ON SUNDAY, the Greenbelt festival taught the wider Church a valuable lesson in inclusiveness.
Approaches to disability usually start and stop at the level of accessibility. For its main communion service, the festival brought this inclusiveness into the centre of the eucharist.
The service was led by three cantors, all wheelchair users; part of the music was provided by Rhythmicity, a drumming group that includes people with additional needs; Livability, a Greenbelt partner, provided three signers; and the prayers were led by two people from L’Arche, the charity for people with learning difficulties.
More impressive even than this, there were audio links to people unable to get to the festival, including Tanya Marlow, who suffers from ME. She introduced herself before giving a reading from Ephesians: “I do have a body, but it’s in a bed in Plymouth.”
Becky Tyler, a young woman with cerebral palsy, was present on the stage in her pink high-tech wheelchair. She had recorded her homily on her voice-producing computer - “like Stephen Hawking, but I think mine is much nicer”.
She spoke of the frustrations of her life, if defined by the many things she is unable to do. “I used to feel that God didn’t love me as much as other people. I didn’t see anyone in a wheelchair in the Bible, and nearly everyone who was disabled got healed.”
But then her mother read Daniel 7.9, to her, describing the throne of the Ancient of Days: “its wheels were all ablaze - yey! So now I know that God loves me a lot.”
The Gospel for the eucharist was the feeding of the 5000. Ms Tyler said she often identified with the little boy in the story. “Sometimes I feel I cannot give much to Jesus, but I’m grateful for all the things that I can do.”
Although billed as a homily, Ms Tyler’s address contained more personal experience and sounder theology than many sermons.
If all this sounds earnest, it wasn’t. The music, once again provided by Fischy Music, was cheerful, and there was much humour. The distribution of the bread and wine, all done within impromptu groups of 15-20 people, meant that everyone present, including the many children, played a part. The Gospel was not read: instead each group was invited to tell the story of the feeding of the 5000 with the help of pictorial flash cards.
A proportion of the collection will be used to increasing accessibility at the next festival, not least by helping to subsidise tickets for the less able to pay. And, as a sign of Greenbelt’s improved finances (or its faith), ten per cent of the collection will go into Trust Greenbelt for distribution to deserving causes in the field of faith and the arts.