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Church 'impoverished' if it doesn't listen to disabled

05 June 2015


"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 churches.

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 them since.

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 liturgy.

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."



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