PEOPLE with disabilities have criticised the lack of progress in increasing vocations and nurturing senior leaders.
The July report to the General Synod on senior leadership — Nurturing and Discerning Senior Leaders’ from the Development and Appointments Group — admits: “The issue of disability has featured very little in the Church’s exploration of diversity within senior leadership,” and promises that this will be “an additional focus for 2017-2019 and a further working group will be set up to lead this work”.
As yet, there are no details on who will be in the group, the timescale, the terms of reference, or potential for contributions.
The low number of leaders with disabilities in the Church was the outworking of past failings, the National Disability Adviser for the Archbishops’ Council, Roy McCloughry, said last month. “Disabled people have felt that it was not possible for them to realise their vocation or even to test it, because they were disabled.” In recent years, the Church had “realised that this perception is neither desirable nor justifiable”.
He pointed to the Committee for Ministry of and among Deaf and Disabled People (CMDDP), which reports directly to the Archbishops’ Council. This included “many people with personal experience of disability, distinguished academics and activists who are strongly motivated to reducing the barriers that deaf and disabled people face in society and, far too often, in the Church. . . Everybody should be able to explore their vocation based on what they can do rather than what they can’t do.”
The July report to the Synod inspired speeches from priests with disabilities (Synod report, 15 July 2016), including the Team Vicar of Billingham, the Revd Bill Braviner. Last week, he joined the Vicar of Christ Church, Dore, the Revd Katie Tupling, in calling for targeted support for people with disabilities who were exploring vocations.
The Synod report suggested that “the stated desire for diversity does not extend to disability”, Mrs Tupling, who co-founded Disability and Jesus, said. “It would appear that deaf/disabled people are not expected to become senior leaders.” The Church “does not actively encourage vocations among disabled people in the same way as it does for women, young vocations, or BAME [Black, Asian, and minority-ethnic] candidacy”, she said. Structures and reports were “making no impact”, and perhaps it was time for deaf and disabled ordained ministers to create a roadshow of their own.
Another speaker during the July debate was the Revd Zoe Heming, a priest in Lichfield diocese, who expressed “immense frustration that the Church will continue to look so very different to her groom. . . God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
”It is nothing less than cultural and theological change that is needed,” she said this month. Asked why there were few disabled leaders in the Church, she suggested several factors: “It’s embarrassing to not be able to participate fully without a big fuss and palaver. Most just won’t. You have to see something to believe it’s possible. The status quo is easier, especially when the Church is losing power. This is an opportunity for the Church to become more herself, though.
”Parish priests aren’t thinking outside their own experience when thinking of who may be called to lead. I’ve never heard a sermon on possible calling to ordination, let alone about disabled people being called, too. There is too much assumption that because someone is disabled in one way, they are disabled in others, too. For example, a speech impediment doesn’t mean learning difficulties.”
Senior leaders must “model change explicitly” she said, in preaching, policies, and worship. The Church must also learn from other institutions, including art galleries and theatres.
The Assistant Curate of Emmanuel Church, Northampton, the Revd Haydon Spenceley, said that he remembered growing up “not really seeing or being aware of anyone who was anything like me, as a wheelchair-user or as a physically disabled person”, in senior leadership of the churches he was part of. “So subconsciously . . . I just felt it wasn’t possible for me.” But today he was “massively encouraged by the new focus that the Church . . . seems to be placing on encouraging a wider part of the spectrum . . . to become aware of their callings and gifts and talents”.
He expressed support for the work of Mr McCloughry and the CMDDP, with which he is involved: “I believe that we are seeing the beginnings of a transformation, so that more opportunities will be available for people with impairments and disabilities to see that leadership is something that they can undertake.” He expressed gratitude, too, for the encouragement of his diocese and church. “What I care about most is that the right people end up in positions of senior leadership in the church,” he said.
Mr McCloughry hopes that many more disabled people will come forward for training, “and that they will rise to positions of senior leadership in the Church. The recognition of their gifts and the removal of barriers to their carrying out an effective ministry is essential to the future of the Church.”