"A CHURCH without disabled people is a disabled church," David
Primrose, who works for the diocese of Lichfield, says.
With money from the Bishop's Lent appeal last year, he helped an
umbrella group of Christian disability charities to organise a
conference on disability, which sought to pool experiences and
encourage a rethinking of the position of disabled people in
Although most churches believed that they were welcoming, the
reality was that many disabled people felt excluded. "Loneliness
and isolation can be huge for people with disability," Mr Primrose
said. "We need to ask people about disability, but there is a fear
of getting it wrong."
The impact of the conference has now been evaluated in a report
commissioned by the diocese, Who's Enabling Whom, by Dr
Heather Buckingham, a research fellow in the Department of Theology
and Religion at the University of Birmingham. She spoke to those
who attended the conference, and found out how life had changed for
Her report found that churches and individuals were changing
their attitudes and their services to help disabled people. Some
churches were focusing on supporting people with dementia and their
carers - in one case, piloting services without a complex
Others were making small changes to their liturgy or welcome.
One participant reported: "Somebody in a wheelchair said to me, 'It
almost brings me to tears when somebody chooses to stay sitting
beside me in solidarity when we sing a hymn.' To hear that from
somebody, you think, golly, there are really things we can do that
make all the difference."
Mr Primrose said: "One of the key things Heather pointed out is
the need to be able to 'mainstream' the high-profile events like
the conference. We need to help people in our congregations to see
that welcoming and including disabled people is part of living out
our faith, not a specialist interest."
A feature of the conference was that large numbers of people who
led it or contributed were themselves disabled, and modelled a new
kind of leadership. It is said that any people with disabilities
drop out of church because they don't feel included or empowered,
but only "done to".
"Seeing disabled people ministering to others including (but not
exclusively) in roles such as preaching or leading services, and in
positions of leadership, can have a significant impact on changing
people's attitudes towards and expectations of disabled people
within the Church."
Mr Primrose said: "The Church is impoverished if it doesn't deal
with the whole of life experience. . . Being among people who have
a disability or are vulnerable is where Jesus is, and where we
should be. In time of acute vulnerability, we experience the grace
of God at depth."