerable to judgement or misinterpretation if they arrive late, leave early, or fail to participate fully in whatever seems expected of them. They feel guilty about approaching churchgoing in a consumerist way, and yet resentful at times that their particular disability cannot be recognised.
Take Sharon, for example. She is 31, and dances twice a week. She is in good health, but her posture is poor. Weakened by recent childbirth, standing still for any length of time is, for her, distractingly painful.
She is embarrassed to sit during the canticles and hymns at evensong, because it is explained that standing for the canticles is both respectful and, because only the choir sings them, the mark of congregational participation. She does not attend church on Palm Sunday because of feeling she should stand for the very long Gospel reading.
She would not tell anybody about the distracting pain she endures, because she feels that, compared with what “truly disabled” people suffer, her pain is trifling.
OR THERE is Nora. She is 75, and has attended her church three times every Sunday since infancy. The fact that she is now blind is not a huge problem: she knows the BCP services of morning prayer, holy communion, and evening prayer by heart, and all the hymns. But the new vicar, and the PCC, have banished the BCP, and changed the hymn book. They believe that the BCP and the words of traditional hymns are not “accessible” to young and/or less literate people.
Nora does not complain, even though she is also becoming increasingly deaf, and cannot follow the new services.
Or Marie, who wants to bring her autistic son to church so that he grows up in their Christian community — she would not be able to come without him anyway, as she is a single parent. The Junior Church leaders have tried hard to learn about what helps Ian to connect with what is going on. Two of the other boys, however, feel intimidated by Ian’s behaviour, and have stopped attending.
When the children rejoin the adults for communion, several people find it difficult to hear the service when Ian interrupts, and Cyril, an adult with mental-health problems, becomes agitated and distressed.
THESE examples show that we force ourselves into a gridlock of conflicting needs and claims very easily, if we believe that accessibility for all means that everyone must be enabled to do everything all together. So, how can we rethink “inclusion” creatively?
An apt metaphor here might be the dinner table. There is the formal sort of dining I no longer enjoy, where a large number of people sit down together, and everyone observes rigid protocols; so that everyone is, on the face of it, served with equal care. I am not deaf, but I can only just hear my immediate neighbours in a crowd; so, after three hours, I become a boring and bored conversationalist.
Everyone must sit down together, so latecomers or early retirers cause problems. It is sometimes difficult to explain that I’m a vegetarian.
The other sort of dinner is the leisurely six-hour Continental gathering, all generations included. The food is varied; the conversation involves each person in turn. A place is kept for someone unavoidably late. People retire to bed when they have had enough, without fuss; children slip away and return; and the chairs are convivially reconfigured. There is, within the laissez-faire atmosphere, a strong bond of trust between everyone there, and everyone’s preferences are met, albeit in turn, over time.
To apply this approach to one specific issue: I am troubled to see the visible distress of elderly communicants who struggle to kneel at the rail, because it has been encoded in their minds that kneeling is the only reverent posture in which to receive their Lord in the consecrated bread and wine. Human body language is far older than our words, it is true, and its meaning is eloquent; but it is not a universal absolute.
OF COURSE, many people will want to express their devotion through kneeling. Perhaps it is even more meaningful as it becomes more painful. I simply wish for a contemporary discussion about the value and meaning of posture in worship which explores possibilities of diversity and creativity.
Would it be possible to encourage congregations to discuss how they like to move during services, in a spirit of non-striving and non-judging? Perhaps, then, Sharon could allow herself to listen to the canticles sitting down.
Society has become more accepting of the blind, deaf, incontinent, mentally fragile, less mobile, very young, very old, and even the invisibly and/or temporarily “disabled”; and we are more confident about asserting our wish to be included. Perhaps a more generous, flexible spirit might also make churches places where people are confident to include themselves. The ministry of disabled clergy has been a great encouragement here.
It is about recognising that we are all fragile, all different, and, crucially, that we all contribute to the wholeness of the visible body of the Christ by our willing and visible presence in parish life.