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Ordinations: Disabled but enabled?

06 July 2018

How is the Church of England facilitating the ministry of people who have a disability, and who feel called to ordination, asks Ted Harrison

Adam Shaw

The Revd Haydon Spenceley celebrates the eucharist at Emmanuel Church, Northampton

The Revd Haydon Spenceley celebrates the eucharist at Emmanuel Church, Northampton

AS A young boy with cerebral palsy, Haydon Spenceley never saw a disabled person “at the front” in church. “I never thought this was something I could do, and it took me a long time to come round to the possibility.”

Today, the Revd Haydon Spenceley, a wheelchair user, is the Team Rector of Emmanuel, Northampton, in Peterborough diocese: a large parish that is now part of the Emmanuel Group, a local ecumenical partnership with the Methodists and Baptists. He is also Assistant Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO).

In recent years, inclusivity has been highlighted as an objective by the Archbishops’ Council, the Ministry Division’s Director of Ministry, the Ven. Julian Hubbard, says. The subject will be developed at a one-day conference on church and disability being held at Lambeth Palace next Friday.

A survey of ordinands in training, conducted by the Ordinands Association last year, found that 16 of 250 respondents had a physical disability, and that 32 had a specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia.

”Disability covers a very wide range of issues,” Archdeacon Hubbard says. “Some people present with obvious disabilities, and the need for adjustments and other forms of support. Others do not identify themselves as disabled.”

Of the £15-million budget to support ministry training nationally, £100,000 is set aside for additional help for candidates, which may, for example, be a software package for someone with dyslexia, or physical adjustments to a building.

Archdeacon Hubbard says that all people coming forward for selection by a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) are asked whether there are any special factors that the panel should be aware of. “This is not part of the selection,” he says. “It is to enable them to participate fully in the BAP. Might a signer have to be employed, for instance?”

The road to ordination, however, starts when individuals discuss their sense of calling with (usually) their parish priest and, later, a DDO. The DDO decides which candidates will go before a BAP to be considered for selection.

The experience of candidates in the period leading up to a BAP varies widely from diocese to diocese. There is usually a two-year period of preparation. Some dioceses are very aware and encouraging, others are less so.

The Revd Zoe Heming describes the picture as very patchy. “Some dioceses are not great, and some are downright discriminatory. Although they shouldn’t, dioceses do consider if an ordinand will be able to do the standard job: work 70 hours a week and look after six parishes. They are selected for strength.”

Mr Spenceley says: “People’s picture of what a minister looks like can only be as broad as their own perspective allows them to be. If the members of a selection panel have led a relatively struggle-free life, and have an MA from Cambridge, and are looking to choose the next generation to follow in their steps, they are naturally looking for people like themselves. It needs a particularly creative DDO to see the potential in someone completely different.”

Archdeacon Hubbard acknowledges the variations between dioceses. “There are issues that we can deal with nationally to encourage change and awareness — but pre-BAP selection is largely a diocesan matter, and that is part of our struggle in encouraging change. Every diocese should have a disability adviser, and some are very well equipped, with high levels of awareness and very encouraging.

“The selection process has no quotas, and all those who are suitable for training go forward. The criteria against which they are assessed are not specific about disability. Everyone is different. I think that there is every reason why someone, for example, with Down’s syndrome should be considered for ordination like anyone else. Discernment is made on a case-by-case basis, and looks at the gifts of the individual and what they can offer.”

The Revd Katie Tupling is Vicar of Christ Church, Dore, and the Bishop of Sheffield’s adviser on disability and inclusion. She has cerebral palsy. She recalls her own experience of selection, almost 20 years ago. “I was asked veiled questions about how I thought I would cope. They appeared innocuous, but, from the body language of the questioners, I could tell there was concern.

“Had I stamina for the job? Had I the required levels of physical manipulation to lift the chalice in the way it was always done? Silly questions, in one sense. All my life I have sought out ways of coping. Their approach should have been: if you have enough of a calling, let’s see how we can adapt.”

Mrs Heming’s experience of selection is more recent. She was ordained priest in 2015, and is now Priest-in-Charge of St Andrew’s, Church Aston, and an adviser on disability in the diocese of Lichfield.

“At the time of my selection, I was still coming to terms with my disability. The assumption was, at the beginning, that I would be non-stipendiary, as are the majority of clergy with disabilities. It is not the route I took.”

During the selection process, all candidates fill in a medical form. Some, however, may be asked to undergo a medical assessment. Health Management Ltd, the occupational health advisers to the Ministry Division, provide the sponsoring bishops with advice on whether the candidate will be able to carry out functions that are intrinsic to the work of a priest or deacon.

Mrs Heming lives with a chronic pain condition that affects her standing and walking, and which mean that she often uses a wheelchair. She was asked to undergo to an occupational health assessment, and describes it as very off-putting. “I was asked to go to central London, where I couldn’t park, and wait downstairs. When the assessor came to get me, he asked if I could manage the stairs. Normally, I’d have taken the lift, but I agreed to walk up two flights. Afterwards, he said he’d been testing my resilience. It felt very unpleasant.”

The national guidelines for applicants state: “The work of a priest or deacon generally requires a person to be able to: project their voice and convey a sense of presence; communicate orally and aurally; be physically robust enough for the particular focus of ministry they are involved in; exhibit mental ability and agility.”

If a candidate is not able to carry out one or more of these functions, it will not necessarily mean that he or she is not accepted for a title post. “Consideration will be given to whether reasonable adjustments could be made to enable the candidate to undertake the work of ordained ministry,” the guidelines say.

Many adaptations are simple to achieve, Mrs Tupling says. For example, “I can’t manage to walk down the communion rail to give communion. I have to stay still, and people come to me. If they feel they want to kneel to receive, then they receive from the Reader.”

Nevertheless, Mrs Heming says, most people with disabilities who get through selection find themselves being recommended for non-stipendiary ministry.

One reason, she suggests, is that some dioceses shy away from making the financial commitment of employing people with a disability. “They think in terms of traditional career paths, and ask: ‘Will they be value for money?’ They don’t ask what extra gifts will a person with a disability be able to offer, and so gifts are under-used, overlooked, and wasted.”

”There is no ill will, but sometimes there is a lack of confidence at diocesan level, “ Archdeacon Hubbard says. “One problem comes when a diocese tries to plan how a candidate’s ministry might develop after their first appointment as a curate. Dioceses, quite properly, want to take care of a person over a long period, and find the post most suitable to their gifts.”

“The role of clergy with disabilities is to offer other gifts,” Mrs Heming says. “Pastorally, it is a very powerful sacramental ministry to embody weakness. It might mean that celebrating the eucharist is no longer a solo performance. The altar party can be full of people taking part. It looks very different when someone else other than the celebrant is raising the Host.”

“Being disabled is not a choice,” Mrs Tupling says. “I am still made in the image of God, and can still have a calling. For a congregation to see a disabled priest is to see frailty, and be reminded of their own eventual frailties. Most religious art shows Jesus fit, white, and healthy. The Passion pictures show him suffering and wounded. After the resurrection, he still bore the scars . . . and it is as the Lamb who is slain that he sits at the right hand of God. Maybe disabled priests better represent the risen and crucified Christ, while able-bodied priests represent Christ’s ministry.”

These points are all recognised by individuals in the Church, Mrs Heming says, but not institutionally. “There is no senior bishop with an acknowledged disability. If the emphasis is on strong leadership and the management model, a lot of people will be lost on the way, and people with disabilities will be among the casualties. Clergy might feel the need to hide disabilities.

“The time has come for the Church to take braver decisions. Selecting for strength means wasting many gifts. And emphasising academic qualifications, and providing a one-size-fits-all academic training programme restricts those who come forward.”

Mr Spenceley agrees. “To be a priest is an identity and a calling, and the process of selection and the moment of ordination — when the bishop lays his or her hands on a candidate — is only the Church catching up with what the Spirit has already done.”

But, he says, if the criteria for selection are designed to identify “a person with loads of energy and management skills to keep a middle-sized organisation on the road”, then many people will be precluded. “It means that the criteria need to change.”

The Revd Neil Robinson is in his second year as Assistant Curate in Bemerton parish, in Salisbury diocese. He is deaf, and communicates using British Sign Language (BSL). He also has a ministry with deaf and hard-of-hearing people, as Chaplain to the Deaf in Salisbury diocese.

“The journey into ordained ministry was quite tough, especially for me, because formal educational and formative training posed a lot of difficult challenges.” Although BSL interpreters ensured that he had full access to lectures and group discussions, being the only deaf person was “a difficult experience”, he says.

“It took me a long time to help hearing students to understand the issues I faced daily — for example, experiencing minority stress that led me to have a short spell of depression.” None the less, he wants to encourage others with disabilities who feel called to ordained ministry.

Mr Spenceley hopes that a new approach is waiting in the wings. “In the past, the vocational development path for people with disabilities has not been very good. Changes are starting to happen, and have the active support of Archbishop Justin, but there’s still a long way to go.”


Called to serve.

Sebastian Sands

SEBASTIAN SANDS, who is 19, attends St Michael’s, Thorpe-le-Soken, in Essex. He has autism and a learning difficulty. Three years ago, he was attending a college that was unsuitable for his needs, he says.

“I felt very lost and sad. Every weekend, my mum would take me to visit church buildings, because I always felt safe inside them. I could sit quietly and think. It was the only time I felt peaceful and happy. I started to read the Bible and pray more, and suddenly everything fell into place. God was in everything I thought about or looked at, and that was when I first experienced God calling me.

“My mum and brother were very supportive, which was great, because neither of them were religious. My mum did all the hard work for me. I wouldn’t have known where to start. My calling gets stronger every day.”

From August, as an initial step, Mr Sands plans to spend time with a Benedictine community in Wales over the next year or two to consider a vocation in the Church of England.

It is early days, and he admits to having doubts about his abilities. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in myself. I am trusting God to give me the strength I need to speak up when I need to. Someone told me I couldn’t do a funeral or give a sermon because I have autism. I think that is not very fair, because I have never been given the chance.”

Recently, he has started administering the chalice, which, he says, fills him with “a very deep love of God and the people receiving it. I think the congregation didn’t know how to speak to me at first, but there are some lovely people who are very kind to me. I do struggle with people in church who can say unkind things, but I try to ignore that.”

Mr Sands would like to consider becoming a priest, but says that church colleges have not been very supportive. “They seem interested only in how many A levels I have. I know my mum made lots of calls for me to colleges, and sent emails. She said to one college, when they asked about my academic qualifications: ‘Seb has the same amount as Jesus, and he is good at woodwork!’”

The Area Bishop of Colchester, the Rt Revd Roger Morris, said: “I am so happy that Sebastian has taken this step. . . I will be blessing Sebastian before he leaves.

“It is worth remembering that the Church of England was never meant to be a bunch of people who were all the same. . . God’s call to Sebastian may be to the priesthood, or a lay ministry, or to an informal ministry, or to the monastic life. Ministry is demanding, and it is important not to rush in.

“We want everyone to flourish right across society. That includes supporting people with learning needs to develop and fulfil their potential in God’s big family. Society will be a richer place when everyone thrives.”

“The Church needs to reach out, listen, and really support people who have a calling to serve God,” Mr Sands says. “There will be people like me out there who have a calling, but don’t know what to do.”

A great journey.

Darius TravesDARIUS TRAVES, 23, lives in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He attends what he describes as a “very traditional church”. He is a volunteer for a charity supporting religious education in schools, and is a Pioneer Minister for people with disabilities.

He has cerebral palsy, which affects his dexterity and speech.

For as long as he can remember, he has had a faith. “Even though my family isn’t really into faith, I have always had my faith. At 16, I really began to ponder the possibility of a vocation to the Church.”

He began his discernment process when he was 18. “What an amazing journey it has been so far,” he says.

He is now in his third year studying Theology, Mission, and Ministry with the York School of Ministry, and he is getting ready for selection next year. ”Because of my disability, my selection won’t be as straightforward as usual,“ he says. He is preparing for a BAP, which should take place next spring. If successful, he expects to start a contextual training course for ordination in September 2019.

“It has been, and still is, a great journey,” he says. “I’ve had support from my family and friends, and people within the diocese. Sometimes, I need help with my communication and a little more time, which my diocese have helped me with.

”I enjoy working and supporting people with additional needs, and I am hoping to minister within this area.”

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